The Reading manager has learned from defeat in the play-off final last season and the side are stronger for it
Reading kept their old year resolution to the last. A final win, their fourth successive clean sheet, was not pretty. Ipswich matched them for endeavour at the Madejski. But one moment of distraction was enough. Beyond the hour Alex Pearce rose to Jobi McAnuff's free-kick and headed home with unopposed emphasis. Hanging on after that was no problem. Seven wins in nine games have taken Reading from 16th to fifth in the Championship.
Their manager, Brian McDermott, had no trouble explaining it. "We have real heart in that dressing room. We were terrific for reasons other than quality," he said. "It wasn't a vintage performance with the ball but it was terrific because of our attitude and desire." In the 80th minute the striker Simon Church raced 40 yards across the Ipswich penalty area to block the goalkeeper's clearance. "It epitomised a will to win. We have learned the details to see out games," said the manager.
He is comparatively new to the role at this level. Having started with Reading as chief scout in 2000, he took over as caretaker in December 2009, when Brendan Rodgers was dismissed after six months and Reading, seeking a way back to the Premier League, were 20th. They finished ninth that season and fifth last, losing the play-off final 4-2 to Swansea, managed by Rodgers. They also beat two Premier League sides in each season, including Liverpool at Anfield, in reaching the last eight of the FA Cup. McDermott's touch has been little short of golden and promotion last May might have been premature.
McDermott admits it. "I didn't see too much good coming out of it at the time but I do now. It is a great learning curve. I feel stronger for it." They all say that of adversity but McDermott seems to be going from strength to strength. He was already learning at half-time in that Wembley defeat, when Swansea led 3-0. "I remember walking into that dressing room very slowly. If you're going to panic, panic slowly." Hairdryers and flying teacups are not the only way. There was no panic early this season when the Royals lost four in a row and lay 23rd. "I understood it," he says, acknowledging the summer exits of Shane Long and Matt Mills, attacker and defender, for £10m, and the need to regroup.
The one-time caretaker is still quietly taking care at 50. Though he started as a striker with Arsenal and was Sweden's player of the year in 1984 on the back of 17 games for IFK Norrkoping, he has been pleased to ply his post-playing trade in the area of his birth in Slough. Crowds, near 24,000 in the top tier, are rising again above 18,500. There is a stirring in the royal county of things about to happen.
For the most part on Saturday they did not quite happen. Ipswich, enjoying a turn of form after seven defeats running, were doughty opponents and on both sides the closers-down ruled the openers-up. Jimmy Kébé tied himself in knots when Aaron Cresswell did not stop him. McAnuff on the other wing made little better headway. Paul Jewell, the visiting manager, had done his homework on Reading's favoured lines of attack.
Chances were few, the search frantic. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas had the best, skimming the Reading bar from 30 yards and seeing a close effort well held by Adam Federici. But the keeper should beware of releasing his punts from a pace outside the penalty area. Sharper linesmen would have flagged him. Pearce took no chances. Local like his manager, he is growing into a figure of authority in defence beside Kaspars Gorkss, newly from QPR.
Reading's season illustrates the beauty of the division. The downs and ups make it more exciting than snakes and ladders. Six wins in seven games have seen Burnley tailing Reading from 15th to seventh; two in two have restored Coventry to the pack and confirmed the managers' platitude of "no easy games in this division" – as if they might have been talking about another.
Reading certainly do not have one on Monday. They go to Cardiff, a place above. They go on the back of a calendar year that has yielded 82 Championship points, second equal with Cardiff to Middlesbrough with 83. They will need all the old resolution for the new year and will panic only slowly.