The odds weren't in Reading's favour coming into this one. A first three-game losing streak under Jaap Stam, three days rest after a long trip, our first choice left-back banned, facing a Fulham team who had torn us to shreds weeks earlier and playing on a pitch that left a lot to be desired. Heck, even the bookies had Fulham favourites for this one.
Yet somehow, someway Jaap Stam and his players found a way to win and the number of times I've said, or written, those words is why yes, it's OK to start dreaming of a trip to Wembley in May.
Stam's Tactical Gamble Pays Off
20 years ago the thought of playing a single striker at home would be seen as criminal, and while one up top has become the norm around football in recent years, Stam went that one step further last night, opting to pick a lineup without a recognised striker. It would be one thing to try such a system while in the middle of a dominating run against a lesser opponent but to employ it against our bogey team in the middle of a three-game losing run takes balls.
But did you ever doubt that Stam had the managerial grapefruits?
The system relied on Garath McCleary and Roy Beerens as those furthest forward, with John Swift also probing from the midfield. Stam also decided to rest Tiago Ilori in favour of Joey van den Berg, while Tyler Blackett replaced the banned Jordan Obita.
On the bench, we saw FOUR strikers, so Stam at least had a plan B if things went south.
A Cagey First Half
On a cold and once again foggy evening, it would have been easy to look at the 0-0 half-time scoreline and think 'I'm glad I didn't bother going to this game' yet if you opted against a trip to the Mad Stad last night, you missed an intriguing first 45.
As mentioned, Beerens and GMac were having a busy night trying to push the Fulham defence back as far as possible, with Swift the tip of a three-man middle. Early on Reading's forwards weren't quite getting it right, getting caught offside a bit too often but they still were able to help give us the space to play the ball out from the back, something Reading very much struggled to do up at Craven Cottage.
In front of goal, both sides had half-chances but nothing to get either keeper particularly worried. Swift and Beerens missed Reading's best openings while Sone Aluko and Chris Martin also got themselves into good positions, only to lack the clinical touch. McCleary was also a relieved man after seeing an effort Steve Bruce would have been proud of soar over the bar from five yards with the goal open, fortunately the flag had already gone up.
It was a busy 45 minutes all over the pitch as both teams protected the ball well and tried to close down their opponents as quickly as possible. Danny Williams, John Swift and Liam Kelly all did really well under these circumstances while Joey van den Berg had one of his better nights in the defensive line to help us keep our fair share of possession.
Reading Prove Their Quality
The second half was about as complete a home performance as I've seen from Reading since the opening day against Preston, well except for the whole mess in the final minute which we'll get too....
It took just four minutes for Reading to get in front as we were given, what Jaap Stam has admitted, a soft penalty for a foul on Liam Moore at the back post. John Swift became the latest player to be given penalty responsibilities and soon became the latest to blow it, only to be saved by Beerens knocking in the rebound following David Button's save.
That's 11 penalties this season for Reading, with six missed but five put in on the rebound. I won’t reignite the 'luck' debate but put it this way, I need to head down to the casino with the Reading players at some stage soon.
That goal gave us the momentum and it was nearly two-nil seconds later, only for a last ditch tackle to deny Swift the finish following another surging run from Liam Kelly. As mentioned on Monday's podcast, if Reading can keep those two at the club together for a while, you drool at the possibilities.
Further chances followed only to be wasted by the home team and if there's one worrying aspect of last night's performance it's that we're still not killing teams off.
That's not to say Fulham didn't create chances of their own, with Ryan Fredericks giving Tyler Blackett a painful evening down the Reading left, and Blackett would probably have been relieved to be replaced on 69 minutes by Ilori for a home debut. The Reading defence weren't perfect by any means last night but it was a welcome reset of the error count that had blighted us in the past few games, at least until the final minute.
With just seconds remaining Moore fouled our old chum Lucas Piazon in the box in what again looked a soft decision. It gave Ali Al-Habsi the chance to become even more of a Reading hero and sure enough the Omani keeper saved from Martin to send 3⁄4 of the Madejski wild and those in the South Stand streaming for the exit.
Tenacity, Spirit, Flair
You might remember that slogan from Alan Pardew's days at the club but that motto could equally fit this ragtag band under the big Dutch man.
From Al-Habsi's penalty heroics, to McShane's grit, Gunter's engery, Moore's class, Williams drive, Kelly & Swift's moments of skill & vision, the tricky of Beerens and the speed of McCleary. Throw it together and you've got the tools to get three points against just about anyone.
On the other side, you still scratch you head because this team still has plenty of holes to pick in it. The keeper can be fantastic but also still has a howler in him, the defence has kept just one clean sheet in ten, the midfield is sometimes a bit soft and inexperienced, while we're relying on a man who turns 36 this year to score the goals. Yet each department is finding a way to make itself enough of a success to get the job done more often than not.
Reading are far from the complete team, Jaap Stam isn't flawless and this league is a brutal one but despite all of that we're third in the league and have shown we've got nobody in this division to fear.
The mental toughness we keep showing, not just over individual 90 minutes but over sequences of games has been the biggest plus point of the Stam era.
Are we nailed on for the play-offs? No, but am I backing us to get there, yes.
Reading: Al-Habsi, Blackett (Ilori), van den Berg, Moore, McShane, Gunter, Williams, Kelly (Kermorgant), Swift, Beerens (Evans), McCleary
Points change on this stage in 2015/16 (Total 52): +15
Points change on this stage in 2005/06 (Total 106): -17
Points change on this stage in 1997/98 (Total 42): +16
Projected Points Total: 83