Reading are on a roll again. Last season, Brian McDermott's team embarked on an extraordinary run in the second half of their campaign to achieve promotion to the Premier League and, here, they emphatically disposed of Sheffield United to record their fourth win in a row and stoke hopes of another successful end to their season.
"Some people use the word 'distraction', but I love the FA Cup and believe a good Cup run can help in the league," McDermott said. "We always go on good runs after Christmas for some reason and if we can do that again we'll be in a good place come May."
Seven years ago these clubs graduated together from the Championship to the top flight, but the gulf that now separates them was palpable. McDermott made six changes to the side that won at Newcastle United in their last outing, but still saw his side put the Blades to the sword with little fuss.
It took them six minutes to seize the lead, Hal Robson-Kanu sending a cross from the right to the far post, where Noel Hunt – despite being relatively short – outjumped the defenders and headed the ball into the net.
Reading's wingers, Robson-Kanu and Garath McCleary, were a regular source of menace for the visitors, but in the 18th minute Nick Blackman showed that Sheffield United could threaten from out wide as well. The 23-year-old shimmied past Nicky Shorey on the right before driving to the byline and firing a low pass across the face of goal. Dave Kitson, returning to the club he served for five years, narrowly failed to apply a decisive touch.
It was easy to see why Crystal Palace have made a bid for Blackman as a long-term replacement for the Manchester United-bound Wilfried Zaha. Asked whether this may have been Blackman's last game for United, his manager, Danny Wilson, said: "I don't know. He's our top scorer and I'd like him to stay, but circumstances will prevail."
United squandered a couple of other chances to draw level in the first half, Chris Porter nodding wide from close range before Jamie Murphy shot straight at Adam Federici from 12 yards out. Reading's reaction to those close shaves was emphatic and, in the 40th minute, their captain, Mikele Leigertwood, received a pass 25 yards from goal and rocketed the ball into the top corner of the net.
The contest was settled five minutes into the second half when McCleary surged down the right and delivered a low cross for Hunt to score his second goal of the game. Four minutes later, Adam Le Fondre presented McCleary with a chance to claim the goal that his fine performance deserved and the winger duly took it, sidestepping Darryl Westlake before curling the ball into the net from 10 yards out.