Realistically, Reading were never going to make easy work of Stevenage. A run of eight games in all competitions without a win - one of them the original 0-0 stalemate with the Hertfordshire side - meant that The Royals were critically low on confidence going into this cup replay. However, confidence is exactly what Jaap Stam’s team will take coming out of it.
That can be put down to three key elements: not just the win, the first since a 3-1 triumph at the Stadium Of Light in early December, but also a third successive clean sheet and a mightily impressive hat-trick for Jon Dadi Bodvarsson. It's too early to say whether Tuesday night's game suggests a corner has been turned, or cracks are being papered over, but those three elements are all undeniable positives that Jaap Stam can build on ahead of Brentford's visit this Saturday.
However, it all could have been very different. Reading could quite easily have gone out to Stevenage had they put on a particularly bad performance - and that’s what we saw for the opening 20 minutes or so. Still suffering from that aforementioned lack of confidence, and hamstrung by a kit clash that made working out who was who pretty difficult, The Royals just didn’t get going.
Stevenage had the best of the play in the early stages, and could have taken the lead were it not for some smart stops from Anssi Jaakkola and a Matt Godden goal being ruled out. As for Reading, it took some time for the players to properly acclimatise to the first half’s wardrobe malfunction, string some passes together and move up the pitch.
However, when they eventually did so, Bodvarsson was on hand with an uncharacteristically lethal performance to spare the home side’s blushes - assisted on each occasion by Chris Gunter.
For the first, the Welshman’s deflected cross found Dadi in the area, who duly slammed home from close range to calm the growing nerves in the home crowd. His second, 12 minutes later, capped off a fine Reading move - Bacuna spraying a cross-field ball from right to left, Gunter whipping in a perfectly-placed left footed cross and Bodvarsson powering home a header.
The Royals’ confidence was rising as the half went on and pressed forward in search of a third, but had to wait until after the break to have it, Bodvarsson on the end of Gunter’s low, hard cross to tap in from a few yards out. From then on in, Reading were effective enough and occasionally threatened to punish the visitors on the break as space opened up on the counter, but lacked the killer instinct of Modou Barrow (or a fully fit Garath McCleary) to press home the advantage.
However, defensively, the game will give Stam food for thought. The home side surrendered the ball too easily, even when buzzing in the second half from the 3-0 lead, and let the away side in for more shots on goal than they should have. In fact, Stevenage could have scored a couple on the night had they possessed an extra edge of quality to punish The Royals’ sloppiness. Had we put that performance in against a Championship team, the scoreline could have ended 3-3.
One thing particularly irks me though - why in God’s name did Jaap Stam not put Axel Andresson on for the last few minutes? Reading were comfortably 3-0 up and could quite easily have given the academy graduate a run out and some valuable first team experience in the closing stages. If you’re not going to play him in those circumstances, when will you?
If you want hard evidence that Jaap Stam should stay or go, you won’t find it in any single result, certainly not in a home win over a League Two side in the FA Cup. If, however, you’re after a sign that The Royals’ dismal recent form might be coming to an end, you may have just that. At the very least, Tuesday night’s win was a shot of confidence to a team that desperately needed just that.
Any comfortable win, especially one that features both a hat-trick and a clean sheet, is not to be scoffed at. Reading haven’t conceded a goal in their last three games, and they’ve now even been able to prove that they’re capable of finding the net themselves. Did they get the job done in style against Stevenage? No, but they certainly did enough.
The question now for Jaap Stam and the team is this: why can’t we do this in the league? It’s up to them to answer that on Saturday when Brentford come to town.