Is it safe to peek through my fingers yet? Last Saturday was one of those days. The match at Upton Park was one of the most important of the season. Lose, and West Ham would once again take control of second place. Winning, no mean feat in itself, would open up a four point gap between ourselves and the play-offs. So that’s exactly what we did.
It wasn’t the greatest first half performance. West Ham had 80% of the possession in the first 30 minutes, and they were closing down balls as if they had 15 men on the pitch. The fact that we came away 4-2 winners, had a fifth wrongly ruled out and pretty much soaked up all the pressure was fantastic. It was such an excellent result that in the hours following the game, added with Blackpool’s hammering of Southampton, I felt so confident that we were in the right mindset to go up automatically this season.
But then I remembered the remaining fixture list, and that’s a sobering thought in itself. If we are to achieve access to the promised land, we’re truly going to have to earn it. There’s a lot of football yet to be played. The next six matches are as follows:
– Leeds United (H)
– Brighton & Hove Albion (A)
– Southampton (A)
– Nottingham Forest (H)
– Crystal Palace (H)
– Birmingham (A)
Hardly what you’d call an easy run-in. When compared to the same six games of Southampton and West Ham’s, ours is by far the toughest. Leeds always prove stern opposition, and when we barely scraped a 0-0 draw at this time last season it rocked our form. Brighton have run up the table in recent weeks, and the AMEX will surely be rocking when we go down there for what they see as a bit of a derby. Then we have to go to St. Mary’s for a possible top placed showdown which could really go down to the wire. There’s the potential to clinch promotion if everything has gone our way by that time.
It all depends on what kind of form both teams take into the tie. The last game both sides played at the Madejski was a cracker, and with so much more at stake this time it could be one of the games of the Championship season. Forest and Palace both have the potential to cause upsets, especially if the latter are fighting against relegation, but I believe they could be overcome without too much bother. Which leaves us with Birmingham. Hopefully it won’t come right down to the last day, because a promotion decider at St. Andrews only brings back bad memories from the Coppell Capitulation in 2008/09. That year we were comprehensively dumped out of the playoffs by eventual winners Burnley, and I don’t fancy a repeat.
One saving grace, along with our ridiculous 11-wins-in-13-games form, is the strength in depth that we have at the club. I don’t think I’ve seen a team as strong as this since the Premiership years. They say never change a winning team, and Brian has pretty much stuck to his guns throughout this amazing run, but as we saw on Saturday, players can get injured, and those that come in have hardly harmed their own reputations. Karacan and his replacement Tabb both had to go off at Upton Park, so Robson-Kanu – a bench regular came on, and McAnuff shifted into the middle. McAnuff kept spraying passes from the centre, whilst Robson-Kanu showed flashes of pace and skill to beat several players during the 25 minutes he was on for.
Add to that the likes of Tomasz Cwyka, Joseph Mills and Andy Griffin who don’t even make the bench and Le Fondre, Mullins, Connolly and Andersen who occupied the injury table, and we’re a team beaming with confidence and talent. Afobe came off the bench to replace Kebe on the right side, and impressed, despite it not being his natural position. It’ll be interesting to see how Brian juggles things with the games coming thick and fast over the next month, but he’s praised those not making the starting 11.
“When I got this job I promised myself two things – I’d try to win every game and I would go with my gut on every decision and never question that. Even if it seems harsh. We want to be happy but this is not a soft environment, it’s a focused environment. The toughest part of the job is telling people they are not playing. I have a quote from Cantona up in the dining room: ‘I was a small piece of the jigsaw, but I was never more important than the Team’. I want everyone to feel they are a valued part of what we are doing.
“I spoke to Churchy and Alfie, they’re really important to me. Their reaction was first class. I agonised over the decision, it was a big decision for me but their reaction sums up the group. They both want the team and the club to do well.”
Slowly, I’m beginning to believe more and more that we can do it. This could be our year. There’s still plenty of football to play, but it’s looking good. C’mon you Royals, it’s now or never. This is it.
Written by Ben Barker, We Are Going Up’s Reading blogger
Ben tweets at @benjambarker