Book Review: The Sum of the Parts/Great Football League Teams 50: Reading 2005-6
The Sum of the Parts by Jon Keen
Published by Mickle Press
Records set outside the uppermost levels of football usually gain no more than a footnote in the record books and rarely enter the consciousness outside of the fan base of the clubs which have set them. Ten years on from posting a new highest points total for the second tier of English football aka the competition currently known as The Championship, the supporters of Reading Football Club are still in the habit of chanting, ‘106…106…We’ve got the Record…106’.
The response from opposing fans tends to range from a chorus of a few ‘You wots?’ to outright bemusement but West Berkshire Brewery’s decision to name a new Reading FC themed ale, ‘106’ is testament to the longevity of the achievement in the town’s consciousness – for these were heady times indeed and, counting the following 2006-7 campaign that saw the club finish an all-time high of eighth in the Premier league, this truly was an extraordinary 21 months in the club’s history – a period which, at the time, always made one think that the shopkeeper from Mr. Benn would appear to usher one back to reality.
The stats from that miracle promotion campaign insistently mark out Reading as the greatest ever team to be promoted to the top flight – after an opening day travesty of a defeat against Plymouth, Reading went 33 matches unbeaten while the club chalked up 31 wins out of 46 over the course of the season and lost just once more.
That the club managed a second title just six years later bears little comparison. Those repeat winners were boosted by the arrival of Jason Roberts and a purple patch of attacking football that, notwithstanding, saw the team win dramatic away matches against key rivals West Ham and Southampton in the run in but which, Roberts apart, was very much a team of willing triers. Their counterparts of the previous decade on the other hand, were a team to go giddy at the knees about, a swashbuckling whirlwind of a collective that simply blew all comers away on a consistent basis.
Jon Keen’s new book The Sum of the Parts chronicles the era magnificently and, an account of the club’s decline in the final three chapters aside, fails completely to avoid being an exercise in fan boy hagiography – but how could it possibly have done, so great was this team?
The central midfield duo of James Harper and Steve Sidwell, both once of the Arsenal youth set up, harried opponents dementedly, offering no respect for more vaunted reputations; Sidwell weighing in with a number of rapier like goals; wingers Bobby Convey and Glen Little, the former rehabilitated by Steve Coppell after a disappointing first season in English football; the latter a dyed in the wool Burnley FC legend, displayed endless skill and creativity; a back five of Graeme Murty, Marcus Hahnemann, Ibrahima Sonko, Ivar Ingimarsson and Nicky Shorey clicked magnificently as a unit and the strike pairing that permed two from three and involved bargain signings Dave Kitson and Kevin Doyle as well as cherry-on-the-top big money acquisition Leroy Lita simply filled their boots in front of goal.
With others such as the emerging Shane Long and the tireless Stephen Hunt growing in stature throughout the first Prem campaign in particular, the blend was irresistible. All of course was presided upon by Coppell – one of the most astute and over achieving managers the English game has ever borne witness to.
From 5-1 and 5-2 batterings of previously difficult opponents Cardiff City to Little chipping in Glen Hoddle-style in the return game against Plymouth; from defeating the snarling Neil Warnock’s closest challengers Sheffield United in an autumn summit meeting to blowing Wolves away at Molineux on Boxing Day, the first season was a series of emotional pinnacles and more was to follow – the clinching of a first ever top league berth at Leicester, coming back from 2-0 down to beat Middlesbrough in Reading’s first top flight fixture ever (my personal favourite match of all time), going 1-0 up against Manchester United after a Gary Neville handball and going toe to toe with Chelsea after the early departure from the action of Petr Čech.
Keen’s text is peppered with observations from a phalanx of key actors including Sir John Madejski himself, wily Director of Football Nicky Hammond, defensive coach Wally Downes and popular kit man Ron Grant as well as fans who lived through it – myself included as well as The Tilehurst End podcast’s Dave Harris – a ‘walking football spreadsheet’ according to Keen.
The views of Hammond in particular provide a fine insight into how it all went so right so amazingly but Keen has wisely avoided getting too hung up on ‘access’, that bane of mainstream journalism. One suspects that had we been treated to the observations of the players themselves, the results would have been a lot blander – and the lack of official endorsement from Reading Football Club itself can only be a good thing given the freedom to speak openly that comes with independence.
There are nuggets of information that only the most insistent observers would have known about at a time that fell agonisingly just before Twitter was invented. Perhaps most surprising is a potential plan at the end of the first Premier League season to sell the Madejski Stadium to London Irish and to move across the county border to Mereoak. That this was sensibly ditched in favour of increasing the size of the current arena, a Plan B which was even more sensibly abandoned altogether in view of subsequent events.
Keen avoids getting too involved in some of the more lurid rumours surrounding individuals’ time at the club – Kitson’s likely identity as The Secret Footballer is not examined and if Greg Halford is a byword for underachievement for Reading fans, Grant and others don’t have a bad word to say about him barring the fact that getting into the first team ahead of existing squad members who had so resoundingly over achieved would always have been impossible.
Therein lie the roots of the decline which resulted in relegation at the end of 2007-8. Keen has remarked in interviews and on a recent appearance on The Tilehurst End podcast that the final three chapters were painful to write and would be agonising for Royals fans to read. On the contrary, I think most of us wanted to know how a team that had finished eighth could submit so cravenly to the fortunes of ‘second season syndrome’?
The answers are simple and the dominant factor is ‘wages’. Having finished eighth, key team members understandably felt that they should be worth more and it also became impossible to bring new people in who could genuinely improve the squad. Hence, the newer arrivals – Halford, Liam Rosenior, Emerse Fae, Kalifa Cisse and Marek Matějovský were a pale shadow of the individuals who made up the existing squad and the likes of Nicky Shorey started angling petulantly for moves. Injuries to Little and Sonko in particular as well as the failure to replace the Chelsea-bound Sidwell were as important as the failure to replace Simon Osborn a decade previously when Reading had last come close to this level of achievement.
As late as December 2007, Reading were beating a Liverpool featuring a fully firing Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard 3-1 at the Mad Stad, in as memorable a match as any from those times, but the other overwhelming factor for the decline is identifiable in the title of Keen’s book.
For a glance at the record of the individual players’ fortunes after they had left Reading is salutary. Kitson and Sonko both suffered miserably at Stoke; the former unsettled by a move to another part of the country at the time of a ban for driving under the influence, Sidwell predictably failed to make the grade at Chelsea and then became no more than a bit part player at a host of Premier League clubs; Shorey looked an immediate weak link as Aston Villa’s left back; Doyle did well initially at Wolves but was eventually one of those players left out in the cold by Kenny Jackett after relegation and Lita was last seen plying his trade at Yeovil Town. For this was a team with no real stars – a unit where each player relied inherently on all of his comrades to shine.
The other, less heralded departures at the end of that first, thrilling top flight campaign were Mark Reynolds and his cohorts from Catalyst People Limited, a team of management consultants brought in by the club to help improve performance when the club had failed to be promoted at the end of the 2004-5 season.
Amid some antics that border on the cheesy – and anyone who has ever been on a management training course will know all about that – the impact of Catalyst seems to have been all encompassing in helping improve performance and to help people believe. A video message from Vinnie Jones and Jack Black seems to have been as appalling as it sounds but the issue of personalised binders to each player with detailed suggestions for improvement at the end of the title year was an obvious masterstroke that was taken fully on board. That Keen, a writer on the excesses of football finance for this site and others in the past, and generally the kind of scribe you would expect to have no truck with management speak and kneejerk pro-business attitudes, seems to have been won over by the open handed positivity of Reynolds’ methods is telling – Steve Coppell and Nicky Hammond were also firm believers.
Reading had secured Catalyst’s services on the cheap and it’s probably down to cost that the relationship wasn’t renewed but the club had earlier witnessed a more homespun revolution of sorts. The much maligned Alan Pardew, roundly booed when his Crystal Palace team came to the Madejski Stadium and claimed an FA Cup semi-final place last month, is shown by Keen to have been fundamental to a change of attitude at the club – Pardew’s ability to demonstrate what he wanted players to do having not long retired himself, his well networked feel for lower league promise across London and the south of England and his persuading Hammond to take on a senior role at the club were all fundamental in laying the groundwork for what followed.
Keen excels at charting those early years of the 2000s and admits that he could have filled a book with extra information. Hence, the ins and outs of an ill-advised pre-season tour to Korea in the summer of 2007 are not explored and nor is the general feeling that Reading were fortunate that their rise to prominence came at a time of general prosperity in the country and in the town – similar sized clubs such as Lincoln City and Stockport County are now in a literal and figurative different league as well as local rivals Oxford United whose good times happened when football was on its knees.
So it’s a book that should be utterly essential reading for any Reading fan – while the parts that deal with Catalyst and the emphasizing of how a team can be created from disparate parts to form an over performing whole should fascinate everyone (Leicester City and Bournemouth fans will enjoy the parallels). Keen has self-published the volume via Mickle Press and it is available for order here, while Jonny Williams has also reviewed it for The Tilehurst End website and a successful crowd funding campaign has helped make it happen. This review is a fitting reason to bring our Great Teams series up to the 50 mark.