SENT: Middlesbrough’s Matt Crooks received a red card against Reading. Image: Getty Images.

A balanced, effortless but low-quality first half only came to life when Middlesbrough goalkeeper Joe Lumley made a sprawling save to turn down home top scorer John Swift.

But Swift set up what turned out to be Reading’s winner in the 55th minute, with Alen Halilovic somewhat fortuitously leading from the center to his first goal for the club.

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Middlesbrough’s frantic search for a late equalizer was not helped when striker Matt Crooks was sent off in the 86th minute after a clash with local goalkeeper Luke Southwood.

MANAGER: Neil Warnock. Picture: PA thread.

Reading had taken seven points in their previous three games, including a 2-1 win at Fulham last Saturday.

But midweek reports claimed they faced a deduction of up to nine points for alleged violations of EFL financial guidelines. The Berkshire club have yet to make an official comment on the matter.

Middlesbrough had won just two of their first eight league games, including just one of their last six.

Injury-stricken Reading without 10 first-team players fielded a strange formation on the pitch comprising two defenders and eight midfielders or wingers.

Josh Laurent, a midfielder, and Andy Yiadom, a full-back, served as emergency center-backs – none of Reading’s five senior center-backs available.

In a suspicious opening, neither team managed to create much for the future.

Middlesbrough momentarily thought they’d taken the lead in the third minute, when Crooks nodded at a cross from Isaiah Jones.

But the ball was picked up by Jones ahead of his cross and Crooks’ effort was quickly dismissed.

Reading responded decisively and, after Ovie Ejaria blocked a shot, Halilovic found Swift in space inside the Middlesbrough area.

Swift only had Lumley to beat but he shot too early and the keeper did well to deny him his eighth goal of the season.

Middlesbrough threatened only sporadically but, when striker Andraz Sporar managed to pull himself out of the focus, he shot very wide.

Reading made the most promising start to the second half, with Chelsea lender Danny Drinkwater releasing Tom Dele-Bashiru with a superb pass.

But Dele-Bashiru’s arrival was misdirected and Lumley saved with his right foot.

Reading, however, finally made the breakthrough 10 minutes after the break – with a makeshift touch.

A good cross from Swift saw Halilovic totally cheat his attempt, thereby misleading Lumley and allowing the ball to sink into the empty net.

Middlesbrough worked hard for the equalizer but Crooks saw red with four minutes to go as he rushed to Southwood as the keeper tried to scoop a loose ball in the home zone.