By Adam Clark
A thunderous strike from Jay Thomas with the final kick of the game earned Arsenal a point and put Reading's title celebrations back on ice.
A Joe O'Cearuill own goal and a close-range strike from Victor Illugason looked to have earned the visitors the victory they needed to be crowned Reserve League South champions. But the young Gunners showed a never-say-die attitude to snatch an unlikely draw.
Jay Simpson's second Reserve goal of the season injected interest back into the tie on 68 minutes but Thomas' last gasp effort from the edge of the box was pure drama.
Reserve team coach Neil Banfield made just two changes from the side that lost to West Ham United on Monday. On paper the addition of Matthew Connolly strengthened a backline that dealt so efficiently with the Hammers while Giorgos Efrem had earned his starting place with a tireless substitute appearance two nights before.
Kick off was preceded by an impeccably observed minute's silence for Arsenal and England hero Alan Ball who died on Tuesday evening.
Despite Reading's title aspirations it was Arsenal whose desire burned brightest early on. Simpson fired an early warning shot with a testing cross which ex-Gunner John Halls powered away.
The visitors mustered their first clear chance on 10 minutes but Andre Bikey, whose loan move to the Royals was made permanent this week, failed to mark his £1 million transfer with a goal.
Yet Reading had to wait just two more minutes. James Henry, tormentor of the Gunners the last time these two sides met, whipped in a cross from the right and O'Cearuill sent a diving header past keeper Vito Mannone.
Arsenal could have fallen further behind almost immediately but striker Shane Long lifted his shot over the bar from six yards. The let-off served as a boost, highlighted by James Dunne's persistence in outmuscling the burly Cameroonian international Bikey.
Abu Ogogo's pursuit of Julian Kelly after the left back had sold him a dummy ended with an expertly timed sliding challenge from the Arsenal youngster. It was further evidence of how Banfield's charges have grown both physically and mentally in the final weeks of this campaign.
But Reading are the champions elect for a reason and continued to work Arsenal's teenagers. As half time approached Long three times went close while the agile Mannone palmed away a point-blank header from Bikey.
A swirling shot from Kelly crashed off the angle within seconds of the restart as the visitors began the second half the way they had finished the first. In response Banfield pushed Simpson in to a more advanced role. The 18-year-old striker immediately set about hassling the Reading back line but found himself marshalled by the imposing Halls.
On 55 minutes Efrem's corner came too quickly to Connolly but Randall had Australian keeper Adam Federici scrambling with an angled daisy-cutter soon after. Further chances fell for Efrem and substitute Thomas but the Royals were defending in numbers.
Arsenal looked brighter than at any stage and yet on the hour mark Reading pulled away. Mannone produced another marvellous reaction save from Alan Bennett but could do little to prevent Illugason's rebound.
The deficit was soon cut however. Simpson looked to have passed up the chance to score but recovered to lash into the top corner. So much so that it got stuck there.
The comeback was on. Dunne, Thomas and Randall all saw chances of an equaliser go begging. And when the latter had a second opportunity only to poke wide the game looked lost.
Fortunately a second chance for Thomas brought no such
- Ogogo 60
- Berg 55
- Steer 81
- Rodgers 60
- Eastmond 81
- Emmanuel-Thomas 55