Jaap Stam won the treble during his first season as a player in England, and although the former Manchester United defender’s first campaign as a manager in the country cannot end in similar glory, there was enough in this debut to encourage the Dutchman and fans of his new club. Reading, 17th in the Championship last season, played with verve and purpose and deservedly beat Preston thanks to a fine goal by another impressive new signing, 21-year-old midfielder John Swift.
The beginning of the Stam era coincided with a more poignant milestone, as this was the day on which Reading renamed their stadium’s north stand in honour of Eamonn Dolan, the influential academy manager who died from cancer in June at the age of 48. Fittingly, Reading’s lineup included a beneficiary of Dolan’s tuition, with Jordan Obita stationed at left-back in a side that also featured three players signed since the appointment of Stam. Two Dutch recruits – centre-back Joey van den Berg and winger Roy Beerens – impressed but Swift outshone them.
The Englishman joined Reading after rejecting an offer to remain at Chelsea, where he made only one senior appearance in two years. His performance here suggests he could blossom at the Madejski, as he bestrode central midfield with elegance and menace. Stam did likewise on the sidelines, where the burly figure in the sharp shirt and tie was only a pair of shades away from resembling a US secret serviceman, albeit one who spent 90 minutes gesticulating at his charges and ordering them to push up, get stuck in or spray the ball wide. Such was the range of motions by the manager that at times one wondered whether he was issuing instructions or performing tai chi.
But his team knew what he wanted them to do. They played with the aggression associated with the former centreback and a 4-3-3 formation that showed his classical Dutch leanings. Preston were superior early on but soon Reading began to dominate, showing more intensity than the visitors and passing with zip and plenty of width.
Swift should have scored in the 16th minute but slashed wide after bursting from midfield to meet a cross from the right by Chris Gunter. One minute later Reading threatened from the other wing as Beerens crossed for Deniss Rakels, who failed to finish from close range.
It was no surprise when Gareth McCleary created the breakthrough in the 35th minute, although the visiting manager, Simon Grayson, doubtless found the defending shocking as McCleary pulled a low corner back towards the penalty spot and an unmarked Swift walloped the ball into the roof of the net.
Confidence surged through Reading as they sought to take the game further away from Preston. One move down the left on the stroke of half-time included two cute dummies and a nice cross by Beerens, only for McCleary’s shot from 16 yards to be blocked.
Preston perked up in the second period. Ali al-Habsi had to save from Daniel Johnson in the 54th minute after the Reading defence was carved open. Then Swift, with an exquisite reverse pass, and McCleary, with a pinpoint cross, created a wonderful chance for Rakels to double Reading’s lead but the striker shot feebly from five yards, allowing Anders Lindegaard to save. There were some anxious moments in the home box late on as the visitors pressed for an equaliser but Reading held out for three well-earned points.
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