ALBION departed the Madejski Stadium wondering how on earth they had left empty-handed after seeing a two-goal lead obliterated in the final nine minutes.
The Baggies were comfortably the better team for large chunks of the game and were deservedly 2-0 up thanks to goals in each half from Romelu Lukaku – taking his tally for the season to nine.
Lukaku had also hit the woodwork twice before the game’s momentum began to change when Jimmy Kebe pulled a goal back in the 81st minute.
It was 2-2 two minutes from time when sub Adam Le Fondre slotted home a penalty.
And there was another agonising twist for Steve Clarke’s side a minute later when Pavel Pogrebnyak poked home what proved the winner from close range.
Albion should have been reflecting on a well-deserved fourth away victory of the season, the superb link-up play between James Morrison and Lukaku and an accomplished midfield performance from Academy graduate George Thorne.
Instead, they headed back home trying to fathom out how they had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
With QPR’s lunchtime draw against Spurs moving them above the Royals, seventh travelled to 20th in the first-ever top flight meeting between the two clubs on Reading soil.
There was mixed injury news for Clarke, who was able to welcome back Jonas Olsson and Goran Popov but was without former Reading hero Shane Long, Peter Odemwingie, Claudio Yacob, Marc-Antoine Fortune, Steven Reid, Zoltan Gera (all injured) and Youssouf Mulumbu (international duty).
Olsson returned to central defence in place of Gabriel Tamas while Popov was included among the subs. Jerome Thomas, recently on loan at Leeds, made his first Baggies start of the season and the lengthy absentee list also paved the way for 18-year-old Academy product Adil Nabi to make the bench for the first time in a competitive fixture.
Reading handed a debut to their new signing from Sporting Lisbon, Daniel Carrico – and it was the hosts who threatened first after three minutes.
Kebe drew Ben Foster off his line as he chased down Danny Guthrie’s lofted ball but Gareth McAuley was on hand to clear as the winger attempted to find Pogrebnyak in the box.
Every ball was hotly contested during the opening stages but there was little quality on show and little happened until the 13th minute, when McAuley again did well to beat Pogrebnyak to a cross, this time from Kebe.
The aerial route of attack continued when Olsson rose highest to head away an awkward Guthrie delivery.
But Albion exploded into life on 18 – and almost snatched the lead.
Thomas spearheaded a counter-attack which culminated in Thorne pulling the ball back to Morrison, whose first-time 15-yard drive was pushed away by Adam Federici.
But it WAS 1-0 to the Baggies a minute later thanks to a finely-worked goal. Lukaku laid off Chris Brunt’s sweet pass to Morrison who ran at Adrian Mariappa before squaring to the on-loan Chelsea man who nipped in ahead of Ian Harte to sweep home from six yards.
Albion’s game-plan was working a treat and Federici had to rush off his line on 29 to prevent Lukaku getting on the end of Thorne’s fine pass.
Neat build-up play enabled Royals right-back Chris Gunter to centre two minutes later but Jobi McAnuff’s tame far post header was gobbled up by Foster.
It was Albion who continued to look the more composed side and Gunter was in action at the other end on 39, acrobatically heading away Lukaku’s centre to deny Thomas a sight of goal.
That was the final action of a solid half from Clarke’s team.
Albion went close within seconds of the restart when Thomas beat Alex Pearce to force the ball into Lukaku’s path. The giant striker took aim from 12 yards but his effort was diverted wide by Mariappa’s fine last-ditch challenge.
Lukaku had the ball in the net again on 48 but his effort was correctly ruled out for offside.
Albion continued to prod and probe – but it took an incredible Billy Jones clearance to keep them ahead on 54. Foster, McAuley and Pogrebnyak all failed to get a touch at the near post as they challenged Kebe’s cross and the ball crept to unmarked sub Garath McCleary who, with the goal at his mercy, saw his effort somehow kept out by Jones’ outstretched boot in the six-yard box.
But only the woodwork denied Albion a goal at the other end three minutes later. Great wing-play by Morrison saw him squeeze a cross past Pearce and Lukaku out-jumped Mariappa at the near post – only to see his header bounce off the far post and to safety.
But Reading were starting to look threatening and Olsson denied McCleary a simple tap-in by blocking Pogrebnyak’s low centre after the Russian had outmuscled Jones in the box.
Back came Albion and after more fine play by Lukaku and Morrison, who had linked up well all afternoon, Thorne shot wide from 20 yards.
There was more woodwork agony for Albion on 68 when Morrison teed up Lukaku 15 yards out and the Belgian international almost split the bar in half with a ferocious left-footed drive.
But the Baggies’ No.20 was smiling again a minute later when he grabbed his and the team’s second. The impressive Thorne seized on a loose ball in the Albion penalty area before sending Morrison scampering towards the halfway line. The Scotland international fed Lukaku who ran at Mariappa before beating Federici at his near-post with a stunning 20-yard drive.
Reading rallied and Olsson did well to block Kebe’s goalbound effort from McCleary’s centre before Guthrie directed the rebound straight at Foster from 18 yards.
But it was Albion who continued to look the team most likely to trouble the scoresheet.
Morrison shot wide from 25 yards before Lukaku saw an effort from similar range flash past the left-hand post after deflecting off Pearce.
Lukaku was reflecting on what might have been on 79 when he produced an air-shot in a promising position from Brunt’s corner, before Dorrans’ follow-up header was cleared.
But the security of Albion’s standing in the game suddenly came into question when Reading pulled a goal back out of the blue on 81. McCleary’s left-wing cross sneaked through a sea of legs in the box and the unmarked Kebe headed home from close range.
There was still little hint of what was to come when Guthrie saw a shot from the edge of the box well held by Foster.
But Baggies heads were in their hands three minutes from time when Olsson was penalised for fouling Kebe in the box. Le Fondre made no mistake, sending Foster the wrong way from the spot.
Unbelievably, it was 3-2 a minute later. Pearce beat Olsson in the air to head Harte’s diagonal free-kick into the path of Pogrebnyak, who poked past Foster from six yards.
Few inside the stadium, from either side, could digest what had happened – none more so than the 2,200 travelling Baggies fans behind Foster’s goal. It was one of those ‘had to see it to believe it’ moments.
READING (4-1-4-1): Federici; Gunter, Pearce, Mariappa, Harte; Carrico (McCleary HT); Kebe, Guthrie, Karacan (Le Fondre 65), McAnuff (c); Pogrebnyak. Subs not used: Taylor (gk), Hunt, S Morrison, Cummings, Akpan.
ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Thorne, Brunt (c); Dorrans (Rosenberg 79), Morrison, Thomas; Lukaku. Subs not used: Myhill (gk), Popov, El Ghanassy, Dawson, Tamas, A Nabi.
GOALS: READING – Kebe (81), Le Fondre (pen 88), Pogrebnyak (89). ALBION – Lukaku (19 & 69).
BOOKINGS: ALBION – Jones (foul 37).
REFEREE: K Friend (Leicestershire).
ALBION STARMAN: James Morrison.