Reading’s 2018-19 campaign came to a close in a party atmosphere at Madejski Stadium, as the Royals and visitors Birmingham City played out a 0-0 draw.
The result was of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, with both team’s involvement in the Sky Bet Championship already assured for another year, but it was an opportunity for players to express themselves. And that they did, with a young Royals side showing what a bright future the club can look forward to.
Almost three years to the day since his last start as a Royals’ first-team player, 20-year-old forward Josh Barrett was drafted into the starting XI as part of a homegrown front three, along with teenage duo Danny Loader and Michael Olise.
Andy Rinomhota was in the centre of midfield – the average age of the starting XI registering as 23 years, 3 months, 2 weeks and 6 days. Full-back Teddy Howe was also named amongst the substitutes for his first involvement in the senior team.
With a buoyant atmosphere bubbling up in Club 1871 – with Portugal flags on show and Yakou Méïté leading the chants from the stands – it was the Royals who created the first opportunity of note.
And it was a real opportunity too as Lewis Baker’s raking ball was met by the byline by Chris Gunter – a terrific cross was into the stride of Barrett at the far side, but a side-footed volley was blocked.
Fellow youngster Michael Olise would also have to wait for his first senior goal as two chances came in quick succession; he couldn’t quite apply a flicked finish as a low corner came in, and then when Liam Moore recycled, the same outcome as the delivery just evaded his touch.
Birmingham’s first opportunity was created from next to nothing as Isaac Vassell flew down the right flank from half-way, cut inside and had a shot blocked; Che Adams could only steer wide on the follow-up.
After his stunning maiden goal at Middlesbrough a week ago, Loader was only denied goals in consecutive matches when Gunter – again supporting the attack – fizzed a low delivery across the six-yard box. On the far side, Loader met it well on the stretch but Blues goalkeeper Lee Camp scuttled back in time to block it out under the crossbar.
Olise was showing some of the subtle touches which had seen him elevated from a first-year Academy scholar to a first-team starter in a matter of months. And some quick thinking on the right-hand side saw him leave Kerim Mrabti on his backside, and it needed two firm palms from Camp to keep out a blistering effort at his near post.
Down the other end, Reading stopper Emi Martínez was left untroubled when Blues centre-half Marc Roberts steamed onto a left-flank corner; he rose above the crowd but his header skewed into the stands.
With 22 goals to his name this season on arrival, Adams was the last person that the Reading defence wanted to gift a chance to – but when the ball was turned overly with some loose play on the edge of the Royals box, Matt Miazga reacted in time to keep out the front man.
Andy Yiadom had the opportunity to send Reading into the break with a lead; Barrett was bullish down the right and managed to dig out a cross to the far post, but the full-back’s shot was deflected off target.
Half-time: Reading 0-0 Birmingham City
The yellow-shirted visitors had an opportunity within two minutes of the restart as Jota played a series of exchanges before firing down the throat of Martínez with a stinging left-footed attempt.
Yiadom was ever-increasingly involved in the attack and when he won the ball high in the left channel, he instantly slotted through to Loader. The youngster turned into space but his strike swerved past Camp’s far post.
Skipper Liam Moore took one for the team when he stepped in front of Mrabti’s blasted strike; on the follow up, Birmingham captain Craig Gardner leathered a half-volley from 25 yards, narrowly clearing the crossbar.
Reading’s youthful front three were full of gumption and guile, ready to put the pressure on the Blues back four. Defender Wes Hardin misplaced a defensive header, allowing Loader to nip in, and his half-volley was a whisker off target with Camp stranded.
Barrett poked an effort goalwards with his last major involvement - and then he made way for John O'Shea, who was welcomed onto the pitch with a guard of honour from both sides. A fitting tribute for his 803rd - and final - game as a professional.
At the same time, Howe replaced Gunter - a 52nd Academy graduate. And he almost made an instant impact when he hung up a cross for sub Mo Barrow; an ambitious overhead kick flew over the bar.
The final action of a rollercoaster season - hearty applause at the full-time whistle.
Full-time: Reading 0-0 Birmingham City
Reading: Martínez, Yiadom, Gunter (Howe 89), Miazga, Moore (c), Rinomhota, Ejaria, Baker, Barrett (O'Shea 89), Olise (Barrow 71), Loader.
Unused subs: Walker, Baldock, McCleary, Ezatolahi.
Birmingham City: Camp, C.Gardner, Vassell (Jutkiewicz 71), Pedersen, Adams, Colin, Lakin (Davis 76), Roberts, Mrabti (Maghoma 84), Jota, Harding.
Unused subs: Weaver, Dacres-Cogley, G.Gardner, Mahoney.
Referee: Mr K Stroud
Attendance: 17,247 (2,112 away)