The Return of Big Doris
By Matt Rowson
It's the quiet ones you have to watch. Agatha Christie would have known... it's always the guy that comes in twice a week to polish the silver who nobody notices wot dunnit.
How many people would have predicted such a comprehensive, runaway triumph for the Royals this season? Not many, if a straw-poll conducted in August by occasional BSaD contributor Jon Marks is anything to go by. Fourteen views solicited, four play-off place nominations was all Reading came back with. Several seasons of being pretty-good-but-not-quite-good-enough plus a £1m punt on Bristol City's Leroy Lita, a couple of lads from Ireland and a few other lower-key squad signings (including Boris) didn't suggest that last season's seventh was going to miraculously transform into a runaway lead.
As the season kicked off, it was Sheffield United and not Reading who attracted immediate attention for their good start, much as Steve Coppell's side were comfortably riding on their coat-tails. And when the Royals finally slipped past the Blades in late November it almost went unnoticed. Admittedly it's kinda easier to go unnoticed when you have a manager whose mumbled, low-key comments have to compete with a runaway wind turbine up in South Yorkshire, but nonetheless...
Even now, fourteen points clear of second, twenty clear of the play-offs, assured of a play-off place in early March and potentially promoted by the end of the month, it's astonishing how... neutral one feels about Reading. Surely this isn't right? Such an awesome achievement really ought to provoke some kind of emotion, be it bitter resentment or glowing admiration? Nope. I just don't give a toss...
Which isn't to say that Saturday's game isn't enormously significant. After our wobble against Derby, on the tail of two relatively unconvincing victories and a defeat at Leeds (chaotic, inspiring, monumental, but still a defeat) a side with both the best goalscoring record and best defensive record in the division is more than capable of causing us further problems, quite obviously. But I can't help but feel that this has fallen well for us, and not just because of our hosts' recent injuries... Reading away was always going to be difficult, but was always also going to be a big, one-off game. Form is irrelevant; if we really are going to keep pressure up on the Blades (which provides good entertainment irrespective of how it turns out) then this is a game to get a result from. Just like Sunderland, last time we went up...
Bring. It. On.
Marcus Hahnemann will be in goal for Reading; not selected for the USA's recent friendly, but ostensibly still third-choice keeper for the national side and on his way to the World Cup in the summer. As Betty has evidently noted, now is not a time when international fringe players will want to let their performances slacken off. The last league game that Reading played without him was at Vicarage Road in 2004, when Ashley Young's goal decided the game. Graham Stack, on loan from Arsenal, will be on the bench; he last faced us when on loan at Millwall last season.
Right back and skipper is the hugely experienced Graeme Murty; he was a winger in the York side that we faced in Division Three almost a decade ago, but has been Reading's right-back ever since. He reportedly had a relatively dodgy game at Burnley, however, and his game tends to suffer when playing behind the defensively challenged John Oster as he's unable to overlap with confidence. Left back is the very capable Nicky Shorey, who Reading's official site report as having started a hotel-room fire with Doris on a summer tour in Sweden a couple of years ago...
In the centre, a popular combo of Ibrahima Sonko and Ivar Ingimarsson. Senegalese Sonko scored an early opener in this tie last season, but is reported to have a tendency to faff around on the ball, which he'd be well advised to avoid in Marlon's vicinity.
Chris Makin, Scott Golbourne and John Halls have arrived at different points in the season from Derby, Bristol City and Stoke respectively to add cover in defensive positions; Halls and Golbourne have yet appear for the Royals in the league.
Two fixtures in the midfield are likely to be missing on Saturday. Steve Sidwell is perhaps the higher profile; he's not a definite non-starter, but a thigh injury is expected to keep him out. However the Sidwell/James Harper combination has been criticised for being too lightweight, and the players too similar to work together in the longer term; as such the introduction of former Hornet Boris Gunnarsson for Sidwell might do the home side a few favours. The heavyweight battle between Gunnarsson and Mahon could be interesting...
More of an issue for the home side will be the absence of Glen Little on the right, out with a groin injury that he aggravated by rushing back to face old side Burnley last weekend. His deputy is the far less intimidating John Oster, a flaky waste-of-space who must be on his last dog's chance in this division; not a player I had expected Steve Coppell to recruit. An alternative on the right would be the tenacious Steve Hunt, one of several ex-Brentford faces, but he tends to be introduced from the bench. On the left, another US international Bobby Convey, who has sparkled into life this season following a less convincing first year in Berkshire.
Up front, Leroy Lita's unfortunate ankle injury has ended his season, but it's Kevin Doyle, a summer steal from Cork City, who is deemed the most important of Reading's front men at the moment; he won his first cap for Ireland against Sweden last week and has fifteen goals in all competitions. In Lita's absence, he will partner the abrasive Dave Kitson; a very capable forward line, but cover is a little thinner on the ground now. Either Shane Long, recruited from Cork with Doyle, or Simon Cox, another teenager, will be on the bench.
From our point of view, Saturday sees the welcome return of Big Doris against his former club. All things considered we'd have taken seven points from his three games out, but I'm looking forward to seeing Doris, Marlon and Ashley in full flight again. To reiterate, we've yet to disappoint as an attacking force with those three in the starting line-up. Saturday is still a tall order, a big challenge.
But then so was Bramall Lane.
Bring it on.