It feels like more than three games since Jimmy sealed Reading's last set of Premier League points. - Scott Heavey
It was all going rather well until Wigan turned up at the Madejski. But are two consecutive league defeats really enough to consider the Reading FC stable empty? Surely the proverbial missing horses, aren't (To use a contemporary twist.) in the burgers served up outside the East Stand just yet? Let's take another look as to how, where and if Reading stand a chance at making a fourth season in English football's top flight.
It's been a while since I posed the initial question as to whether McDermott could mastermind The Royals escape from the relegation zone?
Back then I believed Reading's lack of points from away travels, in conjunction with where they still have to go to, meant they should focus solely on the games left at the Madejski. However back then the maths also looked clearer. Win every home game and The Royals would end the season with the "safe margin" of 40 points. Anything gained from away games was a supplementary bonus and either enhanced their finishing position or simply alleviated pressure on needed results back in the Royal County. Depending on your view.
But what I didn't bank on, was the abject gloom such a result and performance against Wigan would leave within the fanbase. As for Roberto Martinez's Latics, there is sadly no doubt the result was deserved and ironically Reading have allowed Wigan to take all six points from these apparent "six-pointers" as well as conceding six goals along the way, to add insult to injury. If only The Royals had shown up to these games and the story would be very different. Reading would be sixteenth, two points better off than Southampton (who are nearly looking safe now) with only three wins and a draw needed from their remaining eleven games to all but seal another season up in the top league. But if two wins are so detrimental towards changing Reading's fortunes, surely it can't be all over yet? There are 33 points left to play for after all.
It goes to show just how much The Royals league form has improved of late, given that it was before Christmas they last experienced a two game losing streak. It's also curious to wonder how different the mood would be, had the scorelines from the away trip to Stoke and our most recent drubbing from Wigan occurred the other way around? Had we instead played out last weekend's pointless 3-0 performance against The Potters two weeks earlier, it maybe wouldn't have looked so bad given that Stoke have only lost once at home this season? Although Reading were under pressure for most of the actual game in Staffordshire, their losing 2-1 performance was far from the shower witnessed against Wigan on Saturday. Yes it still would've been a frustrating defeat to rival opposition, but at least the home fans would've seen how unlucky the Royals were to not get a draw.
So where do we go from here?
Going back to my theory about winning the home games coined with Reading's surprise win up at St. James' Park, the defeat against Wigan only leaves the Royals two points off the pace I'd set them. Depending on other results this weekend, if McDermott's men left Merseyside with a point, The Royals would be back from the grave that is the relegation zone with both Southampton and Sunderland very much in grabbing reach. So a decent opening weekend to March for RFC, and it's everyone back around the table to see who blinks first again. Lose... well let's not think about it for now eh?
So how does March look?
With only one home game and one away win so far this season, it could feel like an even longer month than February. But with three away games, The Royals must transfer their cup form (where they won two and looked very brave at Old Trafford) to the league in order to both keep the faith and pullback the points lost from the Wigan display. Having only won a depressing five away points all season, one has to ask, why don't they just go for it, if they're likely to lose anyway?
For the second time as Reading manager, McDermott starts March taking his team to Everton, who haven't won a league game since January. As with so many seasons, the FA Cup, or rather Everton's replay with Oldham midweek may help The Royals. David Moyes' side will be less fresh with some perhaps distracted knowing they're now one win away from Wembley. Although Everton have only lost once at home this season, they've drawn there just as much as Reading. McDermott will no doubt recount that last time the Royals were in Liverpool's blue-half, they won a close cup game as Championship underdogs! They'll be further buoyed-on having already beaten Everton at the Mad Stad and can maybe do what they haven't done since away at Brighton nearly a year ago. Do the double on a side. Given Reading's tenacity against the top sides, we can only hope this game delivers a return of gallant efforts. Whatever the result, more importance surely hinges on Liverpool and Man City doing us favours Saturday and Monday night respectively?
Next up at the Madejski is surely the biggest game of the season? Not only is the Aston Villa tie nearly sold out, but failure to win it may have a lasting effect on when a Reading home game will sell-out again. No doubt the gravity of the match could increase circumstantially depending how this weekend's fixtures go beforehand. If anyone betters the others result, it'll present an opportunity to create a gap. A gap which given Reading's following fixtures, could prove near fatal, bar another stunning run. Thankfully Villa have only won twice away this season and only Southampton have conceded more goals away from home. Before March, Villa have also only won once in their last ten league games. Reading MUST make sure their poor run of form continues!
After comes the two big glamour trips of the season. Man United followed by Arsenal, with an International break separating the two. If up until this point Reading haven't acquired any points, then surely many will consider these days out mere sightseeing? It truly would be amazing if McDermott's men came away from these fixtures with anything more than a point. That said, Reading have managed to collectively put eleven goals past both, in League and Cup fixtures already this season.
United have only lost once at Old Trafford in the League thus far, but with Reading repeating their performance there from the FA Cup and able/likely to use more of the current squad, maybe just maybe they could snatch something? It is after all only men, not machines wearing those United shirts and with them potentially in three competitions to play for, Reading could arrive on their bad day.
The Emirates isn't quite as foreboding as Old Trafford. Up until now, Arsenal have lost three and drawn three at home, so not exactly the "Invincibles" they once were. 2013 so far hasn't been a walk in the park for them either, with many frustrating games and results that have shown them to only just scrape through. If this patch continues through March, like the trip to United and if the Royals really need something, why not?
March has always been a big month for Reading and with such a collection of big games hopefully McDermott's men will rise to the occasion. But with a month full of them, it could be an even bigger ask not to feel the glare of doom on us. Either way, this may be Reading's moment in showing where we'll finish come May 19th and whether we really are a Premier League side. But whatever happens, there's still 21 points to play for after March 31st.
Strap yourself in, I've a feeling it could get bumpy and who knows where we'll end up. Be warned though that the scenes shown my not be suitable for all viewers.