After the relative success that was my ‘Royal Caribbean XI’ I thought I’d have another bored, pre-season stab at another Reading XI. This time I’m focussing on those players that arrived with much pomp and fanfare but actually turned out to be pretty rubbish. What is quite gratifying is that this was an XI that was actually quite hard to compose. Whilst we’ve had no shortage of crap players at Reading, by and large we haven’t been disappointed by expensive flops or big names that failed to impress. I should say from the outset that I’ve only included players from the last eighteen or so years as that’s how long I’ve been watching; I’d love to hear of flops from the bygone years! There are a few omissions that will be explained at the end but please feel free to add your thoughts.
Many Reading fans will probably look back on this signing and laugh but Bobby Mihaylov was probably the biggest signing in the history of Reading Football Club. This is a man who not only played in two World Cups but also captained his country to a World Cup semi-final just a year before signing for the Royals. He still stands as Bulgaria’s most capped player (ahead of legends such as Hristo Stoichkov, Dimitar Berbatov and Stiliyan Petrov) and is currently their FA’s president. More recent fans may wonder where it all went wrong and whilst rumours that he saw our 1995 playoff final and assumed we played at Wembley are almost certainly false, what isn’t in doubt was that here was a man who felt utterly bereft in England. Constantly mocked for his choice of headwear (if only the Petr Cech scrum cap was around then!) and bullied by the physicality of English football, Bulgaria’s captain lasted only 2 years at Reading, a spell in which he was genuinely threatened by the likes of Simon Sheppard and Jimmy Quinn for his place between the sticks.
Steve Coppell can be rightly lauded for a lot of things as Reading manager but some off his signings in the second season in the Premiership were less than spectacular. High on this list of failures comes one of the most sort after young defenders in the country at the time. Famed for his long throws, Halford signed from Colchester United for a club record fee believed to be around £3m in January 2007. He went on to make only made three first team appearances and completed 90 minutes only once, conceding a decisive penalty in a 1-0 defeat at White Hart Lane against Tottenham. He was swiftly despatched to Sunderland in the summer for an astonishing £3.5m and after failing to impress at the Stadium of Light or later at Molineux he can be now found as part of the Portsmouth set up.
The Match of the Day pundit and former Arsenal man racked up 43 caps for England and was part of Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’ in 2004 (although he was shoe-horned in at the end to ensure he got a medal). It might be a bit harsh to say that he qualifies as a flop given that he arrived on a free halfway through the season at the age of 38 but given his previous achievements, Reading could perhaps have expected better from him. Rated as Arsenal’s 20th greatest player ever, he managed only 5 games, two of which were as sub, making very little impact. His inclusion here is perhaps indicative how, as a club, Reading don’t tend to splash out on defenders and sign unknowns rather than big names.
No point in denying it, I’m struggling to think of another central defender who has come to the club with much of a reputation behind him and failed. I can however think of two left backs so rather than include someone silly like Matt Mills or Andre Bikey just to balance the team, I’m putting both left backs in.
The first of those left backs is Stuart Gray. It seems in keeping with a club that has had the lesser Walcott, Wright and Hateley in recent years that Gray’s main reputation came from his surname. Son of Leeds legend Eddie, nephew of Leeds legend Frank and cousin of Barnsley’s Andy, poor old Stuart was never even close to the level of any of his more illustrious relatives. He came to Reading along with Tommy Burns from Celtic for £100k and the fact that there was an assumption at the time that Burns knew his man and he’d be a decent signing really didn’t help. Amazingly he played over 50 games for the club but that can’t save him from my team.
In 1996 Reading were doing their best to rebuild after losing most of the 1995 playoff final team. As part of that process joint managers Mick Gooding and Jimmy Quinn brought in Wales international Paul Bodin from local rivals Swindon Town. Known as an attacking full back and a competent penalty taker Bodin had been a regular in Swindon’s brief stay in the Premier League, scoring 7 goals and had been rated by Glenn Hoddle. His time at Reading was less successful and Bodin was part of the side that plummeted down and out of the division.
Yes he is a lovely bloke but even the staunchest of Scott Murray fans would find it difficult to argue that he was anything but a flop for Reading. Signed from Bristol City for £650k in 2003 after netting 27 goals in the previous season and being in the last two PFA teams of the year, everyone had very high hopes for the Scottish winger. He started well enough but after Alan Pardew’s shock resignation he struggled under new man Steve Coppell and was limited to mainly substitute appearances. Murray continued to live in Bristol during his time in Berkshire and perhaps the difficulties in commuting affected him and in the summer of 2004 he returned to the West Country. He’s still there now playing for Bath City in the Conference.
What a strange career Sean Evers had. Believe it or not he is younger than Ian Harte. He made a very promising start to his career, playing over fifty times for Luton Town before his 22nd birthday and secured a lucrative £500k move to Tommy Burns’ Reading. From there it all went wrong though. Laid low by injuries, stuck in a poor team and then a new manager Alan Pardew coming in and ditching him very quickly, Evers’ time at Reading was uneventful and disappointing. The fact that the club were willing to take a £500k loss on him and let him join Plymouth on a free after only 2 years and 18 appearances is pretty damning. Perhaps most tellingly of all however was this quote from Pardew after allowing him to leave on loan to St Johnstone:
With the return to fitness of Keith Jones and Neil Smith, it means that Sean is further away from the team than he has been for a long time
Another player that Reading took a big loss on, Emerse Fae arrived for a club record fee of around £2.5m in the summer of 2007 from FC Nantes. The Ivorian was touted as a potential replacement for the recently departed Steve Sidwell and had been a part of his country’s World Cup campaign in Germany. As well as being a regular for one of the best African nations he was also a World Cup winner at under 17 level with France. All of that counted for nothing at Reading however and he struggled to settle in the country and after contracting malaria at the 2008 African Cup of Nations he couldn’t break into a side battling relegation. His decision, along with Ibrahima Sonko to refuse to play for the reserves against Spurs in May 2008, accompanied with a rant to journalists, sealed his fate and he was despatched back to France after only 8 league appearances. As expensive flops go, £400k per league game has to rank right up there!
Never in my memory as a Reading fan have I got a player so utterly wrong as I did with Liberian international Mass Sarr. In my defence I was far from the only one with the Evening Post and others falling over themselves with praise after his first start for the club in the Madejski Stadium curtain raiser against Luton Town. The paper declared the result a ‘Mass-acre’ and hopes were very high for the new arrival from Hajduk Split. The summation on Hobnob couldn't have been more effusive:
Quote from the match day programme about Mass Sarr: "talented... unselfish and a good creator of chances". These words are the biggest understatements you'll ever read. Sarr IS GOD. We are not worthy! He must be set to be one of the best players any of us have ever seen in a Reading shirt.
However he came to epitomise that win against Luton and it was the falsest of false dawns. He spent most of his time struggling with a knee injury and as a result of this his weight ballooned. As one of the club’s top earners it came as no surprise when Alan Pardew came in and he was shipped off to Sydney Olympic.
Sometimes you see professional footballers and wonder what managers see in them. Brayson certainly falls into that category. However, being rubbish is not enough to get in this side. At a time when Reading were really in the doldrums he was a player Tommy Burns marked as being one to watch. Signed for £100k from Newcastle he was an England youth international and there was every reason to think that he’d be a success and bang in the goals in Division Two. That illusion was very swiftly broken by his first appearance. Instead of a lithe athlete in the prime of youth we had an overweight, slow and lazy striker who looked to be playing several levels too high. His record of 1 goal in 42 games is staggering (even Keith Scott was more prolific) and he became a byword for the awfulness of the signings of the Burns era. From my own point of view I was especially gutted as I remember Premier Manager 97 and a Newcastle youngster valued at £7.5m. Never has my belief in Football Manager (or its alternatives) based reputations been so shaken!
Perhaps we should have known better. An expensive flop for Chelsea six years previously Fleck was hardly in the prime of youth when he joined from Norwich in March 1998 as part of the ‘Magnificent Seven’. However, his goal scoring record for the Canaries was good and he should have added some experience to a relatively young side. He will probably be best remembered for scoring our third ever goal at the Madejski as much as the incredible reception he got from the travelling Norwich fans at our last ever game at Elm Park. That was about it though. He was blighted by injuries and seemed to enjoy nights out in town more than training. After only one season he retired and if we’re honest, not many in Reading noticed.
I chose Tommy Burns from a shortlist of one in the easiest of easy decisions. Even if you ignore the fact that half of this XI are his signings, his spell as manager of the club was a massive disappointment. At a time when Reading were entering an exciting new period at the Madejski, fans had to endure some truly terrible football and real mediocrity. It should never have been that way. Burns had had moderate success at his beloved Celtic and had developed a reputation for playing attacking, attractive football. Much like Brendan Rodgers eleven years later he tried too much too quickly and despite being a thoroughly decent bloke, the club were only heading in one direction with him in charge. He sadly passed away in May 2008 aged only 51 after battling with skin cancer.
So let the arguing commence. I should state that several others were considered. Seol Ki-Hyeon remained in my side for a long while but that goal against West Ham meant I couldn’t do it. The same goes for Keith Scott who, despite being undeniably rubbish, I can still only remember his wonder goal against Bradford in the League Cup. Les Ferdinand was also considered but dismissed due to his age and there were many Bullivant signings that were awful but none that I can recall costing much or us having high expectations for.
I’m sure people will scoff at my team and point out obvious omissions or indeed tell me how wrong I am to include certain individuals. Feel free to lambast me below!