With eight wins in a row propelling Reading into the thick of the fight for an automatic promotion place to the Premier League, it is no surprise that comparisons are being made with the Royals side that took the Championship by storm five years ago. However, Brian McDermott, the manager, insists that his achievements thus far pale into insignificance besides those of Steve Coppell's team, who won the division by 16 points, scored 99 goals in the process and put together a 33-match unbeaten run that included a sequence of 10 successive victories.
"I haven't emulated anything Steve Coppell has done," McDermott said last week when the comparison was put to him. "His team won the Championship with 106 points. We've won a few games, but his is the best team that has ever been in this division. What he did at that time was incredible."
Reading, nevertheless, are the form team in the Championship. While the fortunes of the other contenders for the second automatic promotion place behind Queen's Park Rangers have ebbed and flowed, McDermott's men have won eight matches in a row, scoring 22 goals in the process, and are now fourth, three points behind second-placed Cardiff City. Only six weeks ago they were 14 points off second place, with fewer wins to their name than any other team in the top 14 positions.
Although the season's end is rapidly approaching – all the challengers for second place have just four fixtures left – it is far from fanciful to think that McDermott's team could be in an automatic promotion place as early as next weekend. They will go second if Norwich City fail to win at Ipswich Town on Thursday and if they win at Leeds United on Friday. Cardiff next play at home to Queen's Park Rangers on Saturday.
While there are no easy matches in this highly competitive division, Reading, who have a better goal difference than any of their closest rivals for second, appear to have a comparatively undemanding last three matches – Sheffield United and Derby County at home and Coventry City away.
McDermott, nevertheless, has not even mentioned the prospect of winning automatic promotion to his side. "I'm not looking at second place in the table, I'm just looking at our next game," he said after Saturday's emphatic 3-1 home victory over Leicester City.
Sven Goran Eriksson, the Leicester manager, whose own hopes of returning to the Premier League have faded in recent weeks, was less reticent in talking about his opponents' promotion prospects. "Reading have a good chance to go up," he said. "Their back line is very organised and experienced and difficult to break down. The big thing with Reading is when they go forward they are big and strong. If they get a chance to counter-attack they are very good."
McDermott has had to bide his time for a chance in League management. After ending a playing career that began with 61 appearances for Arsenal but finished in non-League football, the former striker managed Slough Town and Woking before joining Reading as chief scout 11 years ago.
He held a variety of positions under the management of Alan Pardew, Coppell and Brendan Rodgers, whose departure after little more than six months gave him his chance 16 months ago. Reading were 23rd in the table when McDermott was handed the job on a permanent basis after a short spell in caretaker charge.
Having managed the club's reserve and junior side, McDermott has known most of the current first-team squad for several years. He has worked largely with the squad he inherited, strengthening it with astute signings like those of the highly experienced Ian Harte and the loanees Mikele Leigertwood and Zurab Khizanishvili from QPR and Blackburn Rovers respectively. Shane Long has been his star performer, with 25 goals in all competitions this season – which has attracted the attention of several Premier League clubs – while the pace and trickery of Jobi McAnuff and Jimmy Kébé have unsettled most defences.
"I can't put my finger on the reasons for our run of success," McDermott said modestly. "It's a little bit of everything. The players have created a great group environment."