Dreaming yet? Heading into the second half of the season, Reading are firmly entrenched in the playoff race, and only six points behind second-placed Newcastle... with a game in hand. Despite two poor league defeats at Fulham and Leeds United, the Royals have bounced straight back with victories — real credit must go to Stam for refocusing his side and ensuring heads didn't drop too much on the back of those losses. I was lucky enough to attend the press conference before the FA Cup tie with Manchester United, and Chris Gunter was waxing lyrical about the Dutchman's influence on the side. Stam seems to be a manager that the players, and the fans, fully believe in.
What's better than a last minute winner, to send Reading fans into delirium? A number of victories this campaign have come with time running out, and two more were added in December and January with those thrilling 3-2 wins over Bristol City and Blackburn Rovers. Many Reading sides in recent memory have been accused of not fighting to the final whistle, but that's certainly not an allegation you can throw at this side. The belief never seems to wane, and the attacking impetus, whilst slow at times, is always there — wearing down the opposition, waiting for the mistake, and pouncing. Stam's style has won over the fans with some exceptional results — now it's time to cement this brilliant start and push on in 2017.
I mentioned last month about the fact that our Player of the Month awards had been won by a different member of the squad each time so far this season. December's gong went to yet another new face, Liam Kelly. Not only is this testament to the fact that a multitude of players are at the top of their game this season, but also Stam's patience and willingness to give Kelly his chance. Hauled off against Rotherham early doors, the youngster is now thriving in a Reading shirt and putting forward a case to start every week, despite the return of John Swift and competition from the likes of George Evans and Danny Williams. Stam has shown he's able to get the absolute maximum from his players, with the likes of Garath McCleary and Paul McShane arguably showing their best ever form in a Reading shirt this season.
The Royals can't afford too many more losses to promotion rivals. As mentioned above, Reading have been soundly beaten by Leeds and Fulham recently, failing to score away from home whilst shipping seven goals in the process. Away from the Madejski, the defensive woes have really started to mount up — it's 11 goals conceded in our last four Championship away games. You can't rely on scoring three goals each time to get you out of jail, so if we are to continue this push to the promised land, Stam will know he has to improve the defensive record on the road.
In fact it's the lack of a fully effective plan B which might have led to some of those problems in the first place. The Royals found tremendous success when moving to three at the back, with Chris Gunter and Jordan Obita as wing-backs. But injuries and suspensions have tested the Reading back-line, with McShane, Liam Moore and Obita all missing time over the last couple of months. That's led to situations where Tyler Blackett has been exposed at left-back, whilst Joey van den Berg's frailties have been on display both in the middle of the park and at centre-back. The expected arrival of Tiago Ilori should add cover and a new dimension to the defensive corps, but Stam will have to ensure that Reading can continue to get results and clean sheets even when one member of the "first choice" back line is missing.
And finally a quick word on the FA Cup tie with Manchester United. Whilst even the most positive of Reading fans would have been hard-pressed to see a victory coming at Old Trafford, it was disappointing to see just how overawed and overmatched the Royals were, even against a still-strong second XI from Jose Mourinho. Of course, the Red Devils are on a completely different level to Reading but the lack of real chances showed just how far this side must come if they're to credibly challenge in the Premier League next year. But the Championship comes first, and Stam's side are showing that they're more than a match for this league.
So how do you feel about Stam's time at Reading so far? Let us know below - 5 is highest, 1 is lowest.