Reading’s Under-23 season came to the cruellest of ends as Aston Villa struck a winner deep, deep into stoppage-time in their Premier League 2 play-off semi-final – Rushian Hepburn-Murph’s 95th-minute goal gave the hosts a 4-3 win and a meeting with Brighton in the final later this month.
Given the final score, it was remarkable to think that it was goalless at the interval – but Royals skipper Gabriel Osho poked the visitors ahead.
Quick-fire strikes by Hepburn-Murphy and Villa captain Easeh Suliman turned the game on its head, only for Tom McIntyre to nod in another leveller. The Villans led again through Corey Blackett-Taylor; Reading levelled again through Teddy Howe. Truly breathless stuff.
And then, in heartbreaking fashion, Hepburn-Murphy grabbed his second of the night with barely enough time left for Reading to muster a response. It’s the Midlands side who will compete with Brighton for a place in the Under-23 top tier.
There was no shortage of attacking intent from either side in the early exchanges – an early corner routine, after some lively forward play by Ben House, almost brought the opener.
Ryan East played a short interchange with Danny Loader, but Tom McIntyre’s volley was closed down when he was found unmarked on the far side. East recycled, but Andy Rinomhota’s header looped onto the netting.
Southwood, back between the sticks for the Royals for the first time this season after a campaign spent with Bath City, produced a stunning stop to keep out Callum O’Hare – it was an inswinging cross by Andre Green which was glanced towards goal, but the stopper saved and held from point-blank range.
At the other end, Tyler Frost hammered towards goal as he received on the edge of the area; it deflected into Loader’s path, but penalty appeals were waved away as a challenge was made in the area.
East was pulling the strings in midfield for the Royals, and when he glided towards the box and played a disguised pass for Loader, Jacob Bedeau arrived just in time to block the fierce strike behind.
Ramarni Medford-Smith, playing in an advanced wing-back role, was often an option – and a seeking cross-field ball by Tom Holmes was won in the air… Medford-Smith ran onto his own flick-on, but was just beaten to the ball by goalkeeper Matija Sarkic.
The Royals were starting to crank up the pressure, but to no avail. Frost outmuscled Alex Prosser to spin away into space in his own half – bursting down the left, he cut in off the flank and fired marginally past the far post. Moments later, he played a clever back-heel for Loader, but Villa captain Easeh Suliman closed down to divert the effort wide.
Villa were first to threaten after the second half kicked off – Jack Clarke drove downfield with intent, but his eventual effort lacked the conviction to trouble Southwood, who gratefully scooped up the strike.
Rinomhota went on a rambunctious run, breaking the Villa defensive line, and squirmed into the box… the home side’s defence matched him every step of the way, however, and prevented the midfielder from getting any conviction on the strike.
And then, on the hour, a flurry of goals. Reading were first to strike – Loader was clobbered by Sarkic as the goalkeeper made a reckless challenge outside the area, and when Frost sent in a low free-kick, Osho gently flicked the ball into the far corner off the heel of his boot.
Villa grabbed the next two. The equaliser came 90 seconds after the Royals’ opener, as a fortuitous ricochet allowed sub Hepburn-Murphy a clean run at goal, and the finish was clinical. Moments later, the Villans had completed the turnaround as Suliman arrived on a deep free-kick by Jake Doyle-Hayes to loop a header over Southwood and in.
Reading remained full of industry – and House, full of running, picked the pocket of Suliman on the left flank… but he couldn’t find Loader in the six-yard box, as a good chance went begging.
With quarter of an hour left to play, that persistence paid as Reading had their leveller through McIntyre. The defender sprung highest in a crowded area as East whipped in the corner, and desperate efforts couldn’t prevent the net from bulging.
The scoring wasn’t done, by any stretch. Villa led again through sub Blackett-Taylor, who was alert at the far side as Hepburn-Murphy sent in a low delivery from the right byline.
And it was a Royals substitute who grabbed our third, tying the game up once again. House and Frost each tried to squeeze the ball in, only to see blocks come in… but the ball broke for Howe, who swung a left boot and struck inside the near post, tying a breathless game up at three apiece!
In the fourth added minute at the end of the 90, Osho almost grabbed a winner – a couple of step-overs and a powerful strike by the defender, but a great save at by Sarkic.
So it was heartbreaking when Villa pinched the win at the other end, with almost the last action of the match. Hepburn-Murphy danced into the area and prodded through the narrowest of gaps, tucking in what proved to be the match-winning goal.
Full-time: Aston Villa U23 4-3 Reading U23
Aston Villa U23: Sarkic, Bree, Clark, Suliman (c), Bedeau, Clarke, O’Hare, Doyle-Hayes, Davis (Blackett-Taylor 55), Prosser, Green (Hepburn-Murphy 55).
Unused subs: Johansson, Mooney, Borg.
Reading U23: Southwood, Holmes, Osho (c), McIntyre (90+5), Medford-Smith, East, Watson (Howe 66), Rinomhota, House, Frost, Loader.
Unused subs: Driscoll, Rollinson, Burley.