Having survived the pre-Christmas snowfall without any postponements, Reading fell foul of the particularly harsh Berkshire weather as their clash with league leaders Newcastle was called off. Focus turned quicker than expected to the midweek FA Cup replay with Liverpool at Anfield, a ground that itself lost out to snow at the weekend.
The Royals will be hoping to make a better first impression on this match than they did the last time they were involved in a replay against a northern team. Three years ago, an under-strength side had come away from Old Trafford with a credible 1-1 draw against Manchester United. Adam Federici, then a virtually untried deputy to Marcus Hahnemann, was voted Player of the Round. Just six minutes in to the return match at Madejski Stadium, Federici had picked the ball out of his net three times. His team-mates rallied after their shocking start and ran the Red Devils close but fell just short as Brynjar Gunnarsson thundered a late attempt at an equaliser against the bar.
Reading have not had much luck with replays, losing out to Spurs a year later. That is not to say that they can’t change things this year. The display in the 84 minutes that followed in the United match and the excellent performance against Liverpool in the recent draw show an ability to fight against the odds that is inherent within the club. League form might be below desirable but a strong showing against the Reds on Wednesday could be just the spark needed to get the Royals on a run that pushes them up the table. The play-offs would require a mammoth effort at this stage of the season and so a safe mid-table finish would be a more realistic target. Yet stranger things have happened to this club before.
In the summer of 2005, who would have predicted the record breaking season ahead? Leroy Lita was the headline signing at £1m and he boasted an excellent scoring record but was untried at Championship level. Few fans would have even heard of Kevin Doyle. Signing a £78,000 striker from the Irish league hardly screamed ambition and neither did bringing in freebie Stephen Hunt from lower league Brentford. Hunt had agreed to join struggling Bradford before the Royals swooped so he hardly had ‘future international’ stamped all over. Once in the Premier League, with just Championship winger Seol Ki-Hyeon and League One defender Sam Sodje added to a side possessing hardly any top flight experience, who foresaw the club only just missing out on European football by a point?
Talk of Europe seems so far buried in a different life when right now survival in the second tier is not to be taken for granted. However, so much that has happened to this team over the last few years would have seemed crazy if predicted just a decade ago. When the Mad Stad opened, it was not graced by top flight football but instead by third tier fare. The contrasting fortunes of the first two teams to visit the ground in league matches demonstrate how fast things can change in football. Luton, the first opponents at the newly opened stadium, are now in the Blue Square Premier, the fifth rung of the English league ladder. Burnley, who arrived two and a half weeks later, are a Premier League side. Reading themselves have been promoted two divisions and fallen back down one in that time.
Potential progression in the FA Cup this season is not important for Reading. Clubs from outside the top flight just do not win the Cups these days and few even make the final so the result of the Liverpool replay is unimportant. What is important is that Brian McDermott’s men go out with purpose and prove that the performance in the first meeting was a sign of things to come and not just a mirage. Historically, the Royals are not a top flight club but everything is in place for them to be a Premier League club on a regular basis in the near future.
Reading probably missed out on their chance to claim the scalp of the Reds by not winning the first game. What they have the chance to do is signal their intent to get rid of the malaise that has been all too present since last February. By living with the likes of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard for a second time in 10 days, they can show they have little to fear from Doncaster, QPR and Cardiff and embark on a strong finish to the season that sets them up nicely for a push for the Premier League next term.