It has taken until February but finally Reading have won successive league games. A hard-fought but deserved win at Doncaster followed the narrow home win over Barnsley and made it a 100% start for Brian McDermott as permanent manager.
The margin of victory at the Keepmoat Stadium could have been wider with the Royals rarely looking like conceding before the referee offered Billy Sharp the chance to score from the penalty spot. With Matt Mills sent off as a result, Reading had to withstand 10 minutes of normal time, plus a huge wedge of stoppage time a man short. Adam Federici and the framework of his goal were all that kept Doncaster from levelling but it was a situation that should never have been forced upon the visitors from Berkshire. There is no doubting that the ball hit Mills on the arm but he was clearly trying to move the offending limb out of the way. His arm was moving towards his body and not towards the ball, and if a penalty was arguably fair, a red card certainly was not. There was nothing deliberate about his movement and Federici was in a position to save the shot. Mills was not on his own goal line and to be dismissed seemed incredibly harsh.
Two major positives came out of the performance. Shane Long looked increasingly back to his best, netting his second goal in a week and proving a real handful as a lone striker. His movement was clever, his work rate unquestionable, and he posed a threat to Neil Sullivan’s goal on several occasions, including a powerful drive from outside the box that stung the Scottish keeper’s palms. Maybe now commentators will start to remember his name and stop confusing him with the rugby league player Sean Long. Playing behind Long was Brian Howard, making his first start since November. The former Barnsley player has often resembled someone still dining out on his winning FA Cup goal for the Tykes at Anfield. Back in South Yorkshire, he enjoyed arguably his best game in a Reading shirt, a performance that will go some way to finally convincing fans that the Royals did not get the rough end of the deal that took James Harper to Sheffield United and Howard in the other direction. Given a more advanced role in the system, Howard looked a much better prospect with the shackles removed. Rovers found him hard to pick-up and it was no surprise that he had a hand in both goals, working space on the right to cross for Long then finishing off a break himself.
Up next is the visit of Plymouth on Tuesday, a must win game for both sides as they try to escape the relegation zone. On paper, a goal-fest looks unlikely, with the Royals having netted just 10 goals at home this season and the Pilgrims only notching 10 on their travels. Fortunately for the Madejski Stadium crowd, Reading are finally starting to hit some form and the evening atmosphere should help boost their chances of grabbing a few goals. McDermott finds himself with a tricky selection decision to make, albeit a welcome one to have after a season full of unwelcome dilemmas. Having seen Howard perform so well playing off the shoulder of Long at Doncaster, it would make sense to opt for continuity and field the pairing again. At the same time, playing a lone striker at home can be viewed as a negative move and the emphasis is on Reading to give themselves the best attacking platform possible. Playing two strikers would be seen as a positive move and was successful a week earlier against Barnsley, but McDermott will pause for thought before opting to alter things having finally got the best out of a potentially key player in Howard.
After a long period of gloom in Berkshire, the green shoots of recovery can finally be seen poking through the Mad Stad turf. The games come thick and fast throughout February and it important that the Royals make the most of this positive momentum with three more points against Argyle. Mills will be a big miss at the back as he serves his one match suspension for his red card but Reading will look to use attack as the best form of defence and put the emphasis on Plymouth to defend rather than having to worry about coping without their ever-improving centre-back. If results go in their favour, the Royals could climb out of the relegation zone with a win and hopefully there will then be no looking back, only up.