A DRAMATIC stoppage time Adam Le Fondre penalty denied Stoke City an opening day victory at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday . . . after debutant Michael Kightly had fired the Potters into a first half lead.
The lively winger capped off an extremely promising first start for the Club with a slightly fortuitous goal just after the half-hour mark, and that had appeared to have been enough to seal all three points until the dying stages.
Substitute Gareth McClearly went down under a challenge from Dean Whitehead, which also resulted in his dismissal, and Le Fondre stepped up to drill the ball into the bottom corner of the net to send the home supporters into delirium.
Ahead of the game Tony Pulis named summer-signing Kightly in his first starting eleven of the season, whilst the City boss was also boosted by the news that Robert Huth had made a full recovery from viral meningitis.
The German international, who only received his diagnosis 12 days earlier, made a miraculous recovery to partner skipper Ryan Shawcross in the heart of the backline.
Bosnian number one Asmir Begovic won the battle with Thomas Sorensen to start in goal, whilst the rest of the back five was made up by Andy Wilkinson and Republic of Ireland international Marc Wilson.
The midfield quartet consisted of Kightly, Glenn Whelan, Whitehead and Matthew Etherington, with last season’s top goal-scorer Peter Crouch partnering Jonathan Walters in attack.
Scotland Under 21 ace Jamie Ness was named amongst a strong looking substitutes bench for City, alongside the likes of Kenwyne Jones, Wilson Palacios and Cameron Jerome.
With temperatures soaring into the high 70s, an electric atmosphere was generated within the stadium, with both Reading and Stoke fans in full voice in the build-up to the entrance of the two sides.
Understandably, still buoyed by their promotion winning campaign last time around, it was the Royals who kicked off the encounter looking the brighter of the two sides.
Brian McDermott included three of his summer acquisitions in his starting eleven, and they seamlessly eased into the side as they displayed the same quality on the ball that had seen them romp to the nPower Championship title back in May.
Stoke struggled to create anything other than a speculative Jonathan Walters effort during the opening twenty minutes, and whilst Reading held the upper hand in terms of ball possession, in all truth, they too rarely looked likely to trouble a dogged Potters backline.
Shawcross and Huth comfortably dealt with any incident within sight of Begovic’s goal, frustrating the home supporters in the process, who were possibly expecting a more action-packed start to their first top-flight encounter in four years.
When the visitors did finally manage to get into their groove, then the class between the two teams became apparent.
Crouch, who helped himself to almost a third of Stoke’s total league goal tally last year, became more involved in the hole, and this freed up Walters to progress forward to pose a more potent danger.
The Irishman had already glanced a teasing Kightly centre agonisingly wide by the time he forced Adam Federici into a smart save on the half-hour mark, but it was his team-mate Kightly who delivered the first goal of the game some three minutes later.
Some slick interchange culminated in Whelan hanging a deep ball into the mix, Kaspars Gorkss headed clear, but only into the path of the advancing former Wolves man, who controlled and fired what seemed to be a tame effort goalwards, only for Federici to mis-time his dive and allow the ball to squirm under his body.
The goal changed the entire outlook of the encounter as Stoke began to stride around at their own pace and, almost at ease, carve out half opportunities at their will.
Walters lashed another strike into the palms of Federici, whilst the Australian international reacted much better to Crouch’s stinging effort than he did to Kitghtly’s shortly before.
The second half continued in similar fashion with Stoke holding the upper hand; and the lead could have been doubled had Jason Pearce not managed to intervene just as Kightly steamed into the box in anticipation of rifling the ball home amidst a mammoth goalmouth scramble.
At the other end, a surprisingly tame Ian Harte free-kick failed to trouble Begovic, whilst Le Fondre stabbed the ball well wide of goal from 15-yards after Danny Guthrie had freed him inside the penalty area.
In all honesty, Stoke looked comfortable, and extremely good value for their win, but the warning signs did come that the hosts may just have one last trick up their sleeve when they introduced the highly rated McCleary from the bench.
The former Nottingham Forest man proved to be a nuisance to the Potters as the Royals searched for an avenue back into the encounter, but despite his best efforts it appeared Stoke had enough in their locker to stand firm and make their way back up north with three points in the bag.
That was until referee Kevin Friend adjudged Whitehead to have upended McCleary inside the box. Le Fondre stepped up, and despite Begovic diving the right way, he just wasn’t able to get a hand to the strikers powerful spot-kick.