Late, late Alfie header wins it
Nigel Adkins' side had dominated for long spells throughout, Danny Williams and Hal Robson-Kanu forcing Paddy Kenny into smart saves. But Ross McCormack whistled an effort inches over the Reading crossbar and Jason Pearce headed wide late on as Leeds threatened to steal it.
But it was substitute Adam Le Fondre, who had performed such heroics so many times for McDermott during his Royals reign, who headed home Williams' flick deep into injury time to send Madejski Stadium wild.
The game restarted and immediately the referee blew for full time. The win lifts Reading into seventh, although the glory of victory was marred by a serious-looking injury to Jem Karacan in the very early stages of the first half.
Yellow: Guthrie, Pearce
Subs: Cairns, Green, White, Mowatt, Hadji-Diouf.
The game kicked-off and only minutes into the match a Jem Karacan sliding tackle ended horribly for the Royals midfielder. Concern swept across Madejski Stadium after the midfielder, who broke his ankle against Leeds in our last meeting with them in April 2012, received treatment for a long, long spell before he was stretchered off the pitch to applause from all four stands.
It took a little white for the football to return to centre stage after such an unfortunate injury but when it did, Reading built a nice move through Drenthe and Bridge for the latter to float a cross to the far post. Nick Blackman arrived late and rose high but couldn't get a clean contact on it to direct it at goal.
And with a quarter of an hour gone, Danny Williams forced Paddy Kenny into a great save with a 20-yard drive that was set up by excellent work from Drenthe, Blackman and a strong Hal Robson-Kanu.
Robson-Kanu then tested Kenny when Williams flicked on from a long throw and Hal worked a yard to find a shot, only to fire it into the body of the grateful Kenny.
Luke Varney warmed Alex McCarthy's palms with a low shot that the former Leeds loanee confidently dealt with, then Drenthe had a shot charged down and Guthrie almost dinked a ball over the top into the path of Akpan only for Kenny to race off his line and collect.
Austin whistled a fearsome right-footed drive just wide of the right post as a few robust tackles flew in from both sides - the game had certainly recovered from its sombre start.
Another nice move down the right saw Blackman thread a ball through to Kelly who had found some space near the byline. He floated a cross into the middle but Leeds cleared the danger. Moments later Scott Wootton had to slide in to deflect a low Drenthe cross over his own crossbar as Reading ramped up the pressure.
Sean Morrison came within a whisker of breaking the deadlock five minutes before the break, nodding a Guthrie free kick just wide of the far post.
And two minutes later, a free-kick from virtually an identical position was headed inches over by the same centre-back, this time Drenthe providing an inswinging delivery for the Royals skipper.
Then, the lively Robson-Kanu did brilliantly to keep a Bridge ball down the line in play and then scuttled away from his man and into the box from the left, but with Blackman waiting in space across the box, Hal's low cross was just cut out and put behind for a corner.
The Royals began the second half as they left off, on the front foot. A Kenny clearance almost ricocheted into space for Nick Blackman but the ball bounced agonisingly over the striker's leap and he couldn't control it.
Robson-Kanu tried a speculative effort from range but Kenny was equal to it, while at the other end Pearce did well to block a McCormack strike and Morrison stepped in to dispossess Hunt before the former Royals could pull the trigger.
An hour gone and Drenthe dinked a canny ball over three Leeds men and into Williams who smashed it at goal only for his drive to be charged down by Wootton.
But despite Reading's dominance, the longer the game remained goalless Leeds posed a threat and McCormack reminded everyone of that fact when he arrowed a 22 yard effort just over the crossbar.
Akpan burst into the box from midfield and saw a deflected drive skid wide and with 12 minutes left Varney headed over from a free kick from the right.
Then Akpan did find the target, pivoting on the spot upon collecting McCleary's cut back and fizzing a low effort low to Kenny's right, but the Leeds keeper got down well to save.
Chances in front of goal dried up a little despite both teams searching for a winner. Then injury time saw Jason Pearce direct a free header wide of the left post before Stephen Warnock picked up a second yellow in the dying stages.
And from that free kick, Reading won it. Drenthe's viciously inswinging set piece was flicked on by Williams and Le Fondre instinctively nodded it into the bottom right corner before Kenny could begin to react.
Madejski Stadium went wild and the referee blew for full time as soon as the game restarted to the home fans' joy.
Three points stolen at the death by none other than Adam Le Fondre - the man who did it so often for Brian McDermott during his career as Royals boss.