As we head into the final five games of the season, fully in control of second place and with Southampton in our sights at the top of the table, life as a Reading FC fan is incredibly sweet.
When we look back at our season - should we go on and achieve promotion to the Promised Land - there are three major things that have happened that have helped inspire our rise up the Championship and into the top two. The arrival of Anton Zingarevich, the signing of Jason Roberts and the brains behind the machine, Brian McDermott, choosing to stay at the club, amidst speculation of a move to Premier League strugglers Wolves.
Those three things came at a time when we needed to build a run of results which could catapult us into the top six and secure a place in the play-offs. Not only did we do that but we also went on a run that has sent us soaring into the automatic places – somewhere every Reading fan would prefer than face the potential heartbreak of the play-offs for a second consecutive season.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit that at the beginning of the season I felt we weren’t good enough to go up this year. We had lost the spine of our team; our leader, Matthew Mills hopped ship to “promotion favourites” Leicester City and Shane Long got his rewards for a fantastic season last term as he secured a move to West Brom.
We didn’t spend much money in the summer to replace those players and at the start of the season we lacked character and cutting edge. Much of the team looked like their heads were still buried deep in the Wembley turf, trying to recover from the 4-2 defeat to Swansea in the Play-off final.
With just four wins in our first fifteen games and a first round exit from the League Cup we were 16th in the table and just six points off the relegation zone. Slowly though, the cobwebs disappeared and by Boxing Day we had clawed our way into the play offs. But it wasn’t until the end of January, when we picked up a 1-0 victory over Bristol City that the Royals really kicked off and went on, what we all now know to be “the run”.
Eight wins in a row. Ten games unbeaten. 34 points out of a possible 39. The Royals have quite simply put together a promotion push like no other - and it’s no coincidence that the run coincides with the three factors I mentioned earlier on.
It was announced on January 21stthat Anton Zingarevich, founder of Thames Sport Investment and multi-millionaire, was to buy a 51% share of Reading Football Club. The Russians’ arrival was the best news any Reading fan could have hoped for.
Ever since relegation from the top flight in 2008, I have said: “I don’t want us to go up.” Why? Well, quite simply we did not have enough money to build a Premier League football team. Mr. Madejski had given us the foundations to be a Premier League football club - and for that he will always be a hero in Reading fans eyes - but under Sir John we could not become a club that could survive in the Premier League. As soon as Mr. Zingarevich bought a stake in our club and announced that we had plenty of funds to sign players, my attitude completely changed. If we could get the right players in, we could get promoted. Once there, with money behind us, we can stay there for a long time.
Zingarevich’s first signing as our new majority shareholder, was 34 year old, Jason Roberts, who signed from Blackburn Rovers for an undisclosed fee.
It was no secret that we lacked a certain amount of fire power. With Shane Long following, Kevin Doyle, David Kitson and Leroy Lita out of the club, the once prolific strike force was now heavily reliant on Noel Hunt, with young Welshman Simon Church and lower league hit man, Adam Le Fondre as backup.
Roberts signed four days after Zingarevich’s money was made available to the club and his experience and Premier League quality was clear to see from the word go. The former Blackburn Rovers target man scored on his debut and has gone on to bag five goals in eleven games. Roberts has linked up brilliantly with Noel Hunt and the powerful striker has only suffered defeat once since signing for The Royals.
Roberts has been there, won promotion and worn the “we are going up” t-shirt, during his spell with Wigan. He’s added leadership and intelligence to the team, along with goals, assists and overall quality as the spearhead of Reading’s attack. Without a shadow of a doubt, the signing of Jason Roberts has helped spur on and encourage the team to progress up the league table.
The third factor and undoubtedly the most important was the man at helm staying on as manager and signing a new contract at the club. After Mick McCarthy was sacked by Wolves, the team from the Midlands looked to snatch Brian McDermott from the Madejski Stadium - and who can blame them?
In his three years in charge at Reading, McDermott has steered The Royals away from relegation, led them to a play-off final and has now built a team that are oh so close to automatic promotion. McDermott, simply put, just has that special something. He knows the club and what works. McDermott worked with a lot of the players who have progressed through the academy; young lads like Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan and Hal Robson-Kanu. He ensures the players do the simple things right and he lives by the mantra that the next game is the most important - which keeps the players grounded and focused.
He has managed to get the best out of once underperforming players. Jimmy Kebe looks unplayable at times but the right-winger was frequently booed off the pitch for his consistently poor performances under Brendan Rodgers and Steve Coppell. Shaun Cummings, another player who looked nothing more than a League Two player at times under Rodgers, now looks confident on the ball and intelligent without it and he’s played an important role at right back in the absence of Andy Griffin.
McDermott’s man management skills, tactical expertise and marvellous media handling make him a fine manager. Had Wolves managed to prize our man away from the Madejski Stadium, I feel certain our run would have abruptly stopped and we would’ve slipped out of the play-offs and into mid-table obscurity.
Keeping Brian, signing Jason and acquiring Anton Zingarevich’s millions has definitely helped the momentum of my football club; and I’m sure it won’t be long until the trio grace the Premier League.