Reading FC 2006 and 2012: a Comparative Perspective
Reading’s extraordinary canter to the Championship title provokes inevitable comparison with the feat of their forebears of half a decade ago. The 106 points amassed by that vintage set a record and if we are yet to cover the 2005-6 Royals in our Great Football League Teams series, that’s not to ignore the best second tier XI of all time.
There are similarities between the versions: an undemonstrative manager without ego, the deployment of wingers, significant attacking contribution from the full back positions, an inexorable run of results producing staggering momentum, and a suspicion that the sum of the parts is greater than the individual units contained within.
The ignominious outcomes suffered by a majority of the earlier side would appear to emphasize that last point: the calamitous career decline of Ibrahima Sonko, Nicky Shorey deemed not good enough for Aston Villa, Bobby Convey retreating to the MLS and the international wilderness, Steve Sidwell picking up pay dirt for diddly squat at Chelsea and the Villa, James Harper out in the cold at Hull, and Dave Kitson going through the motions at Pompey. The only qualified successes of the early leavers have been Wolves duo Stephen Hunt and Kevin Doyle, although even they have suffered greatly of late.
If Gylfi Sigurðsson and Shane Long have done something to restore Reading’s reputation as a reliable breeding ground for talent, the suspicion remains that astute management got the best out of a cut price squad – and the 2011-12 title winners have not been exempt from such accusations.
So, can this new group match that never to be forgotten eighth place in the Premier League enjoyed by the mid-noughties men? – a legion that performed grittily on the top stage and were unlucky to be relegated in their second season after Portsmouth decided to prepare for an FA Cup Final by coasting against Fulham. The highlights of that top flight sojourn were many but one of the most remarkable elements was the heavy reliance on the players who had got them there – a side made up entirely of the 2005-6 squad put the Liverpool of Torres and Gerrard to the sword 3-1 in December 2007 and the unheralded likes of Hunt, Harper and Graeme Murty bravely negotiated the chasm in class.
The Zingarevich money notwithstanding, Reading are unlikely to match the wage bill of even a Stoke City or Fulham, so one can expect a degree of reliance on this week’s heroes. How does each section of the team compare to that of six years ago?
I am having to eat humble pie as far as Adam Federici is concerned. Present as back up to Marcus Hahnemann during the previous golden period, he fluffed his lines in a cup replay against Manchester United and I have been impatient with his uncertainty under the high ball. But, in recent months, the mistakes have been excised and a confidence in catching the pigskin, added to the fantastic saves he has always been capable of, has led to a series of spectacular showings. Royals fans think he has been the Championship’s best and, if but a few of these interlocutors would be able to name more than a handful of opposing keepers by name, the Australian has cemented his place with a truly purple run of form, while understudy Alex McCarthy has been loaned out to Ipswich and Leeds.
Verdict: Reading are at least as well served as they were going into that clash with Middlesbrough in August 2006.
Graeme Murty and Nicky Shorey were the revelations of that first Premier League campaign and if we suspected the latter night surprise people, the buccaneering performances of the long standing captain brought to the club by the late Tommy Burns were heart rending. Shorey went on to feature against Brazil and Germany for England of course and if injuries and cleverness on the part of opposing Premier League managers muted the full backs’ impact as time wore on, both can be proud with their career high displays. Now, Shaun Cummings looks likely to be Reading’s under the radar contributor – hopelessly destroyed by West Brom’s Jerome Thomas in his early days after signing from Chelsea, he now looks fully assured and possesses the pace that is a prerequisite for progression.
Not so Ian Harte of course – the one Reading man to feature in the PFA Championship team of the year is wheeled out like an NFL place kicker and is an unerring deliverer of set pieces, but lack of speed and youth are against him – with a contract running out, this is one position in which the Berkshire club are likely to recruit.
Verdict: not as strong.
Ívar Ingimarsson ended up as Player of the Season after the 2-0 defeat to Watford in May 2006 and he and Ibrahima Sonko formed an immoveable wall for half a year – the latter nodding in at Old Trafford in the December. The Icelander is similar in style to Reading’s two present incumbents – Alex Pearce and Kaspars Gorkšs. With Sonko losing form dramatically after a return from a knee injury sustained against Sheffield United in 2007, the current centre back pairing looks at least on a par with the former duo. Quickness may be a worry, but solidity and determination can make up for that and if Gary Caldwell, Gareth McAuley and Zac Whitbread can prosper in Premier League waters, then Pearce and Gorkšs, both near faultless so far in 2012, can feel confident they can do the same.
Verdict: potentially slightly stronger in 2012-13.
As I mentioned earlier, James Harper was one of the surprise successes of that first ever top twenty year, while alongside him, Steve Sidwell might just have been Reading’s stand out player – weighing in with a number of searing goals and adding enough bite in midfield to attract the attention of Jose Mourinho. Kalifa Cisse and Emerse Fae never made up for the loss of Sidwell’s all-purpose play as second season syndrome descended and happily, Royals’ have a successor in Jem Karacan. The young Turk has traversed the area between the two boxes better than anyone else in the division and personifies energy as a characteristic – Leeds’ thuggery sadly denying him a presence as the laurels were handed out these past ten days. He can really thrive in the PL.
Karacan’s midfield partner Mikele Leigertwood has been no less impressive and his ox-like strength sees many an opponent bounce off him like rubber. The man nicknamed ‘Legs of Wood’ by Sheffield United fans has revived his career and been pivotal for Reading – it will be fascinating to witness how he fares.
Verdict: not quite as strong – but only by a whisker.
The clever promptings of Glen Little and Bobby Convey fired Reading to their first promotion, subsequently supplemented by the more prosaic, but no less effective Stephen Hunt when the opposition became stiffer and more resilient. All contributed majorly even if injury and the passing years neutered their talents – Little enjoying an Indian Summer and Hunt looking nothing like the lowly scrapper who Steve Coppell had recruited as a bit part player from Brentford.
Now, Reading’s wide men are more mercurial – Jobi McAnuff’s captaincy has instilled a new maturity in him – a big money move to Watford having previously earned him a reputation as a show pony winger. Both he and Jimmy Kébé are capable of taking the ball the full length of the pitch in a few instants and along with Hal Robson-Kanu provide a large proportion of the team’s ammunition, but they probably lack the consistency and ability to retain possession of Convey and Little. Without question, width has been a crucial element of the Reading way for some time now – and I have a sneaking suspicion that the younger HRK may be called upon increasingly as 2012-13 wears on.
Verdict: not as strong.
Kevin Doyle, Dave Kitson and Leroy Lita netted hatfuls in 05-06 and this is the one part of the team where the gap between those near European participants and the men of today is starkest. Not that Adam Le Fondre is shabby in the goalscoring department, mind – a slow start as he stepped up two divisions has made way for a devastating spell including two barnstorming goals in the quasi-title clincher at Southampton. That he seems set once more to make most of his appearances from the bench is likely, but the diminutive ex-Stockport man can be counted on to find a finish if given space.
Ahead of him at the moment are new talisman, Jason Roberts, a model professional who has transformed the team’s fortunes but who will miss the opening two matches next season and Noel Hunt, brother of Stephen and while superior to him in terms of ball control, a man who falls squarely into the willing trier category. Both Roberts and Hunt have been magnificent but it is inconceivable that Reading will not choose to strengthen in attacking areas.
Verdict: not as strong.
If the current charges seem unequal to their predecessors, that is perhaps not surprising given that earlier band’s achievement of a top eight finish. But one beacon of hope can make this crop confident – hubris began to chip away and severely damaged the 106ers as fame beckoned – with many appearing to believe their own hype, requesting transfers and turning their backs on the club and manager who had made their fortunes. Brian McDermott was there all along and his sheer groundedness and sheer modesty should help Reading’s 2011-12 Champions keep their feet on the ground.