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Wadley's verdict: Reading 1 AFC Bournemouth 2
From player to coach and centre of excellence chief to manager, Howe has never let Cherries down. And this will surely rank as one of his finest days.
Had Howe not been appointed in 2009, Cherries could quite conceivably have ended up in non-league and still been struggling to claw their way back.
Instead, rejuvenated during Howe’s second stint, they find themselves at arenas such as Madejski Stadium. As 2,338 jubilant away supporters would attest, they have probably never had it so good.
Even during this most difficult of runs, it was hard to be overly critical of a team which, looking at the bigger picture, is ahead of schedule following their dramatic rise through League One.
By their own standards, Cherries have invested heavily in on-field resources but among the parachute payments and big names of the Championship, they remain underdogs. That said, results matter and without a victory in seven attempts and on the back of just one win in 11, Cherries needed a positive one. They delivered it in style.
Regardless of the situation, form or men at his disposal, Howe does not change. The secret to his success has always been an ability to engender team spirit, get the maximum from his players, unite the fan-base and an attention to detail. Four ticks on Saturday.
He is arguably the brightest young English manager in the Football League and against a much-fancied Reading outfit which had previously been unbeaten on home turf, he showed precisely why.
Overseeing one of Cherries’ best displays at this level of football, following a treacherous run, Howe’s men were well organised at the back, composed in midfield and offered plenty of options in attack.
The Royals faded as Nigel Adkins’s fast-starting side were eventually frustrated, stifled and then blown away. Cherries were superb.
In recent weeks, they had performed reasonably well but had failed to show the necessary ruthlessness, in both boxes, required to get over the line in this unforgiving division.
But by the end of this memorable occasion, it was impossible to tell which club was in the play-off mix and which had arrived without a victory in more than two months.
In defence, Cherries were superbly led by captain Tommy Elphick who delivered his most inspired display of the season.
Eunan O’Kane, deployed as a deep-lying midfielder, was calm and controlled alongside the impressive Andrew Surman and indefatigable Harry Arter.
Matt Ritchie and Marc Pugh carried a threat on the flanks but it was up front where Lewis Grabban shone brightest. Pace, power and poise, Grabban was a revelation. As willing a runner as Frankel, he dragged the Royals backline all over the place and scored the opener before then supplying the assist for Ritchie.
Cherries will be all too aware of the need to ensure this is no flash in the pan going into a series of fixtures which, on paper, look far more appealing that the ones they have just encountered.
As their group of largely untested players continues to adapt, it would be unfair to expect this every week. But after the chastening early-season experie-nces of Watford and Huddersfield, Cherries have learned and they continue to improve.
They did not have it all their own way. They were forced to defend in an opening half an hour where Reading imposed themselves and attacked quickly with width. Bright, lively and dictating possession, the Royals piled forward briskly in support of Billy Sharp and only Surman’s goal-line clearance denied the striker a fifth-minute goal.
Cherries struggled to get on the ball as the hosts dominated but Elphick and Steve Cook stood firm at the heart of the defence and, as the half wore on, the visitors successfully began to take the sting out of Reading.
The alarm bells rang for the hosts when Charlie Daniels and Surman found themselves in promising positions but failed to get in shots. But with renewed intent and Grabban now causing a major headache, Cherries showed the clinical edge that Howe had long been calling for.
Danny Guthrie’s trip on O’Kane presented an opportunity for Daniels to deliver a free-kick and after the despairing dive of keeper Alex McCarthy had denied the high-rising Cook at close range, Grabban seized on the loose ball to rifle home.
Reading conceded again just minutes later. It was no surprise to see Grabban at the heart of it as he stormed down the left and waited for support to arrive. His rolled pass was cleverly dummied by Surman for Ritchie, who had time to steady himself and drill low past McCarthy from 18 yards with his less favoured right foot.
Reading briefly raised the tempo after the break but Cherries looked comfortable and created the better opportunities.
In truth, they should have been out of sight as Pugh dragged wide following Arter’s beautiful reverse pass before the Lancastrian evoked painful memories of Paul Gascoigne in Euro 96 as he agonisingly failed to convert a Grabban cross-shot.
Substitutes Royston Drenthe and Adam Le Fondre set up a nervy finale when the latter converted the loose ball following Drenthe’s deflected drive. But there was to be no heartbreak for the vocal travelling contingent on their ‘big day out’ as the home faithful had mockingly labelled it.
Targeted with chants of ‘You’ve always been...rubbish’ (or an unprintable word to that effect), Cherries enjoyed the last laugh.
On Saturday, they were anything but.
STAR MAN - LEWIS GRABBAN
Kaspars Gorkss, look away now.
The Reading centre-half was given a torrid time. In fact, the entire Royals defence simply could not live with the all-round game of rampant Grabban.
His pace, power and directness proved a constant menace as he delivered the perfect striking display. Grabban’s work-rate was exceptional as he led the line on his own and when ruthlessness and quality were needed, he provided both with a goal and an assist.
On a day when every Cherries player stood tall, Tommy Elphick was a rock. The captain looked back to his best with an inspirational performance.
The effervescent Eunan O’Kane was the pick of a composed and energetic Cherries midfield.
MATCH STATS AND MERIT MARKS
Reading: McCarthy, Gunter, Pearce, Gorkss (Le Fondre, 80), Cummings, Guthrie, Williams, Obita, McCleary (Drenthe, 66), Sharp, Robson-Kanu (Pogrebnyak, h-t).
Unused subs: Kelly, McAnuff, Blackman, Federici (g/k).
Booked: Guthrie, Gunter, Drenthe.
Cherries: (4-1-4-1) Camp 7; Francis 7.5, Elphick 8.5, Cook 8, Daniels 7.5; O’Kane 8.5 (MacDonald, 90); Ritchie 8 (Fraser, 76), Surman 8, Arter 7.5, Pugh 8; Grabban 9* (Pitman, 80).
Unused subs: Harte, Rantie, Yennaris, Flahavan (g/k).
Booked: Cook, Surman, Camp, O’Kane
Referee: David Coote (Nottinghamshire)
Attendance: 20,944 (including 2,338 away supporters)
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