I’ve found this season mentally taxing to be completely honest with you. We finished 2021/22 with Reading Football Club at its lowest status in recent memory and expectations heading into 2022/23 were depressingly bleak. Even when the Royals reached the very summit of the table with a 1-0 win at Millwall, the focus was still on what it meant for Reading’s chances of avoiding relegation - not of finishing in the top six.
Seemingly every aspect of 2022/23 has been set against the backdrop of anxiety about Reading’s long-term future, not against hope of how well things might turn out. Glass half full not glass half empty. That has of course been the logical way of looking at things; after the last few years, how can it not be? But for fans yearning for the good times to return, it's pretty bleak that staying in the Championship must for now remain the extent of our ambition.
At this stage it’s hard to tell how the rest of Reading’s season will play out. We could be in for a boring mid-table finish, a slow slide towards the bottom three that ends with Reading limping over the finish line, or even the dreaded third option I’d rather not countenance.
We can park those worries for the time being though. The immediate order of business is Reading’s fourth-round FA Cup trip to Old Trafford which, on the face of it, doesn’t inspire much more cause for excitement than regular league action. After all, the game has been callously scheduled for an 8pm Saturday kick-off and priced at £46 - a double-barrelled insult to match-going fans at any time, let alone in the middle of a cost of living crisis. And while take-up for tickets was surprisingly rapid (the Royals sold out the 3,000+ allocation in a mere half hour), there’s still plenty of broader apathy for a tie we’ve had to endure multiple times in the last decade.
And yes, Reading will very probably lose. Whether we get a pasting, are edged out in a seven-goal thriller or put up a surprisingly good fight and are ultimately edged out, the signs all point to a home win.
We might not though. We might yet win it. It feels daft to even type that, but illogically hoping for something daft to happen is the essence of football, and certainly of the FA Cup. Opportunities to dream a little bigger - however foolishly - don’t come along very often for this club, but Saturday’s match against the footballing elite in front of a global audience is one such occasion.
I hate the fact that Reading are given such scant regard in the build-up to games such as this, and that 90%+ of our own manager’s pre-match media questions are about the opposition. Reading Football Club will never sell as many papers or drive as much revenue as Manchester United, but come on guys, there are two teams in this tie.
So I dearly love the idea that we might spoil the party, the idea that we might be in for one of the most famous nights in Reading Football Club’s history. Go on, picture it, you know you want to. Andy Carroll towering above Lisandro Martinez to power home a 92nd-minute winner. Joe Lumley denying Marcus Rashford with a world-class save in the dying moments. Tom Ince crashing a 30-yard free kick past a helpless David De Gea.
It’s silly, naive and downright daft to think any of those things will happen, but you just never know. Giants are there to be slain.
So, of course, Reading should take this game seriously and go for it. No ringing the changes, no resting key players, just go for it. After last Saturday’s battering at Stoke City I don’t know what the Royals’ best XI is right now - I doubt Paul Ince does either for that matter - but his best XI is what he should put out.
I can certainly see the opposite view. Adam set out eloquently why the league must be Reading’s priority and, therefore, key players should be rested. Paul Ince himself called the match a “distraction”.
I’d be likelier to agree if the fixture schedule were different though. Reading went into the third-round tie against Watford in need of a breather after an intense festive schedule and, accordingly, rung the changes. However, the Royals haven’t had a mid-week game since that Watford win and won’t do so until mid-February when Rotherham United come to town on Valentine’s Day.
Ince therefore has the leeway to put out a well-rested and strong XI against both Manchester United and Watford. It’s not an either/or. Sure, there’s always the risk that someone will get injured, but the actual likelihood of that happening is no greater than for any league game and mustn’t be the overriding concern for this huge match.
This game also isn’t merely a curiosity or sideshow - it can have a positive impact for Reading’s league form too. I wrote before the Watford win that a big performance in the FA Cup - even in defeat - can be a real boost for the Royals’ league form. After all, it’s happened before: at Old Trafford no less.
There’s no shame being outclassed by one of the best sides in the country, even if we lose comfortably. There is shame however in not giving it our best shot.
Que sera, sera.