The FA Cup might just come at the right time for Reading. With league form continuing to suffer over Christmas and question marks still in place over the long-term leadership of the first team, a glamour cup tie could be the distraction that everyone needs. A good performance against Liverpool and confidence will be raised. A poor performance can simply be written off in the ‘doesn’t really matter’ column as a bad showing that has not cost any points.
The arrival of the Reds brings a poignant reminder of how good things were just a few short years ago. The last time Rafa Benitez pitched up at Madejski Stadium with his superstars in tow, the Royals ran out 3-1 winners, arguably the greatest result in the history of the club. Goals from Stephen Hunt, Kevin Doyle and James Harper saw Benitez wave the white flag, replacing Steven Gerrard ahead of a Champions League game despite 20 minutes remaining on the clock. The scorers, as with most of the Reading cast that day, have since departed for pastures new, but the two members of the starting line-up that still remain are representative of a new era at the club.
Brynjar Gunnarsson and Ivar Ingimarsson may be somewhat older than the influx of youth team graduates playing alongside them, but they remain the only senior professionals to have survived the cloth-cutting cull of Steve Coppell’s great side. With Gylfi Sigurdsson Reading’s brightest star in recent weeks and the imminent loan arrival of Gunnar Thorvaldsson, something of an Icelandic revolution is hitting Berkshire. Coppell’s squad always had an Irish feel, with Doyle, Hunt and Shane Long joined at various times by the likes of Alan Bennett, Noel Hunt, Dave Mooney and Conor Sinnott. Ireland is now being replaced with Iceland and the reliable qualities displayed by Gunnarsson and Ingimarsson are the big attraction.
It is hard to second guess what the teamsheets handed in by Benitez and Brian McDermott will contain on Saturday, especially if Coppell’s policy of cup rotation is carried on. If recent selections are anything to go by then the experienced Icelanders will both feature. Gunnarsson has filled in at right-back in the last couple of games, covering an injury to another makeshift defender, Jay Tabb. Playing in that role against Liverpool would not be a new experience for Gunnarsson. In April 2007, he featured impressively in the position, even getting himself on the scoresheet. It was a game that the Royals really deserved to get something from, going down to a late Dirk Kuyt winner despite having more shots at goal. Later that year, Reading, with Gunnarsson on board, got their famous win.
It does not take a top football pundit to point out Gunnarsson’s limitations. At 34 years old he is well past his physical peak, much like Graeme Murty as his Royals career came to an end. Sometimes it appears that he is just pivoting, moving in a circle on the spot as the game passes him by. At the same time, he is a top-class professional who never lets anyone down. This is the one player who threatened to break up the Harper-Steve Sidwell partnership in midfield, the lifeblood of Coppell’s success. With the experienced heads of Murty, Marcus Hahnemann and Michael Duberry all released over the summer, it was only Gunnarsson to be offered a new contract when his came to an end. The know-how that he can pass on to the young generation, Sigurdsson included, is invaluable, and he has already indicated a desire to move into coaching. With senior figures having recently left the Mad Stad, there may well be room for him on the staff before long.
In the disappointing defeat to Plymouth last time out, the main criticism of the team was that they lacked fight. This is not an accusation that has ever been labelled at Ingimarsson before. The captain has always been one to put his head in where it hurts, including his match-winning goal against Manchester City in the Premier League when he was knocked out in the process. It was no surprise when he was named Player of the Season that same campaign.
Brendan Rodgers spent around £2m on centre-back Matt Mills in August but he has found himself largely redundant thanks to the continued presence of Ingimarsson. Like his compatriot, he is the wrong side of 30 but still has much to offer the team. With Alex Pearce learning alongside him every game, the future is in good hands even if things are not rosy at present. Sigurdsson has firmly established himself this season and is proving to be a regular on the scoresheet. If Thorvaldsson shows similar qualities to his fellow countrymen, then do not expect too many complaints from Reading fans if an Icelandic XI is ever fielded.