GOALS from Kwesi Appiah, Michael Hector and Garath McCleary guided Reading to one of their most impressive results of the season as they shattered Derby County’s play-off hopes at the iPro Stadium.
It has been a few weeks and a campaign in general to forget for Royals but this was certainly one to remember as Adam Federici also made his mark with a first half penalty save as Reading recorded their seventh win from the last 10 visits to Derby.
Steve Clarke made five changes to the side which lost at Rotherham on Tuesday night. Federici returned in goal while there were also recalls for Alex Pearce, Garath McCleary, Jack Stacey and Appiah with Mikkel Andersen, Stephen Kelly, Simon Cox, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Jake Cooper all dropping out.
It may have been a daunting looking task for out of form Royals against a side who needed just a point to make the top six, but the game could not have started much better. Hughes, who was handed the Derby Player of the Season award before the match, played a lazy pass back towards his own defence which was intercepted by Appiah in just the second minute.
The pacy Ghanaian nipped the ball past Raul Albentosa and bore down on goal before cutting inside Richard Keogh and calmly slotting the ball past Lee Grant for his first Reading goal in only his second start since joining on loan from Crystal Palace.
From then on it looked like it was Clarke’s men battling for a place in the play-offs as they dug in and produced a well-disciplined defensive display with five men across the midfield and the back four staying tight.
Whenever the Rams could breach the back-line, Reading had Federici to preserve the clean sheet, first tipping Tom Ince’s low free kick wide before a fine flying save to deny Bent from 20 yards.
There was a lull in first half proceedings as both sides made substitutions. First Clarke introduced Tariqe Fosu for his debut in place of the injured Stacey before Steve McClaren made a tactical switch to introduce Jesse Lingard for Stephen Warnock.
But Reading stayed focussed and Alex Pearce typified the spirit shown by the defence as he read the danger to make a fantastic interception to deny Bent a tap in.
Oliver Norwood lined up a free kick from 22 yards as Royals looked to double their advantage but Grant was equal to the task before the hosts wasted a glorious chance to level up before the break.
With the game into stoppage time, Jordan Obita was beaten for pace by Johnny Russell and he put both arms around the Scot before dragging him to the ground inside the penalty area.
Up stepped Bent to try and tuck away the resulting spot kick but Reading Player of the Season Federici got down low to thwart the powerful effort and tip it behind.
With results around the country going against them, Derby knew coming out for the second half that they needed a goal to earn the point which would guarantee them a play-off spot so they introduced top scorer Chris Martin, who has been struggling with hamstring injuries.
But it was Reading who were looking most like finding the net with Fosu the man to come closest. Just a minute after the restart, the winger saw an effort fired from distance which was parried away before Jem Karacan headed the rebound over the bar.
Fosu then found an even better opening. After being picked out by Nathaniel Chalobah in the box, the teenager drifting inside before dragging a weak shot wide of the post.
Derby, who were leading the table in March, looked in serious threat of missing out on the top six altogether as their woeful run of form showed no signs of improving. The Rams came into the game with just two wins from their last 12, both of which came against the league’s bottom two in Blackpool and Wigan Athletic.
And those play-off hopes took a massive turn for the worse with 18 minutes to play as Hector struck to put Reading 2-0 up. The impressive Fosu saw another dangerous drive tipped over and while there was nothing too special about Norwood’s resulting corner, Derby failed to clear their lines and the ball fell kindly for Hector to slam in his third goal of the campaign.
And it got even better for Reading as the game entered its final five minutes. A scuffed shot found Karacan onside and the skipper was clipped by keeper Grant as he tried to go around him. Referee James Linington had no hesistation in pointing to the spot, allowing McCleary to step up and net his first Championship goal of the season.
Cue a mass exodus at the iPro as Derby fans had seen enough. A season which offered so much promise throughout was about to disappoint yet again, not that the jubilant travelling support cared one jot. This was a performance and result to savour and one to send Royals fans into the summer with some sense of hope.
Reading: Federici; Gunter, Pearce, Hector, Obita; McCleary, Karacan (Williams 86), Chalobah, Norwood (Cooper 90), Stacey (Fosu 30); Appiah.
Subs not used: Andersen, Kelly, Blackman, Cox.
Goals: Appiah (2), Hector (72), McCleary (85)
Yellow card: Norwood (27)
Derby: Grant; Shotton, Keogh, Albentosa (Ward 73), Forsyth; Warnock (Lingard 33), Hughes, Hendrick; Russell (Martin 45), Ince, Bent.
Subs not used: Roos, Christie, Rawson, Sammon.
Yellow cards: Lingard (58), Shotton (66), Grant (85)