Reading Under-23s' hopes of automatic promotion back to Premier League 2 Division 1 were dashed on their final league outing of the season, as they succumbed to a 2-1 defeat away at Stoke City.
Stoke punished Reading harshly after the Royals had wasted several chances to go ahead; goals by Jacob Twyford and Tre Pemberton, in quick succession midway through the second half, left Reading chasing the game in vain. Gabriel Osho struck with two minutes remaining, but not enough to rescue a point.
In the end, it was academic anyway as elsewhere in the division, Wolves overturned a two-goal deficit to beat Manchester United 3-2 - only an cricket score could have put Reading ahead of the Midlands side on goal-difference. Southampton can still pip the Royals to second spot if they avoid defeat to bottom side Sunderland on Monday.
But the Royals will still have a play-off campaign to come - a second bite of the cherry and another chance to earn a place in the top tier at the end of a thoroughly positive season for the fledgling Royals.
Scott Marshall was able to call upon some first-team experience for the fixture; internationally-capped duo Anssi Jaakkola and Jón Daði Böðvarsson, each of which having been out of first-team contention with injuries in recent months, were in the starting line-up. Defensive trio Gabriel Osho, Tom Holmes and Omar Richards arrived with senior-team games under their belts.
Despite Reading having all the pressure in the early stages, it was the Royals stopper who made the first meaningful save as Jacob Twyford struck with venom from 20 yards – Jaakkola fisted the effort away.
Soon after, Nathan Broome was called into action in the Stoke goal as a backpass was hit short – agonisingly for the Royals, it was travelling back towards the goalie a smidgen quicker than Adam Liddle’s gait, meaning that the Potters stopper arrived just in time to clear.
The full-backs combined well for Reading as they involved themselves in a cutting attack – a flick-on by Böðvarsson set Omar Richards clear down the left, but Teddy Howe curled his effort over from a tight angle. And then when Reading earned a free-kick wide on the right, Jordan Holsgrove couldn’t quite catch out the Broome at his near post.
Broome had been equal to everything so far, but was nearly punished when a goal-kick was picked off by Böðvarsson, allowing Tyler Frost a clean sight of goal. But his shot was rushed with defenders closing in quickly, and his effort ended up in the stands.
Captain Gabriel Osho took the initiative by dribbling out of defence, skipping through challenges in the midfield, and galivanting into the penalty box. He was eventually fouled, and the referee deemed it a matter of inches outside the area. Holsgrove’s free-kick deflected through the wall and Broome pulled out a smart reaction stop down low.
As the rain began to teem down in Leek, Böðvarsson escaped the offside trap and took down a direct ball forward, but once against the Stoke goalie was off his line in a trice to block on the edge of his area.
Stoke had chances to take a lead into the break but couldn’t truly trouble Jaakkola – Oliver Shenton bent his left-footed effort well wide, and William Forrester’s looping header was plucked out the air comfortably.
Reading got back into their rhythm after the restart and began creating chances at will. Frost drilled in a low cross which just evading everyone, and then struck an effort of his own wide. Then he fed Böðvarsson in the left channel, who slammed narrowly past the far post as he shifted onto his left boot.
The game was becoming more and more stretched, end-to-end stuff, as the Royals looked for the breakthrough that would pile the pressure on the title race.
Consequently the Potters were dangerous on the break and Jaakkola pulled off a terrific triple-stop. Captain Jake Dunwoody's effort was batted away, and the flag quickly went up meaning the rebounds would have been chalked off anyway.
But two quick-fire goals punished Reading harshly. First, the ball broke loose to Twyford outside the box, and his rasping half-volley was hit with perfect connection to fly into the top corner from the edge of the area. No keeping that one out.
And two minutes later, another goal for the hosts as Pemberton wriggled through to the right-hand byline and fired in from a narrow angle.
The Royals had chances to put themselves back in it; Howe's left-footed attempt from a short Holsgrove free-kick was saved, and Holsgrove himself curled an effort up and over.
With two minutes remaining, captain Osho gave the Royals some hope. Holsgrove danced through the defence and drew a fine stop from Broome, but the skipper stabbed in.
It was all out attack at the end, with Frost firing narrowly over with the best of the opportunities.
A disappointing result, but the play-offs await - promotion still within the Royals' grasp.
Full-time: Stoke City U23 2-1 Reading U23
Stoke City U23: Broome, Wara, Tymon, Dunwoody (c), Forrester, McJannet, Pemberton, Twyford, Kyeremateng (Varian 84), Shenton, Toure.
Unused subs: Kanuric, Macari, Coates, Porter.
Goals: Twyford (65), Pemberton (67).
Reading U23: Jaakkola, Howe, Richards (Medford-Smith 55), Burley (Pendlebury 74), Osho (c), Holmes, Coleman, Holsgrove, Frost, Liddle, Böðvarsson (Lawless 64).
Unused subs: Driscoll, Odimayo.