The Royals’ involvement in this season’s Checkatrade Trophy came to an end in remarkable circumstances on Tuesday evening, as Gillingham ran out 7-5 winners at Priestfield.
In truth, reaching the next round was never fully in the hands of our Under-21s, with the rather specific result of Southend beating Colchester on penalties also needing to come to fruition in the group’s other game.
But Reading’s end of the bargain was compromised within moments of the kick-off when Greg Cundle notched the Gills opener, and that was followed by efforts by Conor Wilkinson, Scott Wagstaff and Luke O’Neill before half-time with Joel Rollinson offering the Royals’ only reply.
Adrian Popa and Ramarni Medford-Smith both scored quickly after the restart, dragging Reading to back within a goal... and parity was restored through Jake Sheppard with 20 minutes to go!
A missed spot-kick by Darren Oldaker might have let Reading in, but Noel Mbo did get the Gills back in front, before Oldaker slammed in from range … Popa’s second was a consolation, as Oldaker struck in a free-kick in the final minute.
Scott Marshall’s matchday squad was particularly youthful – no less than six of the team were current members of the Under-18 batch. The likes of Danny Loader, Jack Nolan and Jordan Holsgrove were all unavailable due to various international commitments.
Meanwhile Adrian Popa added the extra experience in the line-up as an over-age addition against their League 1 opponents.
Anyone late to their seat inside Priestfield will have missed the opener; just 12 seconds separated kick-off and the net rippling for the first time. It was simple stuff too – Wagstaff rounded a challenge on the Gills right and played a low ball in for Cundle to convert on the run.
Wilkinson and Cundle were each denied from close range in the space of seconds – the Royals somehow kept the former’s towering header at bay, before skipper Gabriel Osho blocked out the latter’s follow up.
But that second came in the 12th minute – Wagstaff shimmied into space to fire a fierce drive from distance – goalie George Legg reacted well to make an initial save, but agonisingly it fell for Wilkinson to follow in and slam home from inside the six-yard box.
Reading had successive chances to peg back – Josh Barrett showed a good turn of pace to find space and drill goalwards, only for the craned neck of Max Ehmer to come to the hosts’ rescue to divert a header wide. From the resulting corner, Tom Holmes’ run was found at the near post, but he could only head into the side netting.
Two became three before the half-hour for Gillingham. A goal-kick was picked off by full-back O’Neill on the right wing – he steamed forward and tried to pick out Wilkinson in the middle. It skipped past the forward, but Wagstaff was arriving at the back post – his header deemed over the line by the referee’s assistant before Legg could claw away.
And it could have been worse when Wilkinson shrugged off the attentions of a Royals defender to latch onto a forward ball, shaped to shoot, and drew a save from Legg. The ball broke to Elliott List, who dragged the follow-up wide.
Rollinson offered Reading a route back into the match when he netted the Royals’ first goal – Barrett’s clever weighted ball found Popa on the run, whose left-footed delivery was converted in the middle by the onrushing midfielder.
But within a minute the Gills had re-established a three-goal margin, as O’Neill found space to cut in off the right flank and hammered hard and low past Legg from the edge of a crowded area.
Early in the second period, Popa had Reading back within two again. It was high pressing from Reading that allowed the chance – Ryan East nipped the ball away, received in return before slipping to the Romanian. But it needed quick feet and a sharp finish, which is exactly what was delivered.
And then another positive piece of play by our youngsters resulted in our third – Barrett spied the overlap of Medford-Smith on the left, and the full-back kept his effort hard and low and beat Stuart Nelson to pull Reading to within a goal.
Those reasons to believe proved utterly justified when Reading finally got level for the first time since the opening minute of the game through Jake Sheppard. Medford-Smith, scorer of the third, whipped in a delivery from the left and Sheppard ducked into a powerful header which beat Nelson.
Gills were awarded a penalty with quarter of an hour remaining – Wagstaff’s run spotted by a perfectly-weighted ball by Oldaker, causing Royals skipper Gabriel Osho to concede a foul in the box. But Oldaker’s spot-kick didn’t have the same kind of quality as his through-ball… harmlessly it flew over Legg’s bar. A let-off.
They were almost made to pay when Popa’s free-kick from the left was touched back to Andre Burley by centre-half partner Osho – the close-range strike was hacked off the line by Finn O’Mara.
Instead, it was that missed chance by the Royals defender that was punished. A minute later, a right-flank corner was attacked and fell kindly for Mbo to squirm in from under the crossbar; the Gills’ fifth of the night.
And that quickly became six when Oldaker lashed with swerve and dip from distance – Legg got a palm to it but couldn’t keep it out.
That wasn’t the end of the scoring though, by any stretch. Rollinson spotted the run of Popa and slipped a neat ball into the forward’s path, and he struck firmly beyond Nelson to give Reading hope again.
But Oldaker’s free-kick from distance, in the final minute of the 90, wrapped up the scoring and gave the Gills a third group-stage victory.
Full-time: Gillingham 7-5 Reading U21
Gillingham: Nelson, O’Neill, Ehmer (Tucker HT), O’Mara, Simpson, Oldaker, Chapman, Wagstaff, List (Mbo HT), Wilkinson (Stevenson 55), Cundle.
Unused subs: Arnold, Scarlett, Starkey, Nash.
Reading U21: Legg, Holmes, Medford-Smith, Osho, Burley, East, Rollinson, Sheppard, Popa, Frost, Barrett.
Unused subs: Rosario, Howe, Shokunbi, Davis, Green, Buchanan, Odimayo.