Good form and good fortune, two key elements of Preston North End’s 12-game unbeaten run, were to desert them in Reading as game No.13 proved unlucky.
After pulling level on points with the top six before the international break, hopes were high among the 1,800 or so travelling PNE supporters at the Madejski Stadium that this could be the day their side climbed into a play-off slot.
However, Alex Neil’s men weren’t quite themselves in this battle Royale, and were especially wobbly at the back for a costly spell during the first half.
Injuries were also to haunt them during the contest, Ben Pearson and Brandon Barker both limping on to the bus for the journey home.
Pearson played a lot of the second half effectively on one leg as his hamstring cramped up and tightened.
One leg or not, he was still North End’s best player on the day, soldiering on until the last few minutes when it was a case of damage limitation with his sore limb.
Neil had long since played all his cards in terms of subs by the time Pearson came off.
Two changes were made at half-time, one of them being Barker, who was unfortunate to last just 11 minutes before his hamstring went.
So a sub had to be subbed, yes it was one of those days when fate dealt North End a bit of a bad hand.
The contest was effectively decided in a six-minute spell, Reading scoring both of their goals just after the half-hour.
PNE’s defending was not good for either, in particular the second goal.
It might not have been the finest hour for Ben Davies and Jordan Storey but bearing in mind how good they have been since pairing up in January, they must surely be cut some slack for a rare off-day.
Davies, Storey and Declan Rudd were all culpable in their different ways for the hosts’ second goal.
A back pass from Davies didn’t carry sufficient weight, then Storey and Rudd left it for each other to clear, allowing Mo Barrow to walk the ball in.
Barrow had six minutes earlier breezed past Storey to cross for Yakou Meite to open the scoring.
It left Preston with a tough task ahead of them in the second half.
Not since Aston Villa in October had they trailed 2-0 at the interval.
They roared back that night to lead 3-2 and then got pegged back to 3-3.
So this was not a lost cause by any means, although the task did ultimately prove to be beyond their grasp.
Jayden Stockley’s halving of the deficit in stoppage time was too little too late.
Had it come just that little bit earlier, who knows what could have happened?
Mind you, after Stockley had turned the ball home in the third minute of time added on, there was still time for Josh Earl to put a header wide.
Although defeat will always be met with disappointment and frustration, this is not the time for toys going out of the pram.
Putting it in context, PNE had taken 28 points from the 36 on offer in the unbeaten run.
It is now 28 from 39, which is far from a disaster is it?
During the international break, Neil had spoken of five victories from the last eight probably being enough to secure a play-off place.
The Reading defeat means one life has gone, with five wins from seven needed.
A big ask, yes, but certainly not beyond them.
The next three fixtures will be a barometer of North End’s fortunes.
A healthy points tally from Sheffield United, Leeds and West Bromwich will take their play-off push into Easter and beyond.
Should it go the other way, the top six will evade them once again.
Saturday’s clash at the Madejski was one between two sides needing points for different reasons.
The Royals were able to put clear water between them and the bottom three with the win and to be honest, they looked anything but a side haunted by the threat of relegation.
They moved the ball more effectively than North End in the first half, then dropped deep to protect the lead in the second period.
Over the 90 minutes the possession count was 67%-37% in PNE’s favour.
Possession guarantees you nothing but in this case was an indication of the extent the home side dropped off and let North End have the ball during the second half.
Unfortunately, Preston did little with it in terms of clear-cut chances.
They only had two shots on target, Stockley’s goal and an effort from Louis Moult which forced Emi Martinez into his one save of the afternoon.
Paul Gallagher might have done better with a volley he fired across goal and wide late in the day.
As an attacking unit, PNE did not really fire all day.
Neil started with Callum Robinson, Sean Maguire and Lukas Nmecha in a front three.
Robinson and Nmecha were subbed at half-time with Stockley and Barker getting their opportunity.
The untimely injury for Barker meant a chance in the forward line for Moult.
All three substitutes made their mark, even if Barker was on only for a short time.
A pretty bland opening half-hour burst into life when the Royals took the lead in the 30th minute. John Swift turned Darnell Fisher well inside the Reading half and played the ball up the channel for Barrow to chase.
His low cross found Meite at the far post who lifted a shot on the stretch into the net.
PNE fell further behind six minutes later, Meite getting above Earl to head on a
goalkick from Martinez.
Barrow and Davies gave chase down the right, Davies first to it on the side of the box, from where he tried to guide it back towards Rudd.
It lacked weight, Barrow nipping in between Storey and Rudd to take it sideways and find the empty net.
Preston’s consolation came in the third minute of time added on, Moult knocking a high ball from Storey into the path of Maguire.
From an angle to the left of goal, Maguire got a shot away which came back off the post.
The rebound fell Stockley’s way, the striker wrapping his foot around it to fire home.