A competitive start to the season saw Palace come up against last season’s relegated Women’s Super League side – a tough test with which to start their campaign.
They more than matched the Royals throughout, however, but look set to suffer a frustrating defeat after Deanna Cooper challenged Palace goalkeeper Natalia Negri at a last-minute corner and forced the ball over the line – awarded despite the home side’s protests.
But just as it appeared that nine minutes of injury time had run its course, Elise Hughes latched onto a diagonal delivery from Fliss Gibbons and headed the ball into the far corner of the net, sparking jubilant celebrations on and off the pitch.
For Crystal Palace, the match marked the first chapter in a promising story: the arrivals of Head of Women’s Football, Grace Williams; new head coach Laura Kaminski; four new players; and a new home, the VBS Community Stadium in Sutton, all transpiring over the summer.
Change was abound, but one constant in particular pertained: Palace’s outstanding supporters, who arrived in Sutton in their droves to witness a moment of history.
For Reading, relegated from the Women’s Super League last season and subsequently reverting to part-time, sizeable change also abounded.
The fresh season certainly had a fresh feel for both clubs, then – and it was Palace, off the back of a successful pre-season campaign, who had the brighter spring in their step early on.
The Eagles were looking especially sharp on the ball in the early stages, some delightful one-touch play between Elise Hughes – this season wearing No. 9 – and the supporting trio of Annabel Blanchard, Molly Sharpe and Polly Doran – almost releasing the latter inside five minutes.
Yet it was Reading who came closest to scoring in the early stages, albeit perhaps not intentionally, Lauren Wade’s clipped cross veering ominously towards Negri’s top corner, hitting the bar before bouncing away.
Moments later, lightning struck twice. Sanne Troelsgaard made space 25 yards out and struck a curling effort which appeared to clip Palace captain Aimee Everett, spin over Negri and – much to Palace’s relief – hit the top of the bar again.
From the subsequent corner, Negri – amidst a sea of bodies – punched the delivery out to Troelsgaard, who side-footed a volley into the side-netting.
But Palace were showing moments of quality of their own, and when last season’s top scorer Blanchard picked up the ball 30 yards from goal, she spun, looked up, took a touch and fired a top-corner bound effort – tipped onto the roof of the net by Chelsea loanee Emily Orman in highly impressive fashion.
Blanchard was heavily involved in Palace’s next two opportunities, almost playing in Doran on the overlap – but for a last-ditch sliding challenge by Reading – before testing Orman again with a low effort from the edge of the box, this one requiring a simpler save.
That rapid opening gave way to a more measured spell in the contest as both teams – well-drilled at the back – struggled to carve out a clear opportunity before half-time.
The closest either side came was with yet another deflected effort by a Reading forward, but Negri was equal to Wade’s looping drive from range, adjusting her feet well to tip over the bar.
From the corner, Reading went short and Charlie Escort, under pressure from Palace defender Kirsten Reilly, nodded wide with her back to goal.
The second-half began in similar fashion to the first: Palace on the front foot, with only a late sliding tackle from visiting defender Deanna Cooper preventing Hughes a clean strike of Sharpe’s ball across the box.
Chances were rarer after the whistle, but debutant Hayley Nolan glanced a corner kick wide at the near post and substitute Shauna Guyatt – who put pen-to-paper on her first professional contract over the summer – had one effort from distance fly over the bar.
Reading’s best opportunity of the period fell to Troelsgaard inside the box, the forward wriggling clear of her marker and shooting low across goal – but Negri stretched out a leg to produce an outstanding stop and keep the scores level.
Palace introduced further substitutes in an effort to recapture their earlier momentum, Paige Bailey-Gayle, returning from World Cup action with Jamaica, and Chloe Arthur both making their first appearances from the season.
It was the former whose silky footwork upped the noise levels even further. One Bailey-Gayle delivery from the right wing was not dealt with by the Reading back-line, giving Blanchard the chance to half-volley goalwards – but she blasted over the bar.
Just as it looked like the match would finish goalless, a late deflection saw Reading awarded a corner in the 89th minute – and Cooper, challenging Negri, bundled the ball home, leaving the Eagles with little time to respond.
Bailey-Gayle and Sharpe forced a succession of late corners, none which dropped to a red and blue shirt – and Guyatt had a huge shout for a penalty turned down – as Reading looked like they would hold out for victory.
But the script was already written, and Hughes' late intervention symbolic of a bright future for this side, as the forward was sharp to react to Gibbons' ball into the box and head it back across goal to secure an important and well-earned point.
For Kaminski, Williams, Palace Women and the 782 enthusiastic supporters in attendance, you sense it was the first of many bright pages to come in this new story.
Palace: Negri (GK), Doran (Bailey-Gayle, 74), Everett, Nolan, Gibbons, Filbey (Arthur, 83), Reilly, Hopcroft (Guyatt, 61), Blanchard, Sharpe, Hughes
Subs: Wright (GK), Johnson
Reading: Orman (GK), Roberts (Elwood, 76), Kith, Hendrix, Dugdale, Escort, Cooper, Wade, Primmer, Woodham, Troelsgaard
Subs: Kite (GK), Wilson, Meadows-Tuson, Cox, Kennedy, Poile, Rasmussen