Have you managed to recover yet? Nope? Me neither. The Championship's comeback kings have done it once again. To paraphrase Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part 3 (disappointing film but provider of a great reference nonetheless), "Just when I thought we're out, they pull us back in!" In what has already been a truly remarkable season for us Royals fans, tonight's action served as yet another example of just how far this team has come under Jaap Stam. Seemingly beaten and overrun by a Brentford side that had already dispatched them 4-1 earlier this season, a right Royal Renaissance saw us claim what for almost forty minutes, felt like a very unlikely victory.
It is the sort of three points that only serious promotion contenders manage to grind out. The sort of three points that is claimed by a squad with an inherent belief in what they are doing and that they can go on to achieve something special. And now, with a nine point gap over seventh-placed Derby County, Royals fans can truly start to contemplate the both exciting yet excruciating prospect of play-off football come May.
A Game of Three Thirds:
The Royals started the brighter of the two teams, settling quickly into our usual passing game. Like many who have come to the Madejski before this season, Brentford seemed quite content to absorb as much pressure as possible from the Reading front line and aim to hit on the counter whenever they could. But their resistance lasted just 22 minutes, as John Swift pounced to make it 1-0 after Gareth McCleary's cross was rebounded against the post.
Up until this point, the Royals had looked rather comfortable across the park, but once they had taken the lead, the game seemed to change within an instant. Suddenly passes were becoming sloppier, victories on the second ball less frequent and shape far less cohesive. As the ball bounded its way around the Reading defence, the players invited unnecessary pressure upon themselves through mistimed passes and awkward deliveries. This gifted confidence to their opponents, who, roared on by a strong travelling following, grew into them game. Reading looked nervous and more mistakes continued to creep into their play, culminating in a galvanised Brentford side finishing the half as the much stronger of the two teams.
As the teams re-emerged, it quickly became clear that little had changed, except for the apparent reintroduction of the panicked long ball 'hoof' into the Royals' repertoire of passing. After wave upon wave of Brentford attack, the visitors were finally able to break through the Reading lines, as some brisk passing moves saw them carve the Royals defence open twice in four minutes to turn the game on its head.
Changes were needed. They had been for some time. Yet Stam and his team waited for seven minutes after Brentford had taken the lead to finally call in the reinforcements. With 73 minutes gone, on came Yann Kermorgant, George Evans and Roy Beerens for Liam Kelly, Swift and Lewis Grabban respectively.
Instantly the team looked in better shape. Danny Williams, up until this point all-at-sea playing as a wing-back, was able to move back into his natural habitat of centre midfield, and thanks to the introduction of the cool and collected Evans, had more free rein to press forward. The impact of this tactical shift was immediate, as the American was able to make one of his trademark surging runs into the box to skilfully stab home McCleary's cross and level proceedings with thirteen minutes on the clock.
As the team began to settle once again into their flowing attacking style, it was now the turn of the Brentford players to succumb to the pressure of an attacking onslaught and re-animated crowd. After a long ball forward was misread by Bees keeper Daniel Bentley, the stopper found himself stranded 30 yards from his line after his attempt to clear his lines was scuffed. Kermorgant seized upon the opportunity, playing in fellow sub Beerens to snatch all three points from the Royals and keep their play-off hopes well and truly alive, much to the elation of every Royal in the Mad Stad.
John Swift is undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted players that Reading have at their disposal. In addition to his skills, he also has a goal tally that is certainly not to be sniffed at - a number that he added to again this evening. However, on a few occasions this season, he has been accused of not putting in his fair share of defensive work and being somewhat of a luxury to have on the pitch during some of our more hard-fought games.
Tonight's match perfectly encapsulated this Swift conundrum. Although he got us off the mark, he appeared to offer little else during his time on the field, particularly in the Royals' own half. When the Royals needed a strong midfield presence to break down the oncoming Brentford pressure, Swift seemed reluctant to throw himself into a challenge.
Admittedly yes, it could be argued that this is not what he is picked for, and what he provides in attacking flair makes up for his defensive shortcomings. But in a league like the Championship, renowned for its physical and competitive nature, players must be willing to give everything to remain tight at the back and protect a lead. In a game such as that which we saw tonight, can Reading really afford to leave someone like Swift on the pitch for as long as they did once their attacking duties are complete?
Is missing talisman behind the nerves on display?
At times tonight, it seemed that although the Royals had a leader in Stam on the sidelines, they were without one on the pitch. Since losing Paul McShane to injury, it has become patently clear just how much of an influence he has on the rest of the team - and in particular the defence.
Captain's armbands are not just handed out without reason and what we can glean from our recent performances, if we didn't already know it by now, is how much of a leader McShane must be on the pitch. Liam Moore is a different player when lining up alongside the Irishman, appearing much more composed than when he has been playing in other centre-back pairings.
Based on this evening's performance too, a case could be made for how talismanic a figure Yann Kermorgant is within the Reading dressing room. Upon his introduction, it was clear to see the lift that the other players received. This is no slight on others involved within the game, but as we saw the experienced Frenchman immediately throw everything that he had at the Brentford defence, the raising of other players' games around him was equally visible. The veteran brings both fight and leadership by the bucket-load and after tonight's performance, news of his new contract extension should be rejoiced by Royals fans.
Stam sorts his subs out ... just about
At the reverse fixture a few months ago at Griffin Park, Reading were routed by Brentford for most of the game. However, despite the fact that his side were being clearly dominated on the pitch by their opponents, Jaap Stam waited until the 85th minute to make any sort of impactful change - by which point the Royals were already 3-1 down.
Today he appeared to have learned from his mistake, and indeed his triple substitution after 73 minutes proved to be the catalyst as the Royals set about mounting their unlikely comeback. The introduction of the powerful and experienced Kermorgant, the calming George Evans and the tricky Beerens revitalised both the Madejski crowd and the Royals on the field.
However, it was clear to see for all in attendance today that by this point, the Royals had already been overrun by their opponents for the best part of forty minutes. It was only through the smart saves of Ali Al-Habsi and, dare I say it, 'luck', that the score remained at 2-1, as sloppy passing and nervous defending took hold of the home side.
Today, as harsh as it may sound, Stam may have got away with one. Of course, his substitutions worked a treat and proved decisive, but against stronger opposition, he may not have as much time to ponder making that first change (or three) as he did tonight.
Royals refuse to roll over
Winning is a mentality. It is the strength of will and belief in oneself that are key to any side that wishes to push on in this division and once again tonight we have seen what steely stuff this Reading side is made of. Having already come from behind to claim impressive draws against the likes of Brighton and Ipswich, as well as that brilliant fightback against Bristol City in January, Stam has clearly instilled something very special in this team.
Points change on this stage in 2015/16 (Total: 52) : +23
Points change on this stage in 2011/12 (Total: 89) : +6
Points change on this stage in 2005/06: (Total: 106) : -16
Reading: Al Habsi; Gunter, Moore, Blackett, Obita; Kelly (Kermorgant, '73, Mutch, Williams; Swift (Evans, '73), McCleary, Grabban (Beerens, '73)