Things can only get better... and they are, slowly. After an extremely slow start to his second spell at Reading, Brian McDermott has slowly got the team into a shape and style which is able to grind out results. The Royals kept consecutive clean sheets for the first time since the start of October with their shutouts at home to Wolves and Burnley, and with the exception of last weekend's 4-3 thriller at Charlton, Reading have looked very solid at the back. It's taken him a while to get it all together but all of a sudden, with momentum slowly building, the P word is being whispered with an air of hope. It's certainly hope rather than expectation - and it's certainly highly unlikely - but stranger things have happened.
Of course before last year, one of those "stranger things" would be heading up Wembley Way for an FA Cup Semi Final... but then that heartbreaking, pride-swelling extra-time loss to Arsenal happened. Once in a lifetime, we thought... well, we're one home tie against Crystal Palace away from another. Whether the route this year has been harder or easier is up for debate (home ties or lower opposition?), but the fact is that the Royals are once again 90 minutes away from a trip to the home of football. In another season that's been largely lifeless, it's credit to McDermott and his players for still being able to push themselves in the cup.
And belief seems to be returning to the team. Each of the last three wins have demonstrated a different quality. Against West Brom, it was the ability to come back from a goal down and bring down a notoriously defensive Premier League club. Versus Rotherham, it was patience and calm to get the rewards. And the Charlton last-minute winner was a never-give-up, never-say-die attitude. It's good to see Reading win, but to demonstrate versatility and determination is equally impressive.
Whilst belief has returned... the fans haven't. Last Tuesday's match against Rotherham saw the lowest crowd at the Madejski Stadium in twelve years. Yes, it was yet another home match... yes, it was a midweek game against less than glamorous opposition... but it's still rather worrying to see that supporters simply aren't getting behind the team like they have in recent years. Even with a multitude of offers and free tickets for that game, the club failed to attract casual punters. It seems it'll take more than that to somehow get the Madejski rocking again - though we can expect a sellout against Palace in the quarter-final, naturally.
Perhaps it's linked to entertainment, and I'm sure the fans who turned down that Rotherham game didn't regret that decision. The West Brom game aside, home matches have been as dull as they come. One goal scored at home in three Championship matches in February, supporters haven't been turning up to the stadium expecting to be entertained - more hoping. Sure, it's important to keep clean sheets, but playing a holding midfielder and sneaking a 1-0 win against relegation-threatened Rotherham is hardly the recipe to convince punters to spend their hard-earned.
There's also the question of how much the team has actually improved under McDermott. A 4-3 win against Charlton might have been entertaining, but conceding three goals to the team at the bottom of the table - and a striker without a goal in over a year - perhaps doesn't seem like much progress. Nor does that aforementioned sneaking past the Millers. Things have recovered since Steve Clarke was dismissed but are we expecting too much of the manager and the team to convince us that it's not only cup games that the squad are up for? Perhaps it's a symptom of another seemingly dead season after over a decade of thrilling finishes, but are we still waiting for that spectacular league win which shows things are truly going in the right direction?
So how do you feel about McDermott's first ten weeks in charge? Let us know below - 5 is highest, 1 is lowest. And leave any thoughts about how you're feeling under Brian.
1st February 2016 - 2.55 out of 5