After the disappointment of the weekend FA Cup defeat to Aston Villa, Reading responded instantly with a dominant win over Derby, albeit one that should have been even more convincing.
Having played for 50 minutes against a team with 10-men and an outfield player in goal, the Royals will be somewhat disappointed to have only added two more goals past unlikely custodian Robbie Savage. The well-preened Welshman deserves a lot of credit for the way he went about his unexpected challenge, willing to fling himself about and get his shorts muddy in the aid of a cause that had been lost long before he donned the gloves. From the off, Reading were the dominant side against 11 men, and they were never likely to blow their 2-1 lead once the Rams had lost their second keeper of the night when early substitute Saul Deeney was dismissed. Shane Long may have fluffed his lines in blazing the resulting penalty over the bar but he will be thankful to have avoided the indignation of seeing Savage save it instead. Penalties have proved a patchy concern for Reading this season, with last-gasp efforts confidently netted by Gylfi Sigurdsson at Liverpool and Long at home to Plymouth, yet both players have joined Brian Howard in failing from 12 yards as well. Long’s miss set the tone for the rest of the match, with the Royals enjoying almost total dominance but not finding the net as often as they should have.
Brian McDermott claimed after the match that there was no specific instruction to test rookie keeper Savage with shots and that he just wanted his side to keep their shape and be patient. Having been relegated from the Premier League two years ago on goal difference, you would think McDermott would have encouraged his team to take greater advantage of a rare chance to rack up the goals. As well as Savage surprisingly performed, this was still a 35-year-old midfielder who Nigel Clough claimed was only chosen to go between the sticks because he was not getting a kick in midfield. Reading scored more goals in the final 50 minutes in their last league game against a Sheffield Wednesday team with their full compliment of players and an established goalkeeper, so they will surely carry some disappointment that they did not notch up a cricket score despite whatever platitudes they come out with.
Regardless of the inability to turn complete domination in to a crushing rout, the positives of recent weeks were again there for all to see. Reading are the form team in the Championship, having taken more points from the last seven games than any other side. With six wins and a defeat at Blackpool in that period of time, the Royals are flying and would enter the top half of the table if they could play and win their games in hand straight away. Relegation is still not to be ignored as McDermott’s team are still only four points clear of the drop-zone, but having played less games than their rivals and hitting form at just the right time, it would be a big surprise to see them still with concerns come the final day of the season.
He might have looked a bit hesitant to scrap once Villa got in front in the Cup match, but Jimmy Kebe has otherwise been a revelation in recent weeks. Once an occasional performer who would frustrate and fade the rest of the time, Kebe has suddenly emerged as an unplayable wing wizard who cannot stop scoring. When in this kind of form, he is too good for the Championship. Shane Long has returned from suspension still in the goalscoring form he had found before his ban, and his early goal against Derby came as no surprise, even if he did fail to add to it. Simon Church has started scoring too and there have been some sterling shifts put in throughout the team by the likes of Jay Tabb, Andy Griffin and Matt Mills.
The mini-period of residency at Madejski Stadium has already seen two big league wins and a superb fighting performance against Premier League opposition in the FA Cup, and it continues with two further home games inside the next week. Having previously seemed happier on the road than playing in Berkshire this season, the run of five straight home matches has come with perfect timing as the Royals seem to have rid themselves of the stage fright that had previously hampered them in front of their own fans. Whilst still playing quality football where possible under McDermott, results have definitely been helped by more focus on winning at all costs rather than the priority on playing an attractive style under Brendan Rodgers. It speaks volumes for Reading’s recent ruthlessness that there is ground to be disappointed when they only net four goals against Derby.