Promotion Tales: Reading FC and Disillusionment
Compared to the first occasion in 2006, it was with considerably less enthusiasm that I anticipated Reading Football Club’s second ever promotion to the top flight in the summer of 2012.
The feeling is never quite as good second time round of course – but there was also the sense that the club had blagged its way into the Premier League. Unforgettable victories at West Ham and Southampton in the run in had gone some way to making up for the fact that the previous promotion had been clinched amid a serious lack of tension – a record points total in that season had meant that the accolade was never truly in doubt – but both games saw the Royals hit probably superior opponents with audacious counter punches. While we celebrated wildly – I joined my septuagenarian Dad in a performance of the Poznan at St. Mary’s – there was the feeling that Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana might honestly be a tiny bit better than Jay Tabb and Noel Hunt. We taunted the hopping mad Saints fans for all we were worth, but with a knowing wink all the same.
The excellent management of Brian McDermott and the wiseguy nous of Jason Roberts had provided the tipping point in the club’s favour as our clutch of honest toilers all performed to a consistent level and all pulled together. Nobody was in any doubt that the squad would need serious surgery however. As the summer wore on however, the same problem that had afflicted Reading in their previous Premier League sojourn bared its teeth again.
Previously, Steve Coppell had attempted to lure the likes of Joleon Lescott, Scott Brown and Steed Malbranque to the Madejski Stadium, displaying exactly the kind of logic you or I would use in a random game of Football Manager. While wages would be steep, the owners were theoretically ready to pay up – the only issue was that none of these guys wanted to come.
With the prospect of new Russian ownership in the shape of the fresh-faced Anton Zingarevich, we hoped that some of those obstacles might be easier to overcome six years on although I was one who sounded a note of caution. The 2006 team’s race to eighth place had been all the more enjoyable for its reliance on the players who got the team promoted in the first place and I didn’t feel comfortable seeing my team sheet occupied by a bunch of substandard mercenaries.
But such is the Narnia-like nature of Premier League finances, even oligarchs will have baulked at the wages expected. In the end, just Pavel Pogrebnyak, author of an uncharacteristic scoring streak while at Fulham, arrived from more storied climes – that we could out spend a club well-used to living way beyond their means immediately set alarm bells clanging.
Elsewhere, bit part player Danny Guthrie was joined by some above-average Championship performers in Aidy Mariappa, Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary and although the activity was greater than under Coppell, it seemed a half-baked shopping spree indeed.
Midway through the highly winnable first match of the campaign against Stoke City, I could already sense that the club wasn’t at the right pitch. Players were second into tackles, unable to cope with the most elementary of defending and prone to error. I’d never seen the Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth partnership in the flesh before and yet this was light years better than anything I had seen in blue and white. Adam Federici spilled Michael Kightly’s tame effort into the net as the team huffed and puffed only for Lady Luck to raise her head again – Adam Le Fondre converting after the award of a soft penalty. The verdict of a Potters supporting pal who accompanied me to the game was ‘you’ll do OK’ which was polite in the extreme.
Some encouragement could be taken from a 4-2 defeat against Chelsea in the first away match, despite another Federici error, but the second mountain of realisation arrived with the visit to Tottenham Hotspur. Late to the game, I jostled in the station bus queue with a plethora of hardened Londoners, shrinking into a fug of small club syndrome as they loudly proclaimed their team. The result of the game was equally humiliating – a 3-1 annihilation that could have been double that, with Moussa Dembele and Jermain Defoe basking in rays of August sunshine.
It was now writ large – we simply weren’t good enough.
The next few league matches included my only away trip of the season – the Royals going down 1-0 to West Bromwich Albion; the highlight of the day, a curry in the excellent Desi Junction pub. Six years before, I had eagerly signed up for an away season ticket, fully prepared to stomach the horror of £48 at Chelsea, needing a telescope to watch a night game at Newcastle after a delayed Easyjet flight and the demolition of my bank balance; now, I wouldn’t have given you tuppence to travel to most of the games.
That said, I cared enough to come out in cold sweats as the winless start continued. True, Burnley, Norwich and others have suffered such ignominy, but in my darker moments, the prospect of failing to overhaul Derby County’s record points low and ‘worst team in history’ label loomed large. In America for a work trip, I watched the 2-2 draws with Swansea and Newcastle via sporadic live streaming – the former a fortunate point in the extreme after being battered for ninety minutes; the latter harsh given the intervention of Demba Ba’s arm. Pluckiness wasn’t going to get us to that magical 40 points.
For what many fans who have never negotiated the Premier League don’t realise is football is about how you feel at 5pm on a Saturday. So, losing to Manchester United or Liverpool still hurts, you are still disdained by the press for being rubbish and given scarcely a speck of attention – that our arrival in the division was hailed by Match of the Day in the shape of a pathetic half-second image of a fan waving a ‘Premier Royals’ flag seemed hopelessly inadequate; that we were inevitably relegated to the final ten minutes of the same programme nonetheless hurtful; that Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen would hardly know the names of a single one of our players evidence that we did not belong.
But the worst was to come outside the competition itself. Lined up against Arsenal for a League Cup tie, one October evening, I was utterly horrified by the events of that fateful evening. With Reading unaccountably 4-1 up at the break, the Londoners roared back to 4-4 by full time, ending up 7-5 winners after extra time. Such zaniness obscured the overly generous timekeeping of the referee which, had it not been enacted, might just have seen Reading through to play Bradford City – but also the fact that Arsenal were able to simply break forward and score at will.
The game also highlighted another desperate aspect of being on the end of a Premier League hiding – that players considered by their own fans as unwanted, ‘toilet’ or, worse, unwilling to work for the cause were still far too good. Hence, Andrei Arshavin and Maroaune Chamakh made hay.
That game was such an apocalypse that it had to prompt a more cautious approach and, aided by Everton’s lumpen route one football and over reliance on another Marouane – this time, Fellaini, Reading finally picked up their first win with a 2-1 victory in November – that I hot footed it from the stadium to a Thanksgiving feast underlined the untimeliness of the achievement. There followed seven straight defeats and only the abject performances of QPR were providing solace.
Switching to a more defensive arrangement did half work for a time, however. A late goal for Manchester City at Eastlands cost the team what would have been a creditable point and West Ham, so often a club Reading have enjoyed playing, duly succumbed over Christmas. Then, the miracles of the previous season’s denouement appeared in playback.
We were foolish enough to believe after a January to remember. 2-0 down to West Brom and on the receiving end of a Romelu Lukaku master class, the Baggies lost concentration and Pogrebnyak was suddenly wheeling way with his shirt above his head, a 3-2 win secured. A 2-1 win at another notorious soft touch for promoted clubs, Newcastle, was the followed by a 2-2 draw with Chelsea. Frank Lampard’s thunderous header had seemed to put us back in our place before Le Fondre pounced at the double. My, how we jumped.
But that January also saw the seeds sown for the subsequent downhill plunge. The same problem as before – of players not wishing to ply their trade in Berkshire – once again emerged. McDermott, desperately keen to add to the squad, saw cup victories over third tier Crawley and Sheffield United as the opportunity to bring their opponents Hope Akpan and Nick Blackman to the squad. As underwhelming signings so, these were prime examples and if both have occasionally contributed good things since, neither would ever prove good enough for Premier League football. It was galling that even Championship players didn’t see the Mad Stad as a wise career move.
The knock out blows came in home matches against rival relegation candidates Aston Villa and Wigan in February and March. That sides otherwise incapable of buying a win could come to our ‘fortress’ and leave deservedly with the points, rammed home the disappointment while McDermott was relieved of his duties – harshly, I might add. At times the football was awful but the willingness to fight for the manager was always there – and he would have a good case for unfair dismissal given the paucity of the raw materials he had to work with.
As the tanned Nigel Adkins arrived, Reading sleepwalked through the rest of the season, a 4-2 win at Fulham probably causing more harm in that it led us to rate some players more highly than they deserved while Alex McCarthy denied Luis Suarez’s Liverpool in a Mad Stad stalemate. When Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko tip toed through the Royals defence on an obscenely chilly May evening, we were grateful that it was all over.
Some will have you believe that just being there is brilliant, but being patronised at every turn, losing week after week, seeing the spirit of the players evaporate (as happened in the previous relegation season of 2007-8) and stumping up over a hundred quid for the average away trip while seeing clubs that have wildly overspent do a number on you quickly becomes dispiriting. Then the club performed the cardinal post-relegation sin of adding further to the wage bill with the arrival of Royston Drenthe and Wayne Bridge as 2013-4 beckoned. Aside from a handful of fleeting high points, that 2012-3 season truly is one to forget for Reading Football Club and personally, I’m not bothered about going back there.