Hopeless Football League Teams 2: Reading, 1997-8
By the time the 1997-8 season came round, two years had elapsed since Reading had lost so gallantly in the play off final against Bolton Wanderers. Like many nearly men, that defeat had been the cue for a gradual exodus of primary assets. Shaka Hislop, Simon Osborn and Scott Taylor were to move on virtually immediately while other mainstays such as Adrian Williams and Lee Nogan found the exit door over the course of the following 24 months.
Also missing were the player managers who had stewarded them to the Twin Towers – results had deteriorated under Jimmy Quinn and Mick Gooding and mediocrity had set in. Despite a debut goal for young Neville Roach in the final home game of the 1996-7 campaign, the squad was clearly a shell of what it was and a summer of surgery would be needed to avert relegation: a fate that it would be doubly important to avoid given that this was to be the final season at the club’s Elm Park ground.After a summer of much speculation that saw Dave Merrington and Tommy Burns linked to the hot seat, it was former cabbie Terry Bullivant who emerged as the successful candidate a month or so before the season started. A chirpy chappy who soon managed to strike up a good rapport with the local press, the Lambeth born gaffer was fresh from a spell taking charge of first team affairs at Barnet, bringing with him ex-Chelsea and QPR man Allan Harris (brother of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris) as his Number 2.
Initial forays into the transfer market were modest – Linvoy Primus and Lee Hodges joined from the bottom tier Bees with Carl Asaba, plunderer of a goodly number of goals for Brentford signing for £800,000 in the week before the season started – a fee not far below the record £850,000 Reading had forked out for Darren Caskey in 1996.
A sleepy 1-1 draw against Bury in hazy August sunshine had seen one of the previous regime’s many baffling signings Steve Swales score the only goal, but then disaster set in. Five straight games were lost – most horribly a 3-0 training groundesque canter from Bradford City – exotically barnetted winger Jamie Lawrence creating havoc and visiting boss Chris Kamara expressing embarrassment at the ease of the victory.
With key players such as Phil Parkinson, Caskey and Trevor Morley struggling for fitness, it was already clear that it would be a season of struggle and loan signings such as Mark Robins and Lee Sandford seemed increasingly desperate. In midfield, Ray Houghton was a shadow of the player who had thrilled crowds in Liverpool and New York and Bullivant’s tactics seemed increasingly zany – long time Aussie full back Andy Bernal was deployed as a midfield anchorman and almost every new kick off (there were to be a lot over the course of the season) saw the ball pitched rugby style on to the head of Hodges loitering on the left wing.
But there was to a respite of sorts in the autumn. Asaba, already a premature target for the boo boys, clicked into gear and started finding the net in a 9 game unbeaten run – a spurt that saw Sunderland defeated 4-0 and the club launch itself into mid table. Parallel to this, a fine League Cup run saw Wolves and Leeds vanquished and a New Year present of a quarter final berth secured. Similarly to the unbeaten sequence of the current season’s Royals however, the sequence was peppered with too many draws and reality set in when a terrifically strong and talented Ipswich side came to Elm Park and won 4-0 – Kieron Dyer, James Scowcroft and David Johnson all making hay.
Still, as the Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping rang out at the conclusion of Sky’s live coverage of the Boxing Day 2-1 win over West Bromwich Albion, the club looked comfortable.
A busy January saw Reading out somewhat unluckily of the league cup 1-0 to Middlesbrough but having been once again put to the sword by Bradford, a now rampant Sunderland and, most horribly, a Gary Megson led Stockport to the tune of 5-1, continued spirited home form that saw the likes of Birmingham and Manchester Cities leave Berkshire winless was rendered irrelevant. Fight was proving to be no match for the gap in ability and Bullivant seemed increasingly unable to cope.
The Stockport match was followed by five straight reverses with unpopular loan signing Michael O’Neill preferred to Caskey in midfield and another player for hire Nick Colgan enjoying a disastrous time of it in goal. The nadir probably came in a heartless 3-0 battering at local rivals Oxford although an equivalent home defeat against then bottom Port Vale ran it close – Bullivant’s reign had run its course and he was left venting his spleen at the ‘computer buffs’ who had cost him his job.
Having surveyed matters clandestine from the South Bank in the defeat against Huddersfield, Tommy Burns finally took over, having forged a reputation for instilling good footballing principles at Celtic. At the time, I was surprised that such a storied figure would want to come to Reading, but the promise of a new stadium in August and the likelihood of funds to be made available for team rebuilding were obviously tempting and so it proved.
The situation was desperate though, with the club not so much looking down the barrel of relegation, more firmly wedged down it and gasping for air. Transfer deadline day in 1998 will go down in Reading Football Club history though. In the 1-0 loss at Ipswich, seven players made their debuts – Scott Howie in goal, Patrick Kelly at centre back, Stuart Gray on the left side of midfield and Jim McIntyre and Robert Fleck up front. With Jimmy Crawford and Paul Brayson joining the action from the bench it was a true sea change but sendings off for Bernal and Andy Legg left the same result.
In the end, a 2-0 win over Stoke (curiously now managed by the aforementioned Kamara) and in which Michael Meaker turned in his now customary one good game a season) was to bring about the only addition to the points tally over the final 13 games as Burns and his band of Celts (hard c) struggled to adapt to the whys and wherefores of second flight football in England. By the time Craig Bellamy scored the final ever goal at Elm Park in a 1-0 Norwich win on the last day, optimism had been extinguished and relegation suffered. Not that it couldn’t become even worse for a time – but that’s another tale.