A see-saw game for a young Royals squad ended victoriously as they overcame League 1 side Bristol Rovers by a 3-2 scoreline in their first Checkatrade Trophy game.
Jack Stacey, Jake Sheppard and finally a Joseph Mendes penalty gave the Royals a much-deserved three points in their group game, despite Rovers twice levelling through Matty Taylor and Jermaine Easter.
Under-23 manager Martin Kuhl, who was leading the team at the Memorial Stadium, named a young starting XI which included current Academy player Tom McIntyre at centre-half, where he was partnered by first-year pro Gabriel Osho.
Experience was added to the ranks at either end of the field by goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola and striker Joseph Mendes, as well as the addition of 22-year-old forward Dominic Samuel who netted seven times whilst on loan with Gillingham last season. Jack Stacey, Josh Barrett, Tennai Watson and Tariqe Fosu added pro experience to the Royals ranks.
All of the possession was Reading’s in the early stages, although it was Rovers that were first to threaten as Christian Montano latched onto a loose clearance and flashed a delivery across the face of goal – but it was defended well.
Striker Mendes had opportunities to put the Royals ahead twice in succession – first he had a shot deflected a foot over the frame of Kelle Roos’ goal, and then after being shown outside, the stopper clawed a lofted shot away from the target.
Then Samuel was the width of the woodwork away from breaking the deadlock – he persisted on a neat ball through from Fosu, and when Mark McChrystal and goalkeeper Roos had left each other to take charge, the striker nipped in… but the post came to the Pirates’ rescue.
Finally that breakthrough came after some heavy pressure, and it was Stacey that grabbed the goal for Reading. Fosu, on the inside right position, slipped in a ball to the midfield man and he drilled goalwards on the turn – beating Roos at his near post by clipping the woodwork on the way through.
As the Royals turned the screw, Samuel and left-back Shane Griffin each went close in succession – firstly the striker couldn’t quite pick the gap after latching onto a slide-rule ball from Barrett, and then the full-back found side-netting with a shot from range.
With a few minutes left to go in the first period, goalkeeper Jaakkola was forced into his first meaningful save as he tipped over Lee Brown’s effort from range after the defender received a short corner outside the area.
Half-time: Bristol Rovers 0-1 Reading
Samuel was a matter of inches away from doubling the advantage five minutes after the restart. After good link-up down the right by fellow forwards Fosu and Mendes, he received on the edge of the area and curled just past the post.
Rovers were looking a little more assertive in the second period and half-time sub Taylor couldn’t quite find anyone at the back stick with a low, drilled delivery.
However it was Taylor that had the hosts level on the hour-mark – Daniel Leadbitter was afforded space to deliver from the right, allowing the Rovers forward to guide a subtle header inside the far post.
Jaakkola prevented the Gas from completing the turnaround just moments later – McIntyre did well to narrow the angle for Jermaine Easter, but he still managed to find a hole to shoot goalwards, and the Finnish stopper palmed out for a corner on the far side.
Fosu threatened to re-establish the lead when he embarked on a mazy run from the left – he wasn’t able to fire a clean shot, and substitute Tyler Frost was just wide on the rebound with Roos scrambling across goal.
A Royals break went begging with Mendes, past his marker, squared for Frost – Roos made a terrific one-on-one save and when Mendes cut back again for Stacey, he fired a fraction over.
However sub Sheppard got the Royals’ noses in front again by squeezing in a rebound – Stacey’s venomous first effort rebounded wide off the inside of the post with Roos stranded, allowing the midfielder to follow in with an equally powerful strike. Roos clawed it away, but not before the assistant had raised his flag to signal that the ball had crossed the line.
That lead lasted five minutes – Rovers caught the Royals in possession and punished ruthlessly, as Chris Lines fed Easter who struck from the edge of the area.
In turn, parity lasted just two minutes. Mendes raced through on goal and was bundled down in the area by McChrystal – who only received a yellow because of the recent change to the Laws of the Game – and stepped up himself to take the resulting spot-kick. He sent the goalkeeper the wrong way from 12 yards.
A few late flurries from the hosts were just about dealt with – meaning a winning start for the Reading youngsters in this refashioned competition.
Full-time: Bristol Rovers 2-3 Reading
Roos, Leadbitter, Brown, McChrystal, Clarke, Lawrence (Lines 28), Easter, Montano (Clarke HT), Bodin (Taylor HT), Sinclair, Gaffney.
Unused subs: Mildenhall, Hartley, Broom, James.
Goals: Taylor (60), Easter (82).
Jaakkola, Watson, Osho, Griffin, McIntyre, Rinomhota, Barrett (Frost 66), Stacey, Fosu, Mendes (Cardwell 85), Samuel (Sheppard 66).
Unused subs: Tupper, Andresson, Vancooten, East.
Goals: Stacey (33), Sheppard (77), Mendes (84 pen).
Attendance: 1,418 (69 away).
Referee: Mr B Huxtable