Reading’s defence is looking stronger than ever, as Joseph Mills, brother of the leader of that defence, arrives at the Madejski next weekend. After Saturday’s win, Reading now have one of the best defences in the league, second only to QPR. With only 12 goals conceded this season, Adam Federici and his defenders in front of him are doing a terrific job for the club.
Federici himself is in many ways the star of the show. Oozing determination to get a clean sheet in every game, he has pulled off several acrobatic saves, most recently denying Stephen Dobbie from close range against Swansea, showing excellent reflexes. By now, the East Stand has got used to chanting Federici’s name, and the Aussie keeper’s brilliant performances have eclipsed any nostalgia for the now-Wolves keeper Marcus Hahnemann.
The Royals’ inspirational sometimes-captain, Matthew Mills, has made the centre of defence his own since moving to the club from this weekend’s opponents, Doncaster Rovers. With his pace, calm assurance and prodigious heading ability, he has been a welcome change to many Reading fans after years of red card-prone and erratic defenders like Ibrahima Sonko and Andre Bikey. It is now hard to imagine anyone other than Mills anchoring Reading’s defence. With Ingimarsson on the wane, it seems likely that Mills will keep the captain’s armband for the foreseeable future.
Suspensions have cause fluctuation in the centre of Reading’s defence, but Zurab Khizanishvilli has now settled in alongside Mills. The Georgian international, on loan from Blackburn Rovers, has become a favourite with Reading fans. On the pitch, he really is the picture of a solid, dependable centre back. Whether or not players such as Alex Pearce and Ivar Ingimarsson can effectively replace the 29-year-old when he returns to Blackburn at the end of the season remains to be seen, but for now Reading are enjoying the fruits of this wily and experienced defender.
Experience is something of a theme in Reading’s defence, and no one in the team has more experience than Ian Harte. During his time at late 90s Leeds United, he played in the Champions League against Barcelona, AC Milan, Lazio and Real Madrid, not to mention the fact that he scored against Arsenal at Highbury in three consecutive seasons. After Leeds were relegated Harte, despite rumours of big-money moves to clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, ended up at La Liga minnow Levante. The Republic of Ireland international started his Spanish career well, but after a while, injury troubles forced him out of the first team and, eventually, the club. After spending some time drifting from club to club on trials, Ian Harte returned to the Football League on a full-time basis last season for Carlisle. After being selected in the PFA Football League One’s Team of the Season, he attracted the notice of Brian McDermott and is now, of course, one of Reading’s star performers. Not only does Harte not let much by, he lends a lot to the attack as well. While he may not be the sort of full-back who flies down the wing like Liam Rosenior, Nicky Shorey or Marcus Williams, his free-kick ability is a real bonus, as Reading fans discovered on Harte’s fourth appearance when he curled in a stunning free kick against Barnsley. While the 33-year-old’s lack of pace can be a problem when he’s up against people like Nathan Dyer, his canny play and huge knowledge of the game can usually get him out of trouble.
If I had to pick a weak link in Reading’s superb defence, it would be Andy Griffin. However, this would probably only be because of his recent absence from the first team through injury. Shaun Cummings played very well during that period, and personally I would like to see him picked over the former Stoke, Derby and Portsmouth defender. Shaun Cummings, ten years Griffin’s junior, is one of a few Reading players with a bright future ahead of him. Like Robson-Kanu, Karacan and Church, Cummings needs some game time to help him progress in his career. But Andy Griffin, like Harte, is vastly experienced, and knows the game as well as anyone. And anyway, what Reading fan can keep a smile off their face when Griffin kills the danger with an overhead clearance?