Momentum: there is nothing more vital in a promotion race, and nothing more necessary. Its influence will be tested tomorrow at Upton Park as Reading, the form team of the Football League, play West Ham United, whom they have just overtaken to move into second place in the Championship.
If West Ham's season has been a gradual, disheartening dip, Reading have been on the ascent ever since a poor start after their play-off final defeat to Swansea last season. Although the two teams' paths have only just crossed, they have been travelling in opposite directions for months.
Reading's thoughtful manager Brian McDermott, who signed a new contract last month despite interest from Wolves, is popular with players and fans. He praised their form yesterday, not as a spurt but as a sustained run of excellence. "If you look at the last 33 games," he said, removing Reading's poor start to the season, "you'd see that we'd have 69 points. The next-best team, Southampton, would have 63, then West Ham with 59 and Birmingham with 53. Over 30-odd games we're top of the league, by a very long way. Apart from our start, our form has been top of the league form."
Patience, McDermott said, was how Reading gathered their impetus. "When we were 20-whatever in the league, I tried to catch 20-whatever-was in front of us," he said. "And when we were 19th I tried to catch 18th. And when we were fifth I tried to catch fourth. That's how we do things, really. I just wanted to catch whoever was in front of us."
Reading do have good players, with veteran striker Jason Roberts, goalkeeper Adam Federici and defender Kaspars Gorkss all performing well, but teamwork seems to be at the root of their recent run. "When I get on that coach going to West Ham I know that I've got a group of men who are ready to play," McDermott said. "This group of players know what's required, and Jobi McAnuff's been skipper and has done a fantastic job."
McAnuff, who had a brief spell at West Ham, understands the pressures of Upton Park. While the Reading fans sing for their manager, the West Ham fans sing for Paolo Di Canio, and McAnuff believes Reading can exploit that tomorrow. "If we can start well and get the frustration and nerves going a bit then hopefully we can use it to our advantage," he said.
West Ham have drawn their last five home league games, and it does not take much for the fans' support to sour. "Their home form is somewhere they have slipped up a bit," McAnuff said. "I know more than most how difficult it can be, there is a massive expectation from the fans. We have proved we can finish games very strongly. We have to use that to our advantage and ramp up the frustration a little bit."
Reading may have to do it without Roberts, their inspiration January signing, who is an injury doubt. "He's brought such a lot to the football club, as a person and as a player," McDermott said. "People gravitate towards him, he's such a good guy. He's everything that's good about football."
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