The 1-1draw at the Riverside Stadium takes the Royals’ tally to 25 points out of the last 30, and much of the fine run of form is down to Reading finally being able to field a settled line-up. The start of the season was disappointing for many reasons under Brendan Rodgers, but the biggest problem caused by the poor results was the lack of time the manager could afford to spend allowing a regular team to settle. With results demanded, the temptation was too strong for Rodgers to constantly change his selection to find a winning formula. Within weeks of the opening game with Nottingham Forest, no fewer than five new players had been added. Jobi McAnuff and Grzegorz Rasiak arrived from Watford, Shaun Cummings joined from Chelsea, Brian Howard signed from Sheffield United and a loan deal was struck for Celtic’s Darren O’Dea. Established players James Harper and Liam Rosenior departed for pastures new, and Rodgers found himself trying to juggle too many changes to his squad when looking for the answers to his problems.
Brian McDermott inherited a squad low on confidence that was struggling for any consistency and added further loan signings to the squad in January. Results did not pick up initially, but the excellent FA Cup wins against Liverpool and Burnley were the catalyst for an upturn in league performances. Getting those initial wins was one thing, but it was adding stability to team selections that has seen the winning streak prolonged past the average short spells that typify in the Championship. Andy Griffin’s short term arrival from Stoke has meant Reading finally have a specialist right-back to nail down the spot, with the disappointing Cummings long since discarded to the reserves. Brynjar Gunnarsson and Jay Tabb had both featured in the position but are now free to be used in their preferred midfield slots. Tabb has really come in to his own in recent weeks as a tenacious battler alongside the creative Brian Howard and Gylfi Sigurdsson. A regular run in the team playing under a manager who really seems to believe in him has done wonders for Jimmy Kebe who has been devastating on the wing, and the same show of faith has allowed Matt Mills to demonstrate why he cost £2m from Doncaster in the summer.
There has still been an element of rotation, particularly among the forwards, but it has been a case of small changes for each game rather than a wholesale overhaul of the team from week to week. Having 14 or 15 regular players supported by a promising group of youth team products has given the Royals a sense of identity and direction at a crucial point in the season. The likes of Marek Matejovsky have had to wait patiently in the wings, with the Czech midfielder having recovered from injury problems but not been fast-tracked back in to the team at the expense of the in-form players. Football statisticians are obsessed with form tables but there is good reason for this as the psychological effects of runs of form really do play a significant part in how a team performs. With Reading full of confidence due to the fine run of results, the team have come out and played like a side who believe they will continue winning and this would only be hampered by unnecessary tampering with selection.
There is still hope for those players who have been jettisoned over the past few months. Alex Pearce was a regular early in the season, having been labelled as the next John Terry by Rodgers after his excellent pre-season showings. His confidence took a visible knock over the first months of the season, culminating in a nightmare performance away to Plymouth. Mills came straight in and has kept his place since, but Pearce has the qualities to bounce back, even if he lacks pace. Scott Davies started the first four games of the season but was a victim of the desperate rotation as Reading looked for a win from anywhere. He has found himself farmed out twice on loan since, with the centre of midfield an over-subscribed area for the Royals, but could play a significant part next year especially if the big boys come in for Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Big squads may be important over the 46-game marathon that is the Championship season, but what Reading have proved under Brian McDermott is that the key to getting prolonged bursts of form is to minimise the changes from week to week. McDermott has been helped by the momentum brought by huge wins in the Cup but he has sensibly made the most of the good form by sticking with the settled side the Royals have searched for all season.