The proximity of the season’s finale was apparent over the Easter weekend with both a promotion and a relegation achieved in the Championship. As Newcastle attained an immediate return to the Premier League and Peterborough went straight back down to League One, Reading saw their hopes of a late charge to the play-offs dented by defeat at Ipswich before bouncing back in perfect fashion against Coventry.
Saturday’s trip to Portman Road brought an end to the Royals’ long unbeaten run in the league as two quick goals by the hosts just before half-time settled matters, despite Gylfi Sigurdsson’s late strike from a free-kick. The visitors’ cause was not aided by the dismissal of Matt Mills, the stand-in captain seeing red for what was little more than a 50-50 challenge. An appeal was immediately launched by the club meaning he was able to feature against the Sky Blues on Monday, but regardless of whether the appeal is successful or not, Mills was greatly missed during the remainder of the game at Portman Road. The close-season signing from Doncaster Rovers has been impressively dominant in the air since establishing himself in the team in January and it was no surprise that Ipswich struck twice through headers in his absence. The first goal came from a towering header from a corner which Mills would have been best-suited to challenge, and the second strike soon after should have been dealt with by the Reading defence. Neither Mills’ replacement Alex Pearce nor Zurab Khizanishvili got their head to a routine ball across the six-yard line, allowing Jon Walters an easy chance to score. If the appeal over Mills’ red card fails, he will be banned for four games having been dismissed for handball earlier this year at Doncaster. With Ivar Ingimarsson out for the season injured, Reading will have had the heart of their defence ripped out and the potential results were previewed in that four minute spell in Suffolk.
If that defeat put a serious dent in Reading’s outside chance of a top-six finish, their hopes were fittingly resurrected later in the Easter weekend when Coventry visited the Madejski Stadium. With Mills making the most of his temporary reprieve, Reading kept a clean sheet at the back whilst the attack was rampant and could have easily increased the 3-0 lead that had been racked up by half-time. Brian McDermott had opted to freshen up his side after just 48 hours between matches, and the Royals put on a fine attacking display that belied the absence of the rested Shane Long and Sigurdsson. Grzegorz Rasiak and Simon Church both cashed in on their chance to lead the line and Jimmy Kebe grabbed yet another goal as his 2010 revival continued. Chris Coleman’s side put up more resistance in the second period and Reading did not enjoy the same level of dominance but they showed an impressive resilience to make sure the visitors did not score. The combination of attractive football and defensive solidity bodes well for the team, and they will feel confident going in to the final six matches if Mills is made available.
The Royals received recognition from the league for their fine recent form with McDermott made Manager of the Month for March and Sigurdsson awarded the Player of the Month trophy. The young Icelander’s gong was fully deserved but could have gone to several members of the team who have all played a big part in turning Reading’s season around. Kebe has continued to confound those who had written him off after two fruitless years in Berkshire, whilst Andy Griffin has been outstanding at right-back. McDermott has rightfully earned a multitude of plaudits among the Madejski crowd for some time now and it is good to see him being acknowledged on a wider scale. The managerial award has earned itself a reputation as a jinx over the years, with recent winners, through some coincidence, often seeing their eam crumble. True to form, Reading lost at Ipswich straight after McDermott was crowned, but the curse has already been lifted thanks to the dominant victory on Monday.
Whether Reading will receive further recognition as play-off qualifiers remains to be seen and is too tight to call at present. The Royals are nine points away from sixth place Leicester with two games in hand, and have 18 points left to play for. Following the weekend’s result, victory in the spare games would now not be enough to overtake seventh placed Blackpool, who won both their matches over Easter. Having to rely on at least two other teams to drop points makes Reading’s task harder, but if they play like they did against Coventry rather than how they did at Ipswich, then McDermott’s team are still in with a shout.