A blueprint for mediocrity: Why this season's performances shouldn't shock Reading fans

Richard Heathcote

While Reading still have the chance to earn a spot in the top six, yesterday's 3-0 defeat up at Wigan showed the gap between Nigel Adkins side and the rest of the play-off contenders. While pre-season expectations were lofty, here's a look at why perhaps Reading fans should have seen this coming.

The squad has only gotten weaker

I have to admit, I'm one of the fans who were taken in by the club's relentlessly optimistic pre-season talk. You only have to listen to some of our early season Tilehurst End Podcasts to hear us crow about the depth in the squad and the potential in it, going so far as to consider it our strongest second tier squad in history.

When the summer began, Owner Anton Zingarevich was targeting SEVEN signings, while Nigel Adkins was hoping for at least two more buys to compliment the additions of Wayne Bridge, Danny Williams and Royston Drenthe.

Those three were certainly signings Reading needed, with Bridge coming in for the sold Joseph Mills and released Ian Harte and Nicky Shorey, Williams helping fill the void left by Jay Tabb and Daniel Carrico while Drenthe added depth to an attacking lineup that had seen Simon Church and Noel Hunt allowed to leave.

In terms of quality for the starting eleven, Reading's options were only getting stronger but the above paragraph gives us the first hint of what was to come - Nigel Adkins total options were shrinking rather than growing.

It was a trend that would continue throughout the season, both by way of transfer policy and through injury.

Jimmy Kebe and Adrian Mariappa were both sold in the final week of the transfer window, while by November Jem Karacan, Sean Morrison and Wayne Bridge had picked up long-term knocks to add to an injury list that already included two key members of the 2012 promotion winning side, Jason Roberts and Mikele Leigertwood.

Fans may scoff when I mention Leigertwood and Roberts due to their poor performances in our Premier League campaign but to underestimate their potential impact when fully fit at Championship level is narrow minded in my own opinion.

Royston Drenthe, Danny Williams, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Danny Guthrie also missed spells, while even short-term signings Billy Sharp and Chris Baird saw their times with the club limited by injury.

Letting players like Harte, Kebe, Mariappa, Hunt and Tabb go seemed justified, they've had their time and we do need to blood the youth, but to see such experience depart without being fully replaced is poor and when such bad injuries are added in to the mix, it's easy to argue that on an average week, the squad available to Nigel Adkins is weaker than the one Brian McDermott had to work with during the first half of 2012 or even during the second half of the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons.

The Ownership & Finances

For reasons we still don't fully know, Anton Zingarevich all but pulled out of Reading Football Club back in September, leaving Sir John Madejski to once again run the club. It's no secret that Sir John's personal wealth has been shrinking in recent years and when that's coupled with the growing costs of football, it was no surprise to see Sir John unable to fill the funding gap... or proposed funding that Anton and TSI had promised.

Suddenly Reading went from building a new team to trying to get the best out of an old one and as mentioned, an old one riddled with injury and a squad that had seen plenty of experience allowed to leave for free in the summer.

While we can't fully know it's impact, it's almost certain that this momentum shift had an impact on the players and the manager.

There would have been players plotting their next move out of the club suddenly asked to muck in and do their bit, other players signed to new deals miffed at the lack of reinforcements and others with contracts running down that had to wonder if the club could afford to keep them on, yet alone offer a generous new deal.

Reinforcements can really give a team a boost, just look at how the signings of Jason Roberts, Matthew Connolly, and Hayden Mullins didn't just bring options for Brian McDermott, they brought promotion winning experience and fresh energy to the squad. This season Reading haven't had a new voice since Billy Sharp and Chris Baird walked in during the Autumn.

As for why we haven't signed players, some will point to the amount of money we earned during our year in the Premier League but the most recent accounts show how that money was swallowed up with wages to the point that we actually made a LOSS during our most recent season in the sun.

Simply put we're back to the same stage we were two years ago, where the club's expenditure is greater than the money we're earning + the money SJM can afford to put in. In those circumstances we've been stuck with what we've got and worse still, we're left with bloated contracts signed during the Anton years that failed to anticipate his departure.

It's like buying a house, tearing it down to build a shiny new one and half way through the rebuild you've realised you've run out of money. Sure you may have finished the home cinema (Drenthe, Pogrebnyak...) but when your bedroom is leaking (your only recognised left-back is out for six months and your midfield is riddled with injury) that's not going to be much comfort.

All that has a knock on effect as suddenly, and given how abruptly Anton's money ran out,  suddenly is the key word - Nigel Adkins doesn't know if he's building a squad that'll have the investment and resources needed to win promotion this season, next, or two-three years down the line.

Performances on the pitch have never been consistent

How can nine of the team that smashed Bolton 7-1 in January go to Wigan and lose so meekly 3-0 just a few months later? If you're saying the missing two in Kaspars Gorkss and Adam Le Fondre made a significant difference, I'll have what you're drinking.....

If there's one thing that our previous two promotion winning sides, and our promising play-off losers in 95 and 2011 had, it was a consistency and drive that helped them grind things out week in, week out, especially after Christmas. Any team has blips and off games but I struggle to remember a Reading side that's been so Jekyll and Hyde.

How does a team that's won at QPR and Derby, drawn at Brighton and only lost to a single goal at Leicester go and lose home games with Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley while failing to beat Yeovil and Millwall?

Some of the inconsistent performances could well be blamed on the injury concerns we've already mentioned but even those that have been largely fit throughout the campaign like Royston Drenthe, Alex Pearce, Hal Robson-Kanu and Adam Le Fondre have gone through significant slumps to the point where you have to ask just how good they are  when all is said and done. I

s Adam Le Fondre the lethal marksman who won the league's player of the month in January or is he the man that's scored in two games he's started in since mid-October?

So perhaps we let pre-season expectations and optimism cloud our judgements on certain players.

Was it really fair to ask Sean Morrison to step up and put in a dominating Championship season given he hadn't even played a full season above League One? Did Hal Robson-Kanu really turn a corner late last season or was that just a temporary bump in performance levels from a player who at 25 and with over 130 first team games, has never been able to hold down a place? Why would Pogrebnyak suddenly turn into a 20 goal striker when his best mark since 2007 has been 13? Why would Drenthe suddenly turn his form around at Reading when he's struggled at just about every club he's been at...

Sure some players haven't hit their true potential but if you marked performances over the season against a realistic expectation based on past performances, then sadly this team has done about as well as you might expect. It's always nice to hope for improvements from players but sometimes they just are what they are or they don't move forward as quickly as you might expect.

Beyond that, it's also easy to forget how young players like McCarthy, Obita, Hector, Morrison, Akpan and Blackman are and this will hopefully be a good learning curve for them.

As for the rest.... maybe we've seen their best days, or perhaps they've shown us that sadly their best doesn't come nearly often enough.

The Manager

Nigel Adkins has done his best work when he's been allowed to build a team in his own image. As we showed earlier this season, his promotion winning teams at Scunthorpe and Southampton were built around having a very effective striker and a consistent team selection week in week out.

Unfortunately, Nigel hasn't had either of those at Reading this season and given what we've already discussed above with injuries, ownership and inconsistent performances, you've got to feel a bit sorry for Adkins who must have been sold a rather different dream when he took the job last March.

That's not to excuse some of his decisions, some of which have been baffling. For example, why leave things unchanged at half-time on Friday when there had been absolutely no spark what so ever, ditto at Bournemouth? Why throw an unfit Wayne Bridge into the team at Dean Court, why leave Le Fondre on the bench for so long when we've been chasing games, why is Jobi in the side when he's so out of form and just what have you been coaching Drenthe? are just some of the questions that have popped into my head at times this season.

Yet at the same time how can he possibly compensate for some of the individual errors we've seen in games? Be it air kicks from centre backs, bizarre own goals, missed penalties,

Again without wanting to hand Adkins a get out of poor form free card, I understand that he's just not the chance to build a Nigel Adkins side. This isn't his squad, it's largely Brian's with a couple of Anton additions and he's not even had that full squad to work with. He tried to change the playing style and it failed, he tried letting the players take the lead and it's failed, at this stage you have to sympathise with the bloke as nothing seems to be able to get this group to produce week in week out, the same group that Brian McDermott also failed to get a reaction from when the chips were down last season.

The quality of other squads

Again, maybe we've taken our eye off the ball but look through the starting XI of teams like Derby, QPR, Burnley, Leicester and Wigan and honestly ask yourself which Reading players would be no brainers to get into their sides? Maybe McCarthy, maybe Pearce, Williams perhaps, McCleary has his day and probably Obita for the future but beyond that our usual starting XI just isn't overly impressive and has no real right to expect a top six spot.

Despite all of that, we're still in the race

If you read all of the above you might think I'm lamenting a side doomed for the drop but yet we sit here just a point outside the top six with three games to go, two of which are at home. In 99/100 seasons, Reading fans would have snapped your hand off for such a scenario but this time around it's just seen as a failure.

I'm as frustrated as anyone in the heat of the moment and especially after games like Wigan but when you really sit down and analyse what we've had to contend with, being in the play-off race in the final weeks of the season should be seen as a decent achievement. Had it not been for talk of, seven signings, 100 goals and 20+ clean sheets would we really be feeling so down?

When you throw in the strides made by our youth teams and younger players in the first team, there's certainly reasons to hope this season has been one step back to take two steps forward. However, as long as ownership issues continue to rumble on off the pitch it's hard to know how quickly we'll be taking those forward steps.

Alternatively we could win six games in a row and be back in the Premier League come August...... one can dream.

So let us know what you think, with all things considered and without knowing quite how it'll end, has this season been good enough?

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