PA Will Smallbone (second right) is mobbed by teammates after his goal.
Will Smallbone hits the net for Stoke and impresses in front of Ireland boss
A 4-0 win for the home team today against Reading.

THE FOG DESCENDED and swept across the Bet365 Stadium just as the Stoke City and Reading players headed for the half-time break.

Luckily for the home side the lingering sense of doom and gloom lifted as they secured their first Championship success of the year, running out 4-0 winners.

Will Smallbone was central to the optimism levels increasing, his fine goal in the 11th minute settling any early nerves.

In front of the watching Ireland manager, Stephen Kenny, the on-loan Southampton midfielder made a timely return to the starting XI, and the scoresheet.

His side-foot finish from a central area on the edge of the 18-yard box was calm and calculated, picking his spot with two bodies in front when precision was needed to prevent it from being easily blocked.

As the third man in the midfield, he had the licence to break forward and Smallbone timed his run onto to the lay off perfectly. Had he dallied and not trusted his instinct to support the attacking press, Reading could have cleared the danger.

Over eagerness to sprint forward and the ball would have been stuck under his feet, the chance gone.

Instead, he took it brilliantly and celebrated like a man who felt like a pressure valve had been released.

This was the first time had found the net since a 2-0 win away to Preston in October.

Injury meant he hadn’t featured since the start of this month and it won’t just be the Ireland boss hoping Smallbone can use this as the catalyst

“It’s great, I’m really looking forward to seeing Will up against Jeff [Hendrick] and how that battle goes,” Kenny told The42 as he made his way into the stadium.

Smallbone certainly had far more of a say on turning this game in his team’s favour but Hendrick, on a season-long loan with Reading from Newcastle United, was the one player in the visiting team who looked capable of delivering any kind of quality in the final third to create an opportunity.

Indeed, five minutes before the break it was the Dubliner whose run down the right channel see his side get into the box on the only occasion during that opening period.

This victory moves Stoke to within four points of Reading and, having started the afternoon in 20th, both sides will still need to keep picking up points to avoid getting dragged closer to the relegation zone.

The Reading fans began to chant for Shane Long in the 56th minute as they sought some inspiration. Less than 60 seconds later and the game was taken away from them when Tom Holmes deflected a Tyrese Campbell shot into the net, and the points were secured when Jacob Brown converted at the back post.

Some added gloss was added when Josh Laurent’s tame long-range effort struck the back of striker Dwight Gayle with the ball flying in the opposite corner.

That was the cue for Smallbone to be replaced, he now has the platform to kick on and show he can affect games for a Stoke side that will be desperate to find some confidence for the remainder of the season.

‘Can you do it on a cold, wet, windy night in Stoke?’ became part of the football lexicon during the glory years of Tony Pulis when they were a Premier League side.

That fear factor is long gone, their decade-long run in the top flight now five years out of it.

Scottish boss Alex Neil – with John O’Shea on the coaching staff – is the fourth permanent manager in the time since Paul Lambert took them down.

Reading, too, are a club with a famed Irish connection during their time among the elite.
Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt and Long among those still celebrated by the club. The latter did emerge from the bench with 66 minutes gone and by that time the game was taken away from his side.

The veteran striker turns 36 tomorrow but this was an afternoon that will hopefully go some way to helping the re-emergence of a young Ireland midfielder with much promise still to fulfil.

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