The performance against Coventry City on Tuesday night was by no means our best of the season - or anywhere near it for that matter. In fact, I think we’ve played better in some games and gone on to lose them.
However, for me, Tuesday’s game showed how far we’ve come in such a short space of time more than any other game this season. I feel this because so many times over the last few years, ever since Jaap Stam’s second season in charge kicked off really, we’ve had matches very similar to the one against Coventry but with one big difference - we were the ones who came away from those games with nothing.
One match that immediately comes to my mind when I think about this is the 4-0 defeat to Sheffield United in the February of Jose Gomes’ first season in charge.
Now, I might be completely wrong because I’ve tried to wipe as much of that period of following Reading up and down the country from my memory ever since, but I don’t recall Sheffield United being *that* impressive on the day in terms of their overall performance - much like us on Tuesday night.
But what I definitely do remember is us making two or three horrendous mistakes while trying to implement Gomes’ playing-out-from-the-back style, all of which led to first-half goals for the hosts.
Another example is the 2-1 loss away at Derby County towards the end of last season. I recall us having two or three really good chances in the first half, before a worldie from Tom Lawrence and a penalty for the hosts had them 2-0 up at half time and it was effectively game over.
I could go on and on, you get the picture. Being punished for not taking our chances after playing with plenty of promise, combined with endlessly making defensive mistakes that have been punished, has been the story of our last three seasons. This season, that has completely flipped on its head.
On Tuesday it was Coventry who played well in the first half, missing a number of golden opportunities to go ahead, and it was us who went up the other end and showed our class to be able to capitalise on defensive mistakes and put Coventry to the sword.
We are now the team punishing other teams’ mistakes and being clinical in front of goal. We are now the team showing other teams how to finish their dinner, and showing other teams why we’re fighting for promotion and they’re not. And that is so good to see.
The question is: what is the difference between this season and last season, or the two seasons before for that matter? I think it's simple: confidence. Winning games gives you confidence, and confidence wins you games - it’s a beautiful cycle.
From the starting lineup against the Sky Blues, only Josh Laurent and Tom Holmes weren’t playing for the club last season, two players who have only scored one goal between them and very rarely get into goalscoring positions from open play (not that you have to necessarily get into ‘goalscoring positions’ to actually score, right Swifty?)
What I'm trying to get at is that the forward players - the likes of Meite, Joao, Puscas, Olise, Ejaria - were all at the club last season, at times showing plenty of promise, but ultimately failing to deliver when it mattered most, meaning we went on to lose games. This season, that promise and potential has turned into proper end product.
For example, last season, would Meite have scored the one-on-one to put us back in the lead against Bristol City? Would Puscas have had the composure to slot his shot past Ben Foster against Watford? The answer to those questions is probably no. And that's because Meite and Puscas were, probably, not very confident in their game - which meant that us fans weren’t very confident in them.
Of course, there is luck involved. There is always luck involved in football. But I still feel it’s more down to how much this team has grown and matured. You need that bit of luck for an opponent to make a defensive mistake, but you still need the composure and the ruthlessness to go on and finish it.
For a long time we haven’t had that composure or ruthlessness. Now we do. That’s the difference between a promising but failing team, which we were, and a winning team, which we are.
How good does it feel to be able to say that? We’re a winning team, a goal-scoring team, a team other sides don’t like playing against. But above all else, we’re a team that punish others rather than being punished - and those kinds of teams will always be up and around the top of the table.