ANDRES Ulderink suggested the Reading FC players are struggling to deal with the pressure of a relegation battle.

Royals crashed 3-2 at Norwich City on Saturday after conceding three goals in the opening 37 minutes.

And Birmingham City’s win at Hull City saw Reading’s lead over the drop zone cut from six points to three ahead of an extremely tough run-in.

Jaap Stam’s men have won only once in their last 18 league games and are in a desperate battle to stay in the Championship.

And assistant manager Ulderink tried to address the team’s deep-running problems after their setback at Carrow Road.

"We started the game really poorly," he said. “We played a very bad first half and we are really disappointed with that.

“Again we conceded two goals form corners, which is really disappointing.

"We played much better in the second half. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but much improved.

“We had more possession, were more aggressive, we took more initiative and defended a little bit better, although we still gave away a couple of big chances.

"We created some chances as well, scored a good goal to get back into it and in that second half we thought we could get a point.

"But the start was really poor and we have to change that, otherwise it will be very hard to get results in the run-in.”

Reading Chronicle:

Assistant manager Andries Ulderink, left, with manager Jaap Stam.

Reading’s defence fell apart in the opening stages as Mario Vrancic headed in a James Maddison corner in the 14th minute.

Grant Hanley then outmuscled Tiago Ilori to head in Maddison’s cross in the 26th minute for a 2-0 lead.

Liam Kelly pulled one back six minutes later when he fired past Angus Gunn for his sixth of the season following a goalmouth scramble.

Maddison restored the Canaries two-goal cushion with a well-taken penalty in the 37th minute after being brought down by Royals keeper Anssi Jaakkola.

Academy striker Sam Smith gave Reading hope when he volleyed in Kelly’s cross in the 51st minute for his first Championship goal.

But the visitors failed to find an equaliser as Norwich secured a first win in seven.

And Ulderink suggested Reading’s biggest problem may be a psychological one.

"If you can show what you show in the second half, why can't we do it in the first half as well?” he questioned.

“Maybe it's a mental thing caused by the pressure.”

Reading Chronicle:

Sam Smith celebrates after scoring his first league goal for Royals.

Royals will need to show a vast improvement over the Championship run-in during which they face a number of the division’s top teams.

Stam’s men return to action on Friday, March 30 for the hoops derby against Queens Park Rangers at Madejski Stadium (5.30pm ko) followed by a trip to fourth-placed Aston Villa.

Then comes a home fixture against play-off chasing Preston, a trip to third-placed Fulham and a huge relegation six pointer at home to bottom club Sunderland.

Royals finish the season with a trip to struggling Sheffield Wednesday, a home game against mid-table Ipswich and finally an away fixture at Neil Warnock’s title-chasing Cardiff City.

And Ulderink is under no illusion about the task ahead if Royals are to dodge the drop into League One.

Reading Chronicle:

Reading keeper Anssi Jaakkola concedes a penalty at Carrow Road.

"We're in a 100% relegation scrap,” he admitted: “We know the situation is not good. We know where we are and how we've performed so far this season.

“It's not going to be an easy job to stay away from the relegation zone.

“Everyone is concerned - it's not like we can simply say we need to do this and then everything will be solved.

“We know it's going to be a tough last eight games and we have to fight.”

The international break means Reading have almost two weeks to recover from their loss at Carrow Road to prepare for the clash against QPR.

Royals could be boosted by the return of Callum Harriott, Joseph Mendes, Tommy Elphick, Omar Richards and Chris Martin for the derby against Ian Holloway’s side.

Ulderink added: "We're at the end of a heavy programme with a lot of games, so I'm happy we've got two weeks with no games to get a couple of players back from injury which will help take a little bit of pressure off some of the players.

"We're not celebrating at the moment for sure, and we haven't been celebrating for a long time. It's a difficult job but we are still confident as a group that we can turn it around."