Reading FC Women’s first away trip of 2023 ended in a 3-2 defeat to a buoyant Everton side in the FA Women’s Super League.
The match saw Justine Vanhaevermaet and Deanna Cooper on the scoresheet for the first time this season, with the duo scoring a header each in a chaotic second half. However, it was the quality of Everton’s standout attacking forces that most defined the match, with Gabby George and Lionesses prospect Jess Park both putting in sublime performances for the Toffees.
Kelly Chambers’ Reading side had looked rejuvenated in the latter weeks of 2022, picking up wins against Tottenham and Coventry United in December while putting in a battling performance in their loss to leaders Chelsea – an upturn in form that coincided with the Royals switching to a midfield diamond, a shape that has often served them well in previous seasons.
Young duo Lily Woodham and Tia Primmer had been influential on the left side of that formation but to Reading’s misfortune, both joined long-term absentee Deanne Rose on the sidelines for this week’s fixture. In their place, Emma Mukandi resumed the captaincy while Natasha Dowie started on her return to her former club, though the squad’s familiar depleted look was far from ideal with Rachel Rowe also unavailable.
However, for all the excuses that could be given, the first half was defined mostly by moments of Everton quality. The excellent Jess Park dictated proceedings for the Toffees from the opening minutes of the game, turning to play in Gabby George on the left flank whose low cross found Katja Snoeijs for an early opener.
Wisely attacking the gap between Reading’s defence and goalkeeper Jaqueline Burns, the striker fired home at the near post to put the home side ahead in treacherous conditions.
Rain began to bucket down in Merseyside but the Royals struggled to finish the few opportunities they created before Park, on a season-long loan from Manchester City, showed her class again. Just past the half-hour mark, the 21-year-old dribbled inside, played a neat exchange with Nicoline Sørensen and navigated past Gemma Evans with a deceptive turn before finishing.
Park’s effort this time was far from the reach of Burns, giving Everton a 2-0 lead and placing them en route to what looked to be a routine victory.
However, many of Reading’s best moments this season have come in the second half of matches and they emerged with purpose after the break, instantly asking questions of the home defence. The torrential rain had subsided and the Royals soon had a goal to show for their efforts, with Justine Vanhaevermaet dashing to the near post to redirect Faye Bryson’s corner into the net. While the Begian’s stature places her among the world’s tallest players, this goal was more a result of good technique than height.
Now an hour in, Reading had cut the deficit to a single goal – but with the second half becoming ever more chaotic, this was a scoreline that lasted barely more than 30 seconds. Stepping up from left-back, it was a Gabby George stunner that swiftly restored the gap as an effort from the Everton captain’s weaker right foot found the top corner.
However, the Royals’ showing of renewed character was far from over as they soon benefitted from another set piece. A drifted Emma Mukandi free-kick from deep found Deanna Cooper in the 68th minute – via a generous ricochet – and the centre-back nodded in from barely five yards out having instinctively followed the drop of the ball.
Now, at 3-2 down, Kelly Chambers’ side found themselves with an outside chance of rescuing an unlikely first away point of the season. A competitive final 20 minutes saw glaring chances fall at both ends, with Charlie Wellings lifting an attempt over onrushing goalkeeper Emily Ramsey but narrowly missing the goal, before a close-range header from Katja Snoeijs at the opposite end went wide under pressure from Faye Bryson.
The second minute of added time saw one final claim for a Reading equaliser, with Ramsey fumbling a catch under pressure from Sanne Troelsgaard, but the decision to give a foul against the midfielder always felt likely.
The loss comes during a month in which Reading fans may be feeling a little envious of their mid-table rivals. Between the talk of Tottenham Hotspur’s supposed six-figure fee for Beth England, Aston Villa’s signings of former internationals in Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth, and the keen recent recruitment of Brighton and Liverpool as well, the Royals will certainly do well to keep their results on par with their big-spending opponents in future seasons.
On a brighter note, an attendance record could be on the cards as Manchester United visit the Madejski next Sunday. The Red Devils are certainly a side to be feared this campaign but with improved performances since the opening games of the season, Reading will at least hold hope that they can put in a competitive showing.