By Rob Atkinson
No prodigal son returns to his long-time home without a tremor of apprehension. What will the reception be like? Will they kill the fatted calf, or slag me off good and proper? Such are the doubts and anxieties that swirl around in the mind of the former hero as he crosses a familiar threshold for the first time since an unwilling departure. But when Brian McDermott ventures back to the Madejski Stadium with his Leeds United charges on Wednesday evening, he need surely have no such thoughts. A standing ovation is the least he will deserve, from both the home fans who miss him and the away fans who idolise him.
McDermott's record at Reading FC was one of spectacular achievement on a shoestring budget; just the recipe for success he's trying to concoct at Elland Road. He took Reading up, scorching to a Championship title success from way back in the field. When they inexplicably sacked him, McDermott was just beginning to coax Premier League performances out of his largely unimproved Championship winners. That he has since thanked his former bosses for the dismissal - that gave him the chance of the Leeds job - does not detract from the sting of that dismissal. Brian will surely want to make a point, or three, when he goes back to his former place of work.
On form alone, Leeds should be capable of securing something from Wednesday night's encounter. Their away record, particularly, has been solid in terms of results and the worrying tendency to be pinned back seems to have lessened since the addition of Scott Wootton has brought some command and composure to the defence. In midfield, Rudy Austin has snapped into tackles, anticipated play well enough to make some timely interceptions and has unleashed a couple of long-range bombs that promise spectacular results sooner or later. Luke Murphy has provided some class and composure on the ball, and Paul Green buzzes about, making life difficult for the opposition, breaking up play.
Width, or the lack of it, is a problem that the recruitment policy has failed to address, but the imminent returns of Byram and Diouf, the latter having already made a telling cameo appearance against QPR, could offer at least a temporary solution there. Byram, having played some successful reserves football in recent weeks, should figure in the matchday squad at Reading. Up front, Varney looks ever more threatening, Matt Smith is there to reinforce the aerial threat from the bench, Ross McCormack offers international class into the mix, Dom Poleon can be relied upon, currently, as an impact sub and Noel Hunt is showing signs of turning endless endeavour into something more solid at any moment. The balance looks better as the season goes on, the team spirit stands out a mile.
A United squad still that touch short of the class needed for a serious assault on the automatic places is, nevertheless, doing quite well thank you, for the moment. Even un-augmented, there is every chance of a play-offs challenge - and with a couple of judicious signings, then who knows? Reading, on the other hand, have been there and done that - they know what is required to vault out of this league without the need for tiresome end-of-season lotteries. Yet they seem to lack the sparkle and togetherness typical of days of yore. Their efforts against fellow top-end aspirants Brighton on Sunday were less than impressive, particularly in a first-half that saw both sides reduced to ten men. That game finished scoreless and boss Nigel Adkins made positive noises about the second clean sheet in a row - but he will surely want to see more end-product from wide positions against Leeds.
A point apiece would not be a big surprise from this match, though Leeds will harbour optimistic hopes of a third successive away victory. Whether that can be delivered might just depend upon a Reading old boy in Hunt, who did show real signs on Saturday at Bolton that he might be about to hit better form to add to his unstinting work-rate. If Noel Hunt can deliver, then it might just be a very happy homecoming for ex-Royal and now Leeds United King, Brian McDermott.