Things were going so, so well for Garath McCleary. In a 2013/14 campaign that ultimately ended in disappointment, the Jamaican international was a stand-out star. Playing regularly, he built up an impressive relationship with fellow ex-Forest player Chris Gunter that made Reading's right wing the best it had been in a fair few years.
Although his defensive side was solid enough, it was the attacking play that really inspired Reading fans, with most entries on that term's Goal of the Season competition coming from him. Just thinking the word 'Burnley' conjures up memories of this...
What went wrong?
A player that should by all accounts have been a first team regular under Steve Clarke actually finds himself frozen out of contention. In truth, McCleary's luck changed not long after that goal against Burnley, with him missing the early part of the next season through injury.
After finding fitness again, progress under both Nigel Adkins, and then under Steve Clarke in his first few months in charge at Reading, was very limited. Having scored five times in 43 appearances in 2013/14, he managed just three in the 30 matches he played in in 2014/15. That said, one of those three really was unforgettable...
Where does that leave him?
Despite improving fitness on his part, and a mounting injury list in the rest of the squad, McCleary's season hasn't taken off. After goals at Portsmouth in the cup and Bristol City in the league, he's still to nail down a regular spot in the first team. Indeed, five starts and 421 minutes of league football are hardly impressive numbers.
Looking at the pecking order, it's hard to argue that McCleary is that high up it. Comparing his minutes to those of other competitors for a midfield spot, things don't look too great - Oliver Norwood (1440), Nick Blackman (1257), Danny Williams (1133), Stephen Quinn (674), Matej Vydra (593), Aaron Tshibola (554), Hal Robson-Kanu (502) and Lucas Piazon (440) all outscore McCleary for league minutes this season. That list of course doesn't include the likes of Ola John and Alex Fernandez, both of whom started Reading's recent loss at Cardiff City.
A year or two ago, the Jamaican would have been much higher up that list. Regardless of the huge improvement from Messrs Norwood and Blackman, plus the additions of Quinn and Vydra, the Garath McCleary of 2013/14 would have been very near the top of the pile in this squad. So, does that mean Steve Clarke sees McCleary as a relatively disposable squad player now? From the player's point of view, the fact that he isn't getting the benefit of the doubt - even when other key wingers are injured - must be galling.
The elephant in the room
What surprises me most is that, whilst McCleary is gradually slipping out of first team contention, he really shouldn't be. On paper, I'd have thought a fast, direct winger with a healthy relationship with the first choice right back would be a natural pick for a Steve Clarke side. Width is, for me, something that Reading have been severely lacking in recent weeks, so a recall for McCleary would on the face of things be the most logical solution.
All of the above is to ignore one key factor: Nick Blackman. The biggest winner from McCleary's continued absence is the current occupant of the right wing slot, and Reading's top scorer this season. Now, to discuss Blackman in any context at the moment is to get dangerously close to the 'should he play centrally?' debate but, if you think about it, it's a debate that McCleary needs to be part of.
Why do I say that? Because, if you were to relocate Nick Blackman to a more central position, there's a vacancy on the right wing - a vacancy that McCleary could so easily fill. But what does Steve Clarke think of playing Blackman centrally? Here's what he said on the subject after the defeat at Cardiff...
"It doesn't matter where I play Nick - he's always one of our best three performers. I know people are banging on about him playing as a striker - but he's not a target striker. He needs space to run into. He needs to get on the ball, create chances, have shots at goal.
I didn't think you can look at Nick and say he's suffering because he's not playing in one position. I can play him in any position and he's outstanding."
I agree with a lot of that - Blackman needs space to run into, and can't do that when playing as a target man. But Clarke is missing the point here - the proposal is actually that Blackman maintains his free role, but instead does it centrally, rather than as a right winger. That could easily be achieved by playing Blackman off a target man like Orlando Sa, and dropping the unimpressive Matej Vydra.
How would this help Reading?
For me, it increases the potential for Reading to get the most out of some key attacking players. Nick Blackman gets a more involved role that has less defensive duties, he's replaced on the flank by a natural right winger, and Orlando Sa benefits from a better partner and more varied service from out wide. Naturally, a lot of this comes back to Garath McCleary - who'll need to prove to Steve Clarke that he's worth game time, especially when others return from injury.
Why do I think he's worth bringing back into contention? Simply put, the last time McCleary got regular starts, Reading reaped the benefits. That '2013/14 McCleary' that I keep referring to hasn't gone - he's still there and would be a massive boost to this side. But the 2015/16 McCleary won't find his old form on the bench - Steve Clarke needs to show faith. If he does that, we could very well be seeing more of the below...