READING FC conceded after 38 second as they suffered their heaviest defeat of the Championship season after a 4-0 thumping at title-chasing Sheffield United.

A miserable afternoon for Jose Gomes’ men at Bramall Lane began when Keiron Freeman put Blades in front in the first minute before a Gary Madine brace gave them a 3-0 lead at the interval.

Hopes of the unlikeliest of comebacks were then dashed when John Fleck added a fourth early in the second half as Chris Wilder’s hosts climbed up to second in the table.

Gomes’ men were always firm underdogs, with Reading boasting just one away win all season.

But few expected such a collapse from a side that had kept four clean sheets in Gomes’ nine games in charge before today and were looking much harder to beat.

On this evidence, Reading’s chances of staying up look anything but certain. They remain above the relegation zone on goal difference from Rotherham – the side they face in a massive six-pointer at Madejski Stadium next weekend.

And Gomes will need all of his managerial skills to restore his players’ confidence after the bashing they took by Blades who, on another day, could have won by a bigger margin.

The Portuguese manager made three changes from the side that beat Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday night.

Fresh legs arrived in the form of Yakou Meite, Mo Barrow and Lewis Baker with John Swift, Sone Aluko and Tyler Blackett dropping out.

Aluko and Blackett did not make the matchday squad while Swift, surprisingly, started on the bench despite a goal and an assist in the 2-1 midweek victory.

Blades boss Chris Wilder made four changes from their impressive home win over Middlesbrough on Wednesday including a debut for Scott Hogan and home debut for Madine.

Ex-Reading midfielder Oliver Norwood started for the Blades while former loan striker Billy Sharp, with 23 goals this season, was on their bench.

Royals were given a lift when relegation rivals Rotherham were pegged back by Sheffield Wednesday in stoppage time in a 2-2 draw in the early kick-off which kept Gomes’ men out of the bottom three.

But hopes of shocking Sheffield United today looked extremely bleak when they conceded with just 38 second on the clock.

Reading gave away possession from the kick off by punting the ball long, allowing the Blades to break.

Mark Duffy then got better of Andy Yiadom and whipped over a cross to Freeman who slid in at the back post to score from close range.

Royals were fortune to escape again in the eighth minute when Enda Stevens headed wide of a gaping net from a Martin Cranie assist.

But they weren’t so lucky when more sloppy decision-making saw Blades grab their second in the 16th minute after.

Liam Kelly had just returned to the field after receiving treatment on his ankle and was not ready to receive a pass from keeper Emi Martinez.

Royals’ midfielder was easily brushed off the ball which eventually came to Madine, who smashed it past Martinez from 10 yards out.

It was also the end of Kelly’s afternoon and he soon limped off, with Swift coming.

Further chances came for the hosts, Fleck bursting through the middle before drawing a fine save from Martinez low to his right.

The best Reading could muster were a couple of speculative efforts from Baker and Barrow and a shot from Meite that Dean Henderson comfortably dealt with.

Blades were far more threatening at the other end with Matt Miazga producing a crucial block to deny Hogan on the half-hour mark.

Duffy was then given too much space to curl an effort into Martinez’s hands from 25 yards.

A decent spell ensured for the visitors, but every attack they had broke down in the final third.

By stark contract, Blades were razor sharp in that department and proved it again by grabbing a third a minute before the break.

It was too easy for United as Johnson’s cross reached the unmarked Madine, who had the simple task of firing into the roof of the net for his second of the day.

It was now a case of damage limitation so Gomes made a change at the break by replacing Ovie Ejaria with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson.

Yet within four minutes of the restart they were four down.

Madine waltzed through Reading’s midfield before passing to Fleck, whose shot took a wicked deflection off Hogan on its way past a helpless Martinez.

Moments later it might have been worse but for decent stops by Martinez to deny both Norwood and Hogan.

Then Marvin Johnson missed two clear-cut chances for the home side when he fired into the side netting and also straight at Martinez when he had players in support both times.

Meite, who shook off two heavy challenges, offered a rare reply with a left-footed drive that flew narrowly wide with 15 minutes to go.

By that stage Blades had taken their foot off the gas a little. Even so, they went close to snatching a fifth when Duffy sent Hogan clear, only for Martinez to make a brilliant save with nine minutes remaining.

Royals hit back with McCleary setting up Swift, who sadly missed the target from close range.

Baker also woke Henderson up with a powerful drive from distance that required all the Blades keeper’s attention. The on-loan Chelsea midfielder then put a free-kick a foot wide of the Blades post.

It was, of course, far too little far too late after a performance Royals will want to forget in a hurry.

Sheffield United: Henderson, Cranie, Stevens, Egan, Freeman (Stearman 77), Norwood (Coutts 72) Fleck, Duffy, Johnson, Madine (Dowell 84), Hogan. Subs not used: Lundstram, Sharp, McGoldrick, Moore. Booked: Norwood 13, Cranie 57.

Reading: Martinez, Richards, Moore, Miazga, Yiadom, Baker, Kelly (Swift 19), Barrow, Ejaria (Bodvarsson 46), Meite, Oliveira (McCleary 75). Subs not used: Walker, Gunter, O’Shea, Harriott. Booked: Swift 71.

Referee: Robert Jones.

Attendance: 26,513 (Reading 569).