Rampant Reading on the rise
At the Madejski Stadium
The same teams had been in the Championship's top six since January until Reading gatecrashed the party on Saturday - and the newcomers look like they intend to stick around.
Brian McDermott's team are the form horse in football's second tier as the Championship moves into the home straight and they must be considered as serious contenders to end a three-season wait to return to the Premier League.
Their victory over a dogged and determined Preston at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday evening was the Royals' fifth win a row. It was a doughty and forgettable match but produced the sort of victory that is crucial in any promotion campaign.
Reading are now undefeated in nine league fixtures and their run of form has come at a time when other, arguably more credible, promotion contenders have started to falter.
The Royals took the place of Nottingham Forest in the play-off zone and Billy Davies's
team are in an alarming slump in which they have collected only four points from eight games. The two teams meet on Saturday in what is sure to be a thunderous encounter.
Burnley have lost three of their last four, Leicester have one win in seven and, just when Watford had climbed to eighth, the Hornets have fallen away after back-to-back defeats.
Encouragingly for Reading, their excellent sequence of results has come despite a series of injury problems. Key players such as Noel Hunt, Mikele Leigertwood, Matt Mills, Andy Griffin and Shaun Cummings have been sidelined, but with no apparent impact on results.
Substitute Hal Robson-Kanu scored the winner against Preston a minute after his introduction and midfielder Jay Tabb told BBC Sport afterwards: "The manager told us after the game that he will use the entire squad between now and the end of the season. The quality of the squad at Reading is excellent and there is not much difference between the starting side and the second XI."
A big factor in Reading's success appears to be the togetherness that McDermott has engendered in his players. Royals skipper Mills summed up the mood in the squad when he said in Tuesday's matchday programme: "The results are more important than any single player. I know everyone would say we are in it together."
Long and McDermott have a very close relationship. Photo: AP
Tabb, who spent several seasons at both Brentford and Coventry, added: "Credit must go to the sort of characters that the manager has got in his squad. At other clubs you hear players slagging each other off in training and even during matches I have heard players from other teams tearing into each other. That doesn't happen at Reading, we are 100% behind each other."
McDermott, who turns 50 on Friday, recently signed a new 12-month rolling contract and chairman Sir John Madejski acknowledged that his manager's star is on the rise. McDermott has been at Reading for a decade, working first as chief scout and then as coach of various youth teams and the club's reserve side before taking over the first team following the departure of Brendan Rodgers in December 2009. He is a friendly and affable manager who makes time to speak to his players on an individual basis.
"He can definitely mix it up and dish out harsh words if they are required," added Tabb. "But he seems to know how to handle every different situation."
McDermott seems to understand how to make his players feel wanted, even if they are not playing regularly. A good example is Brynjar Gunnarsson, who is out of contract at the end of the season and could have switched off months ago. However, he has remained committed and slipped in admirably at right-back after a series of injuries to the club's established players in that position. Likewise, Brian Howard could have gone out on loan but opted to stay and has started the last three games.
Reading have the division's in-form striker in Republic of Ireland international Shane Long. Until the end of October he had found the net just twice for Reading, both of them penalties. He now has nine goals in his last 10 league games and 20 for the campaign, making him the second highest scorer in the Championship.
Long recently suggested that the Royals could yet burst into the top two, and after defeating Preston his side are now seven points adrift of Norwich in seventh. Automatic promotion may be an unrealistic target but the fact Long is even talking about it speaks volumes about the confidence in the squad.
"There are seven games left and we want 21 points," said Long after Tuesday's victory. "Why not? We are capable of it?"
Long arrived at Reading from Cork as an 18-year-old in June 2005, initially living at McDermott's house as he adjusted to life in England. The two men apparently share a love of playing the guitar, although the manager readily accepts that he is second best in that department. Until this season Long had made more substitute appearances than he had starts but McDermott has shown a lot of faith in him and the striker has flourished over recent months.
"Things have changed around for me," added Long. "Now I am disappointed when I do not score but I do not take too much notice of what people might be saying because they tend to jump on the bandwagon."
He is fast and skilful, confident and direct. He plays on the shoulder of opposition defenders and likes to shoot early. Reading started with a 4-2-3-1 formation against Preston, and Long often pulled wide to create space for his team-mates. He was arguably more effective when the introduction of Mathieu Manset meant a switch to 4-4-2, although Long disappointed with a late effort when he only had Iain Turner to beat, shooting tamely at the Preston keeper.
Several Reading players stressed that they are trying to deal with each match as it comes as they attempt to climb to out of the division. In stark contrast, Preston are simply desperate to stay in the Championship. It took North End 13 attempts to win under manager Phil Brown but they travelled to Reading on the back of three straight victories.
At one point earlier in the year North End looked dead and buried, a gargantuan 13 points from safety. Last Saturday their win over Swansea helped them climb off the bottom for the first time in 20 games. Tuesday halted their progress and they remain eight points adrift of 21st place with seven games remaining.
However, Brown, who at one time was talking about in terms of an open-top bus parade if his side stayed up, is now sounding distinctly bullish about avoiding the drop. Optimism has returned and with it some badly needed belief.
"There are plenty of rays of sunshine as far as I'm concerned," said Brown after the Reading match. "We have just given a very good account of ourselves against a team that is looking likely to get promotion."
Even so I suspect that North End's revival may have come too late and the second tier's longest-serving side is heading towards League One.
Whether Reading will also be waving farewell to the Championship is an altogether different question, but they are undoubtedly the team with the greatest momentum at the most important time of the season.