Two players who may keep Reading up

Posted by Jon Keen

Alex McCarthyPA PhotosAlex McCarthy could be key for Reading this season

At the start of the season, most observers reckoned they had a pretty good idea of who would make up the bulk of Reading's starting XI. But over the opening games of the season, two players who many thought would spend this season mainly as bench-warming squad players have fought their way into serious contention. Their performances this season may just be critical in determining whether Reading manage to avoid being swallowed by the dreaded relegation monster come April next year.

The first of these is Alex McCarthy, who now seems to be the man in possession of the goalkeeper's shirt. He replaced Adam Federici between the posts for Reading's third Premier League match of the season, against Spurs, in controversial circumstances - or at least they were controversial according to Federici and his girlfriend's Twitter feed.

There was no doubting McCarthy's potential, as he has played for England at Under-21 level and had successful loan spells last season at Leeds and Ipswich, the spell at Elland Road earning particular praise. This came on top of a run of 15 games for Reading in their unbeaten charge to the Championship play-off final the previous season. In fact, many observers felt that McCarthy was hard done by to be dropped in favour of Federici shortly before the end of the season, once the Australian had returned to full fitness.

But despite the heart-breaking play-off defeat at Wembley, Reading came back stronger the next season to gain promotion, with Federici in inspired form all year. It was fully anticipated by all that Federici would carry this outstanding form into the Premier League, but errors against Stoke and Chelsea forced a rethink and, amid rumours of Federici carrying a minor injury, McCarthy was given the nod to start against Spurs.

But in his first Premier League match he definitely showed some nerves - first being caught in possession by Jermain Defoe and later throwing the ball into the path of the Spurs attacker. Fortunately, though, his defence rescued him from total embarrassment from both of these, and the three goals Spurs scored at the MadStad were all clinical finishes, virtually unsaveable.

Since then, McCarthy has grown in stature and in confidence, and now looks secure in the position - he has an aura of calm command over his box and received rave reviews for his string of top-class saves in Reading's 2-2 draw at Swansea last week, where he almost single-handedly kept Royals in the game. It's been commented by Loyal Royals that McCarthy looks as though he were born to play in goal, and he can only get better as he gets more experience at this level, so undoubtedly he'll play a big part in Reading's struggle for survival this season. And Adam Federici potentially now faces a long wait to get the goalkeeper's position back. McCarthy has the shirt and it's now his to lose.

The second player who has forced his way into the starting line-up is Noel Hunt. With the Royals since July 2008, he's been a regular starter when fit, but has also suffered from numerous injuries which have restricted his chances during this time. He played a big part in the Championship-winning team, but many had written off his chances of being a regular starter in the higher lever - and there was even speculation that he'd leave the club for Celtic in the summer.

His chances of being no more than a bit-part player seemed confirmed when he was substitute in Reading's first four Premier League matches, coming off the bench in the last 10-20 minutes of each match. But after an energetic and barnstorming performance in the Capital One Cup victory over QPR at Loftus Road, Hunt has started the Royals' last two matches, and scored in both of them, with a deft header at home to Newcastle and a thumping volley at Swansea.

So what does Noel bring to the team that's seeing him picked ahead of Adam Le Fondre? In a couple of words, energy and enthusiasm. He doesn't seem as naturally talented as some other players, and he doesn't always approach the game in the orthodox way that others might, but what he lacks in some areas he more than makes up for in effort and determination. He's the ultimate example of a player who will give 110% and who will run until he drops, chasing proverbial lost causes and going for balls that other strikers might not bother with. He's also got one of the best leaps in the game, often out-jumping defenders the best part of a foot taller than his diminutive 5' 6" frame.

In an unexpected and unorthodox package, he brings something a bit different to Reading's forward line, and he has an amazing knack of making things happen - when Noel Hunt is up front, opposition defences can't relax and know they'll be given no time on the ball, and his liveliness and gusto also seem to galvanise whoever he plays alongside. Although it's not yet clear whether that will be Pavel Pogrebynak or Jason Roberts in the long term, it does seem that Hunt's enthusiasm has forced him back into contention, and the team looks much more lively and likely to create changes when he's playing.

So, Alex McCarthy and Noel Hunt have the chance to be unexpected heroes and to play a bit part in keeping Reading up - it now just remains to be seen who else will step up to the mark and play their part too.

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