Tuesday night’s 1-0 loss at home against Bristol City consigned Reading to their second defeat in three games in the Sky Bet Championship and left them without a league win since their New Year’s Day victory against Fulham. The loss also left the Royals ten points off City in sixth place, badly damaging any hope the club had of a late play-off charge.
Consequently, there is a case to be made for Mark Bowen and the club to change their approach thus far to the FA Cup. Saturday’s fourth-round 1-1 draw versus Cardiff City meant that for the second consecutive round in this season’s FA Cup, a replay will be needed to separate the two sides, having needed a replay to get past Blackpool with a relatively straightforward 2-0 win at Bloomfield Road in the third round.
All three games Reading have played in the FA Cup this season have featured a predominantly academy-based side, supplemented by a few senior players who are on the fringes of the first team such as Garath McCleary and Matt Miazga to add much-needed experience to the side.
Bowen’s decision to heavily rotate the team for Reading’s third-round fixture against Blackpool was one that most Reading supporters seemed to agree with, considering the momentum and form that the Royals had built up in the lead up to the game, on the back of four consecutive wins including away victories at Preston and Fulham.
However, the fact that the Royals go into the away trip to Cardiff on Friday with just one league win this month, coupled with a daunting-looking February featuring incredibly tough games at home against Hull City and West Brom, sandwiched in between away trips to Cardiff City, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, means that the gap between Reading and sixth place is likely to be increased between now and the conclusion of those five fixtures taking place.
Whilst the positivity was clearly well warranted prior to the start of Reading’s FA Cup campaign, the form of the side has slowed from playoff-chasing to mid-table mediocrity, which should cause Mark Bowen to take the competition more seriously with his team selection.
If Reading were to win at Cardiff in the fourth-round replay, the Royals would face Premier League side Sheffield United in the last 16 of the competition – potentially two games away from another trip to Wembley.
Although Chris Wilder’s side are enjoying an excellent return to the Premier League, and are rightly receiving widespread acclaim for the season they have had so far, they would be expected to play a weakened side in the fixture. Given Reading’s noticeable increase in home form since Bowen’s appointment, there would be no reason not to believe that the Royals could cause an FA Cup upset in the tie.
Further to this, there would be a hope that an FA Cup last-16 tie against a Premier League team could attract a large crowd to the game following a gradual but consistent decline in attendances at the Madejski Stadium which has unsurprisingly coincided with the desperately poor period in the club’s history since the play-off final loss to Huddersfield Town in 2017.
The effect that Mark Bowen has had on the club since his appointment as manager last October is undeniable, with not only the results serving proof of this, but the great team spirit which has returned to the side under his management.
Yet, realism must be maintained when looking at this season, and the chances of Reading making a late push for the play-offs look slim at present, especially given there are currently ten points and eight sides between the Royals and sixth place.
A run in this season’s FA cup campaign could act as a real platform for the club to form a successful challenge for next season’s play-offs on the back of a huge confidence boost for the whole club, as well as the fanbase.