Jason Roberts' exile from the Premier League might be mercifully brief. He left Blackburn Rovers for Reading last month, but after orchestrating consecutive wins over Bristol City and Coventry City, he finds only goal difference separating his new team from the play-off places.
With Reading threatening another of their spring-time surges up the table, Roberts is clearly pleased with the ethos and the atmosphere he has found at the Madejski Stadium. "I have been in the game long enough to tell, the fact that everybody is pulling in the same direction, the fact that there is a good work ethic and good team spirit," he said after Saturday's 2-0 win over Coventry, in which he made one goal and scored the other. "Today was not a vintage performance, but there is a lot of credit that goes to the squad because there were a lot who didn't get on the bench who have been performing fantastically."
Accelerating down the final straight has become a habit of Brian McDermott's side. In both his full seasons as manager, Reading have won six of their final eight home games. With the imminent takeover by Russian billionaire Anton Zingarevich funding the January recruitment of Roberts and Matthew Connolly, Reading are in an especially strong position to return to the top flight.
"It's obviously different to the Premier League but there is a big challenge here," Roberts said. "Good people, a good club; I am really happy to be part of it at a good time. We are in a good place as a squad."
On Saturday, Roberts was the continual reference point for his team-mates. Their first instinct was always to look for him and, more often than not, they were rewarded. Roberts moved with the intelligence of a top-flight forward, an impression strengthened by the precision of his touch. His delightful backheel to Jimmy Kébé set up Reading's first goal.
McDermott is clearly delighted by the impact Roberts has made already, one that goes beyond mere football. "It's just having him around, really: as a focal point for our attack and as a person as well," he said. "He's a great lad; the lads gravitate toward him, they like having him around the place. And he can hold the ball up and keep it, and we can build off him."
Roberts' goal came in the final minutes of the first half, bundling in Connolly's header from almost insultingly close range. "It could have come off anywhere," Roberts admitted afterwards. "Where does it rank? Not up there, but it won't say it was a good goal in the Rothmans."
Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici, one of the few remaining from Steve Coppell's Premier League side, is thrilled about the possibility of a return. "I was fortunate enough to get a little taste and make a few appearances," he remembered. "I've seen what it does for the town and the club. It's where everyone wants to play and everyone wants to be. Hopefully we can push ourselves this season."
Having been at Reading for seven years, Federici knows what a blessing the new investment is. "It is a boost, of course," he said. "This club has been fantastically run for a number of years without this financial backing but it's a great thing for the players and staff and the town to know there's extra financial backing."
Federici admitted that he had been obliged to make more saves than he expected by a tidy Coventry side. "It was a difficult day, very cold, bobbly pitch and tough for a goalkeeper," he said. "There were a lot of things around my feet and crosses to deal with."
After a quiet first half, Federici had to make three or four excellent second- half saves to preserve Reading's two-goal lead. "It's just disappointing because on another day we could have been talking about an away win," Coventry's Gary McSheffrey said. "But when Federici needed to make one or two great saves he has done it to keep Reading in the game and we've gifted them two goals."
Coventry are eight points adrift of safety, though, and McSheffrey conceded his fears about a relegation to the third tier: "It's not nice. I'm from Coventry and it wouldn't be nice to be part of the first team to go down into the third tier of English football. I was born in '82 and it's unheard of. We were always top tier until we came down and then second tier."
Tomorrow night Coventry host Leeds United, and McSheffrey knows how important victory is. "It's frustrating, but just one win and it can change," he said. "We've just got to keep believing because as soon as you stop believing it becomes a bit embarrassing. We've got 16 games left – that's 48 points to play for. We've got to play everyone in the bottom half."
Reading: FEDERICI 8/10; CONNOLLY 7; PEARCE 6; GORKSS 6; HARTE 6; KEBE 8; KARCAN 6; LEIGERTWOOD 5; MILLS 5; HUNT 6; ROBERTS 8;
Coventry: MURPHY 6; WOOD 5; CRANIE 6; KEOGH 6; CHRISTIE 5; McSHEFFREY 7; NORWOOD 6; CLINGAN 7; DEEGAN 6; PLATT 5; NIMELY 8
Scorers: Reading Kebe 25, Roberts 43.
Substitutes: Reading Church 6 (Hunt, 67), Cywka (Kebe, 76), Tabb (Leigertwood, 87). Coventry City Clarke 6 (Wood, 7), Bell 6 (Clingan, 59), Baker (Deegan, 76).
Booked: Reading Leigertwood. Coventry Christie, Cranie, Clarke.
Man of the match Roberts. Match rating 6/10. Possession: Reading 51% Coventry 49%.
Attempts on target: Reading 5 Coventry 4.
Referee D Coote (Nottinghamshire). Attendance 18,006.