Does Third Place Flatter Reading FC?
On Thursday, I remarked to several friends that I thought Reading FC’s position of seventh in the Championship was a flattering one. Now, after a 1-0 win over Burnley, the club has ascended to third and, having kept a fourth consecutive clean sheet and seen new acquisition Jason Roberts maintain a hundred per cent record of scoring in home games, the Royals are insisting they be taken seriously.
Of course they came within a lock’s breadth of climbing to the firmament last May – so, this current loftiness perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although over £10 million was banked in deals for Shane Long and Matt Mills, spending on replacements was frugal – necessarily so given the posting of a £5.3 million loss in December.
It was a full strength team that lined up against the Clarets and one man in particular was fundamental to the capture of the three points. I have been critical of Adam Federici in the past – largely due to his weakness under the high ball as well as a tendency to hoof the ball downfield to diminutive strikers when better options are available. There has been improvement on both counts – the latter presumably due to instructions from the dug out – and young pretender Alex McCarthy has been forced to look for work in Suffolk and Yorkshire. Here, the Australian made another vital one on one block to deny Charlie Austin, just as he had prevented Alex Nimely from scoring in last weekend’s 2-0 win over Coventry.
But if there is a plainer reason for the steady march up the table, it can be found in central defence. Neither Alex Pearce nor Kaspars Gorkšs is particularly quick, both have a tendency to occasionally scoop the ball up in the air out of panic and both have difficulty with twinkle toed forwards – but playing together as a unit since August now, and with nobody else enjoying even a smidgeon of a look in, the telepathy between the two has been uncanny. Given that both do the simple things well, it has provided a very firm bedrock to build.
Gorkšs is most comfortable on his left side and this balance has also been something of a boon – it’s not for Brian McDermott to attempt to shoe horn two right footed central defenders into a team. Last year, the Latvian was a title winner with Queen’s Park Rangers – and he’s now been joined by old cohort Matthew Connolly. The ex-Arsenal man has slotted in at right back following an injury to Shaun Cummings and already looks like he has been there for as long as the others. Perhaps a natural centre back, he offers little in advanced areas but relishes a tackle and is big and powerful.
It’s on Reading’s left side that many would diagnose a weakness and it’s true that Ian Harte might have finished a poor third in that classic Tortoise versus Hare battle. Who, however, can whip a ball in from free kicks and corners with such venom? Last year, Surreal Football devoted an entry to their Left Backs series to the Irishman – and his inability to cope with Nathan Dyer in the play-off final seemed to confirm the doubters – but for now, he’s an ideal option to have against less ambitious opposition in particular – the extra pace of Joseph Mills likely to be deployed against an Albert Adomah or Chris Burke.
Reading’s engine room is a fully functioning one – and Mikele Leigertwood has rebuilt his career fantastically after a few false starts, especially in a disappointing sojourn at Sheffield United. Ox-like in possession, he recycles the ball simply and effectively and provides a natural foil for Jem Karacan, the Turkish under-21 international’s boundless energy marking him out as one of the most under-rated players in the Championship. ‘Box to box’ is how he would describe himself and he would be right to do so.
Ever since the glorious 106 point title winning campaign in 2005-6, wingers have been fundamental to Reading – and just as Bobby Convey and Glen Little terrorised this league’s full backs in their day, Jobi McAnuff and Jimmy Kébé provide the most impressive of get out clauses when the team is mired in its own half. Both can carry the ball the full length of the pitch without problems and both have the trickery to unlock defensive meanness. The captaincy was conferred on McAnuff following the departure of Mills and this was a decision I doubted at the time, but – like almost everything else Brian McDermott does, it has proved to be a wise move – the ex-Wimbledon man has shown a new maturity and here, coming back from an injury spell , provided constant danger. As for Kébé – we profiled him last year – and following his signing of a new contract, the up in performance levels has been immediately tangible. Hal Robson-Kanu has fitted into the team seamlessly whenever one of the first choices has been unavailable and along with Jay Tabb allows McDermott to maintain the team’s shape when knocks intervene.
And so to the front men. I saw Roberts and Jamie Cureton net all the goals between them in a 6-0 Bristol Rovers win at the Mad Stad back in 1999. The pace has by and large deserted him and the sight of him jumping into a cab to appear on 606 after the Coventry game was something Reading fans are unused to of one of their players. He’s outspoken – and admirably so, even if this cost him a silly booking here. To date, his goals have been scuffed but here he finished well with his left foot after a McAnuff run. Needless to say, the hold-up play and general nous of such an experienced performer is an invaluable short term option.
At the moment, Noel Hunt is playing alongside him and the combination is making it difficult to allow anyone else a chance – the Irishman’s flick ons and mobility signalling a purple run of form. Adroit finisher Adam Le Fondre is perhaps unlucky to be left out and would probably relish the opportunity to be paired with Roberts, while Simon Church matches Karacan’s work rate, even if he sometimes struggles with the goal at his mercy. The occasionally inspirational Mathieu Manset remains in high dudgeon after failing a drink driving test.
But the person who takes more credit than any for this heady rise is the manager himself. Brian McDermott will adjust the formation and playing style if he feels an opposition player can cause problems, he will make substitutions that make perfect sense and he will respond to the psychological needs of players in the most empathetic way possible. I can’t state how impressed I am with the former Slough boss – he’s a calm, dignified and unhistrionic presence, an adept tactician and a superb coach. Reading’s run in is difficult with away games to come against 5 of the top 9 – but they have every opportunity and perhaps that third place is not as anomalous as it may seem.