With big admiration for Brian and not wanting pessimism to get the better of me, I was unsure for weeks about how and whether to write this piece. But in a strange twist of fate, now seems the appropriate moment as it falls to his successor and the RFC Board to answer the questions he left behind.
From the start I think it’s best to come out and say it. Thank you for everything Brian. From accepting Alan Pardew’s invite. Those long lonely nights looking at players we probably never paid out for. Sticking around and helping for so long and when finally getting your chance, giving us all one hell of a ride from late gasps of hope at Bristol and Anfield, fever pitch at Wembley and that great night last April against Forest. Like most, I too believe the timing of his departure can be described as unfair.
But poignantly, April last year seems to only be how far many people go when it comes to thanking Brian. Perhaps this is because many felt it all started to go wrong for him and RFC as early as last summer?
Back then the pundits tipped McDermott’s men to be in the precise position they currently occupy, citing a lack of quality within Reading’s ranks. Bringing in seven players and spending around five million pounds in fees, Brian maintained he was happy with his signings, having brought in everyone he wanted thus talking up our chances against the pessimisms. So was this just an unlucky collection of bad decisions? Stubborn optimism bordering naivety? Or was McDermott seemingly making the most out of what he’d been given by the board? Another “feed the 5,000” job? Either way someone seriously misjudged what capabilities the squad possessed against what it needed to compete. Was it all Brian’s call or Brian just getting who he could with what money he was given hoping to pave over the cracks? Evidently there seemed to be more money at his disposal in January.
Clearly the cracks were seen in the Championship? The Jekyll and Hyde performances of Jimmy Kebe, the much chided captaincy of Jobi McAnuff, the countless games where Adam Federici literally grabbed points. Surely the fact he was often doing it indicated that Reading’s defences needed thoroughly revaluating? The sheer amount of set-pieces ruefully wasted. That just twelve (albeit crucial) goals made Adam Le Fondre top scorer (by a distance,) a concerning fact considering both Shane Long and Gylfi Sigurdsson each scored nearly double that amount in their preceding seasons. Concerning further that Alf only appeared affective as a sub, compared to starting. Although everyone was doing their best, they were still problems that followed us into the Premier League. But did Brian and more importantly the board acknowledge them?
So from those seven summer arrivals, who’s really made an impact? After 29 games only Adrian Mariappa, Garath McCleary and Pavel Progrebnyak can call themselves regulars. McCleary has made the most appearances out of them all, but most of which have been from the bench thus reportedly leading the winger to consider his future. Allegedly so too is Pog, given what has been a frustrating season alone upfront, with his goal tally only half the amount notched by Alf. This leads me to ask, that if the two most used summer signings now want to leave, what then for the others? Secondly was everyone really given enough time and versatility on the pitch to find their best use within the squad?
Such quandaries deepen by McDermott signing right-backs Chris Gunter and Stephen Kelly each respectively in the summer and winter transfer windows, as well as having Shaun Cumming in the ranks who too recently signed a contract extension. This now means RFC are paying three sets of first-team wages for one position. How was this allowed to happen?
Contract extensions, bring me next to Alex Pearce. Last year’s player of the season was omitted from first-team involvement for ten league games! Having played at West Brom in September, Pearce wouldn’t be seen again until a sub appearance at St Mary’s in December, supposedly due to strained contract negotiations with the club. Over those ten games Reading would go on to lose the lead in six. Three of those ten games were; the draw with Norwich and the close 1-0 defeats away to Liverpool and Villa. It has to be said that if only Reading had the extra quality in defence to maybe take at least five points, rather than just one from those three aforementioned games, the season could’ve looked incredibly different. Turn back to the 2006/07 season when Steve Sidwell similarly looked destined to leave RFC and Steve Coppell contrastingly still played him regardless, helping the Royals finish 8th! McDermott however looks to have mixed boardroom politics with team selection, as frankly there was no alternative explanation as to why Pearce was missing? Fatally Brian did this for the final time at Stoke despite the last win against Sunderland seven days before. Here Reading’s losing streak would start that has ultimately cost Brian his job.
It wasn’t the only controversial selection decision. It would take until December before Brian finally used the same starting eleven for three straight league games. Considering how early Reading did their business in the summer it’s a perplexing notion that Brian needed so long to deduce his best side. Especially as the first-team had at least eight pre-season friendlies, double the quantity on previous years and against supposedly superior opposition too. In fact the club had one of its busiest pre-seasons and looking back at results it can’t be considered a particularly convincing one either. So how could a side seemingly giving itself more time to prepare, end up looking so… unprepared?
One thing McDermott couldn’t be prepared for was how poor his side would look when out of form. The contrast in performances almost looked as if a curse had been placed upon them. Along with the problems the side carried over from the Championship, pivotal players in achieving promotion turned into weak links. Federici developed butter-fingers. The solid Kaspars Gorkss was now soluble. Jem Karacan and Mikele Leigertwood looked hassled rather than hassling and Jason Roberts was doing so much elsewhere (on and off the pitch, including the physio-room) he was never forward to bag a single league goal. After a brief reprieve only Fedders would return to his former self. The rest (until Roberts “injury”) were constantly redeployed like chess pawns, giving their all for the cause, but easily swept aside game after game.
In previous bad spells Brian would’ve turned to Simon Church, Brynjar Gunnarsson and Jay Tabb and following the summer he had even more options. Yet only Tabb would get a run in the side that habitually he took by the horns and at times was Reading’s best player. However as soon his pawn superiors were ready again, Tabb was not only dropped but told he could leave the club making way for Hope Akpan. Arguably performances worsened once Jem and Lege replaced him, so much so that Brian’s last game would see fans sarcastically jeer his substitution of Lege for Danny Guthrie. Similar was seen in Fedders, Guthrie and Pearce all being swiftly dropped, yet Gorkss (who too was later loaned out?) and Lege etc. still started games. Unless playing 4-5-1 only the Alf/Roberts strike partnership was used for more than four straight league games. Meanwhile barely any of the summer signings were regularly starting and substitutions ranged from ineffective to just odd.
Concluding on the above, why were there so many inconsistencies in how individuals were treated?
But it was as with the strike-force Brian would be the most frustrating. In years gone by Nicky Forster, Leroy Lita and Longy all performed well utilised as lone strikers. What they all owed to their success to was their pace. So when one looks at Pog in comparison, you’d think him more able to wrestle all three at once (and win) than challenge them in a race. Yet a lone Pog was a tactic deployed 13 times and would only bore four goals from the Russian. However the nine times Pog was partnered upfront he would score three and aid his varying partners score seven, mostly Noel Hunt. So why the persistence in playing Pog alone, when the evidence would suggest otherwise?
Bringing Le Fondre into the equation, why start him in the recent absence of Pog, knowing Alfie’s effectiveness from the bench? It seemed senseless that Brian would sacrifice the ace-card of “Super-sub Alfie” in place of bringing on and further pressurising an inexperienced Nick Blackman? Surely it would’ve been beneficial all-round to start Blackman and still having the Alf-card up the sleeve?
Now the obtuse questions;
Where is Daniel Carrico? Yes he looked off-pace against West Brom, but his debut wasn’t as bad as Marcus Williams’. Surely after three months on the training pitch he must be ready to feature again? Or has he thrown his toys out the pram as he allegedly did at Sporting and found himself ostracised again?
Is this the same for Jason Roberts? Last season’s hero can only put media appearances and sparking national debate towards tackling racism as his only notable achievements in this, his first full season at Reading. Have his extracurricular activities caused friction? Or is it just coincidence that a much rumoured argument between himself, McDermott and Pearce at Southampton is the reason he hasn’t been seen on-pitch since? It’s worth noting that in the past, crucial players with long-term injuries are often sent to specialists, such as Alex McCarthy. Why has so little been made of an injury that in theory has really hampered team-selection and progress?
Why has the squad been left with just three recognised centre-backs? Although Gorkss hasn’t had a good season, surely having four is a better contingency than three? Maybe this can be blamed on the miscommunication apparent in the proposed transfer of Stoppila Sunzu?
Then there are the failed bids for Thomas Ince and bringing Gylfi back to RFC. From having signed Blackman as well, Brian must have been trying to reconstruct Reading’s attack and give the side some form of edge or Plan B. Although he said he was happy with who he already had at his disposal, one can only imagine how much of a blow not landing either player was to Brian plans. Was it the timing or money? Or did Reading’s position sadly not appeal to the chosen parties? Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s hard not to think that surely a little extra somewhere would’ve brought one of them in?
Ironically, as Brian said after many games, all this is just “ifs and buts.” But sadly such a long list of them has cost a good man his job.
Although ultimately they all comeback to Brian, it’s curious to wonder whether other factors within the club had more of a say in what happened?
But sadly the ultimate king in football underlines it all… money.
Not how much was or wasn't spent. But how much would be lost. Along with the boos and recent hoards of fans walking out as early as 70minutes, it stood as a big metaphor to what the club would lose if it didn’t act.
Be seen to act and maybe so much won’t be lost?
Incidentally though, I know it would take more than money for me to ever swap some of the experiences under the Brian McDermott era.