While the entertainment value on offer at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday was pretty much on the same level as watching paint dry it provided an illustration of why football is such a fascinating game.

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Even at the top level players can’t simply produce the highest quality of performance week in and week out. Passes go astray, poor decisions are made and tackles are missed. Footballers are only human, after all, and, just like the rest of us, they have the occasional off day. Of course, when it happens to several at once the team performance suffers accordingly, but the secret then is not to lose.

Despite their best efforts, City’s attacking moves at Reading tended to splutter and fail like an old banger with a dodgy spark plug, but a lot of credit has to go to the home midfield who worked their socks off to deny space to the visitors. It would be very easy to look at Reading’s league position and lack of a win and make the assumption that this was a game that the Canaries should have been expecting to win, but I don’t think that’s realistic. While it’s a fair bet that the likes of Chelsea and the Manchester clubs will always be in the top four, the rest of the Premier League looks very difficult to call this season.

The likelihood is that we will see a lot of movement between now and May. Will QPR continue to underperform so badly? Will Southampton find a defence to match their attacking flair? Will West Brom be able to keep up the pace that they’ve set? This already looks to be a much more competitive league than last year, when the likes of Bolton and Wolves were already looking doomed by Christmas, and variations in form, injuries and suspension will result in an awful lot of jockeying for position.

While I think that Reading seriously lack firepower, with the feeble efforts of their big money signing Pavel Pogrebnyak, a player whose default position appears to be horizontal, leaving them dependent on the 34-year-old Jason Roberts, they are solid at the back and organised in midfield. With the backing of their own crowd they are a force, as they proved by holding an excellent Fulham side in their last home game. They are certainly no pushovers, although listening to Radio Berkshire on the drive home I actually thought I’d tuned into Canary Call, given the “glass half empty” tone of most callers!

There was some muttering around me about the lack of City substitutions, but in the context of such a close game there was a real danger that a change of personnel when the side was so well organised defensively could have had a negative effect. Throwing caution to the wind is great when it comes off, but Chris Hughton is not the type of manager to gamble a hard-earned point. City have moved on from the Roy of the Rovers approach and are playing grown up football this season.

The important thing is that they are now four league games unbeaten with three clean sheets and just one goal conceded. There is a defensive solidity that was never achieved last season, and at last the whole back four seems to be working from the same script.

More goals are needed, but if regular clean sheets can be achieved those goals will be so much more valuable when they arrive.

Games like Saturday’s are hard on the watcher, but most of us spent the whole of last season bemoaning the team’s defensive generosity. Now that problem is finally being solved, and if the transitional phase involves a temporary curbing of City’s traditional expansiveness it’s a price worth paying in my opinion.


Previous columns by Robin Sainty