Tom McIntyre’s finish, during the dying embers of a contest which turned the Championship table on its head, propelled Reading to a victory which surely preserves their second tier status for at least another season and left the play-off hopes of Paul Heckingbottom’s side still hanging in the balance.
Substitute Iliman Ndiaye’s added time equaliser, which cancelled-out Lucas Joao’s opener, should have been enough to secure a draw United’s performance scarcely deserved.
But a lapse in concentration allowed McIntryre to prod home and leave Heckingbottom, appointed in November and previously unbeaten on home soil, lamenting a “flat” performance.
“The takeaway message is we should have seen it out,” he said. “We have to make better decisions because things will only get tighter.”
Although results elsewhere conspired to ensure United remained in sixth ahead of Monday’s trip to Bristol City, seventh placed Middlesbrough are now only two points behind with five matches remaining.
“We should give Reading credit,” added Heckingbottom, whose men have only four. “They affected it how they wanted to affect it. We didn’t.”
Earlier, the pre-match excitement generated by Chris Basham’s appearance among United’s replacements was quickly tempered when it emerged John Fleck, showing signs of recapturing his best form in recent weeks, had succumbed to injury. Still, with Conor Hourihane taking his place, the starting eleven they selected still looked reassuringly strong. Deceptively strong as it turned out, with Ben Osborn the only other change.
After getting the big licks from the stadium announcer before kick-off, United’s first-half performance wasn’t worth shouting about. Despite keeping three straight clean sheets at home, Joao pierced their rearguard midway through the opening period. The former Sheffield Wednesday attacker also went on to later hit a post. In between, Josh Laurent, whose pass had created the opening for Joao to power the ball home, also went close while Tom Ince had a low drive saved.
The stasis which gripped United’s defence spread further upfield too. Moments before the interval, after finally piecing together something resembling a flowing move, George Baldock dithered when Osborn’s centre flew straight across the box. The wing-back’s lack of conviction allowed Danny Drinkwater to scramble clear when he finally decided a shot was his best option after all.
Given that Baldock seems perpetually at war with the world, it was unusual to see him dither at such an important moment. He wasn’t the only United player, however, whose mind appeared to be elsewhere. Every time Reading went forward, which they did far too often against a team with designs on promotion, they looked like scoring or creating a big chance.
Even a change in personnel, with Sander Berge and Daniel Jebbison being introduced soon after the interval as Heckingbottom attempted to shore-up a midfield which had proven vulnerable around the transition, failed to make much of a difference. Until John Egan, operating as a makeshift centre-forward, found Ndiaye on the edge of the six yard box before the Frenchman swept home.
While United celebrated, Reading roused themselves; McIntyre pouncing after Michael Morrison had nodded Baba Rahman’s free-kick into his path.