Like most football clubs, RFC has its small collection of cult fan groups for former players who never quite made the grade; e.g. Tony Rougier, Mass Sarr, Simon Sheppard etc. Those who remember (or choose to) often sarcastically pledge loyalty to groups "paying homage" to such players thankfully long gone. But then there are players who buck that trend, who despite not being a pinnacle player of their era, win the hearts of fans through their sheer effort in performances yet never really got their chance. For many loyal Royals, Jay Tabb is that minority.
Following glowing endorsements from his Palace youth days and stint at Brentford under the successive managements of Steve Coppell and Wally Downes, Jay arrived at the Madejski in the January transfer window of 2009. On a reputed modest fee, he'd be the last permanent signing of Coppell's Reading tenure.
Coventry's 2007/08 player of the season was added to hustle up a midfield that was somewhat short of dependable options. Whereas Jay arrived from Coventry; Emerse Fae had been figuratively sent there following his acrimonious behaviour the season before. Kalifa Cisse was more needed to cover defence with an aging Brynjar Gunnarsson sought as just general reserve. Marek Matejovsky was out of sync either with tactics or partnering James Harper. Plus Stephen Hunt's enthusiasm appeared to be waning against Jem Karacan who was still learning. In short, Tabb was a reliable utility option in what looked an unreliable group.
With the team's form turning on a sixpence from promotion, to near relegation candidacy, it was a fiery baptism that made Jay's impact negligible. The Royals so badly shadowed themselves from one half of the season into the next that whatever was in the Madejski Stadium's water eventually got to Jay too. He'd only feature in half the remaining league games but arguably his worst RFC performances came in the domed 2009 Playoff Semi-finals against Burnley. But the team by this stage was so wholly depleted, that Tabb's out of position displays had no bearing in the ensuing 0-3 drudgery.
Brendan Rodgers' succession from Coppell led to change being the theme of the 2009/10 campaign. The Royals would use nine central midfielders, along with a host of formations, line-ups and managers, as Rodgers lasted only three months before Brian McDermott stepped in. This season would showcase Jay's dexterity and dependability around the field that Coppell had yearned from his arrival.
Initially Scott Davies and James Harper were preferred in the middle of the park by Rodgers, before each left the club. Then with neither Cisse nor Matejovsky regularly featuring (before they inevitably departed the following summer) it therefore took a new order (mainly under McDermott's watch) to provide on-field stability. Opting for a 4-5-1 formation, the new midfield of choice was; Brian Howard, Jimmy Kebe, Jobi McAnuff, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jay Tabb. Jem Karacan would really begin to bloom through and there was an equally important contribution from ever trustful stalwart, Bryn Gunnarsson.
The squad depth that Gunnarsson and Tabby provided was what really catalysed Reading's rejuvenation that season. Line-ups were tested or changed due to circumstance and new faces like Shaun Cummings hadn't emulated their predecessors. With sixty-odd appearances between them, it was their competent coverage; at full-back, out wide and central midfield that enabled the Royals to go from relegation worriers, to Play-off potentials and near FA Cup Semi-finalists.
Although the plaudits went elsewhere, it was probably the Londoner's consistency over 30-odd appearances that in hindsight helped maintain the eventual upward momentum. Such reliant readiness made Tabby a key member to McDermott's squads over the coming seasons.
Gylfi Sigurdsson's big money move to Hoffenheim at the beginning of the 2010/11 campaign would however prompt more change. The Royals were left lacking bite going forward and with Noel Hunt returning from injury, McDermott reverted to a 4-4-2 formation. Someone had to lose out in midfield and with the pint-sized Karacan and Tabb not really adapt going forward, it looked tough benching either. Eventually youthful Jem was picked over experienced Jay, along with incoming Mikele Leigertwood ousting Howard.
With neither of the usurped midfielders making twenty starts, their futures looked bleak. But Tabby was again RFC's reliable stopgap, even making a bizarre strike-partner to Shane Long in an injury hit squad at Bramall Lane. Despite never tasting promotion before, Jay's professionalism would shine through endorsing his colleagues, even if it went against him. Stating he'd rather Karacan and Leigertwood play ahead of him if it brought success.
It nearly paid dividends as Reading met Swansea in the Play-off Final, where although Jay wouldn't feature, he at least made the history books. Distraught at Phil Dowd's refereeing and the Royals 0-3 down at half-time, Tabb was sent off from the bench for his remonstrations. Not the Wembley first he wanted. He even refused the confines of the tunnel and still watched the crushing 2-4 defeat from the bench.
Tabb's loyal ethos of putting the team first would carry through into the 2011/12 season. Whereas Brian Howard was shutout, Jay's nineteen appearances were again key in finally pushing the Royals towards promotion. Karacan's injury may have gifted Tabby's chance, but it didn't stop McDermott trying out Tomasz Cywka and Hayden Mullins beforehand, thanks to incoming TSI's money. Even McAnuff was taking a central midfield spot over Tabby.
All that in mind, a Premier League appearance initially looked beyond Jay after Danny Guthrie's arrival. But no league win by October prompted McDermott's tinkering with the side, providing Tabby's top flight debut in the trip to Swansea. The game's pace at first looked too much, until eventually the erstwhile workhorse fans knew stepped up. Beforehand the Royals had only two points from six games, but they'd pick up seven more in the next five games Tabb started, culminating in an eventual victory against Everton. The following games were close defeats against Wigan, Villa and United, but displaced loyalty was about to strike.
Guthrie refused to travel to games, Karacan was injured and evidently worse, Leigertwood struggled. So much that the situation crescendoed at Villa, where Jason Roberts fell back to support Tabb (and others) who now looked to be bypassing the maligned midfielder. Leigertwood's constant selection was hugely bemoaned in a period where the Royals lost seven games straight. Results considered, many credited Tabb as the only player worthy of praise with games against Southampton and Man' City as testimony. He'd nearly score his first for RFC in both fixtures but the Etihad unknowingly became his league swansong.
McDermott deposed Tabb from the side to curtail Guthrie's much noted ostracization. Although few could argue Karacan's return, Leigertwood was somehow still picked. The January window saw Hope Akpan and Daniel Carrico's arrival, but before a new midfield could be trialed McDermott swiftly singled out Jay a free man. Many were left dumbfounded whilst he was loaned to Ipswich yet still listed in RFC's chosen senior squad of twenty-five. Although he wasn't a player likely to make or break the season, his record arguably indicates his capable influence towards scrounging the odd point?
Upon Nigel Adkins’ arrival, Tabby reportedly expressed some optimism towards being given a second chance. But being the ousted man in a now packed midfield contingent placed the odds well against him.
Jay Tabb's time at Reading FC could've totalled nearly two hundred appearances, but having not reached half that figure surely illustrates his loyalty? His consistency through those stretched out 90-odd games is what undoubtedly attracted Mick McCarthy. Given everything that's passed, it seems an irreverent end to a man who will be so warmly welcomed back when he returns next season.