Nolan hammers final nails into Royals’ Premier League coffin

Posted by Jon Keen

Kevin Nolan celebrates with Andy Carroll after putting West Ham into the lead against ReadingGettyImagesKevin Nolan celebrates with Andy Carroll after putting West Ham into the lead against Reading

Reading's Premier League season ended with a whimper as they lost 4-2 to West Ham at the Boleyn Ground on Sunday. Despite the fact that over recent years Reading have seemed to nearly always beat West Ham, they couldn't even meet the obligations as West Ham's bogey team, although a brief recovery in the second half did keep hope alive.

The pre-match talking point was the recall of Kaspars Gorkss in the centre of the defence at the expense of Adrian Mariappa -- a surprising move as Gorkss has received less than rave reviews for his on-loan performance a tier lower, at relegated Wolves. I can only assume that manager Nigel Adkins wanted to see Gorkss in action to assess him -- but at least it does give us an interesting trivia question "Which player was relegated twice in one season?"

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Reading started well enough in what was a fairly even match with both sides creating chances. West Ham had the better of the early ones, using the physical presence of Andy Carroll to bully the Royals defence, and it needed Stephen Kelly to make a great saving tackle to dispossess a breaking Ricardo Vaz Te 13 minutes later.

But Royals were not idle themselves, and both Pavel Pogrebnyak and Chris Gunter should have hit the target from good chances – the big Russian headed across goal after 8 minutes, and the full-back sliced wide from close range when played in after a great run from deep after 22 minutes.

But the first breakthrough came just a minute after that -- in a comedy of errors. Young keeper Alex McCarthy, roundly praised by all after his call-up to the full England squad this week, dropped an embarrassing clanger to gift West Ham the lead. His hurried clearance bounced off the back of Carroll, and fell at the feet of Kevin Nolan, who had a simple task of scoring.

And West Ham doubled their lead after 34 minutes on a Vaz Te shot, although credit must go to Carroll, who showed there's more to him than just bulk and aggression by beautifully bringing down a cross and squaring the ball for Vaz Te. But it took a deflection for the shot to beat McCarthy -- who had partly redeemed himself with a fine save to push a Nolan header onto the bar and away between these two incidents.

But Reading were rightly behind. After the early promise, and with an equal share of possession, they only occasionally threatened the West Ham goal, and looked at sixes and sevens in defence. Unable to cope with the aerial power and hassling of Carroll, at one stage they even had lone striker Pogrebnyak back in the box to mark Carroll at set-pieces -- effectively denying them an attacking outlet and ensuring that any breaks were dependent upon midfielders alone.

So Adkins reverted to 4-4-2 at half-time, bringing on Adam Le Fondre for Pogrebnyak and Nick Blackman for Hal Robson-Kanu. Whether this is him making best use of the resources at his disposal or whether it's a portent of what is to come next season in the Championship remains to be seen, but it transformed the match. The West Ham defence had trouble picking up the extra Reading striker, and despite now having a man extra in midfield they also allowed Reading acres of space to run into on the flanks.

And after 55 minutes Reading were level, with two goals in under two minutes. First, Gareth McCleary scored with a deflected shot after a fine run-and-cut inside from Jobi McAnuff. One minute, 55 seconds later, Le Fondre scored yet another substitute goal when he hammered in a low Blackman cross from 5 yards.

For a period, Reading looked the better team, creating the better chances, and showing urgency that contrasted sharply with West Ham’s overall lethargy. But as Loyal Royals have learnt many times this season, hope is a cruel, duplicitous mistress.

And shortly after Danny Guthrie failed to release the ball quickly enough and wasted a glorious 3-on-2 break, West Ham took the lead again. In the 79th minute, the ball was dinked over the top of the Reading defensive line, which was far too high up the pitch and anything but a straight line, playing Nolan needlessly on-side. He was easily able to control the ball and slide it inside the post, and four minutes from time he completed his hat trick with a header past McCarthy when entirely unmarked and unnoticed by the Reading defence.

So, goodbye Premier League. Whether Reading will be back in a year's time or if it will be a longer separation is down to Nigel Adkins and how he can turn this team around. In the short time he's been at the club it's clear that he’s had a positive effect on the midfield, which looks more mobile and creative, with Guthrie and Jem Karacan in particular linking up well. But his biggest challenge will be sorting out the defence, which so often looks panicked and uncoordinated and is prone to make calamitous errors at any time.

Plus, of course, so much will depend upon which players Adkins loses, and how much money he is given to provide replacements as he shapes the team to his own style. But that's in the future -- for the present, Loyal Royals will just be glad to see the back of this wretched season, and will be looking forward to the Championship season. Just 76 days to go!

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