It’s been roughly 18 months since Anton Zingarevich bought Reading Football Club and in that time it’s fair to say that the club has had a few ups and downs, quite literally. While the mass spending of millions hasn’t quite happened, this summer’s transfer activity and some of the internal goings on over the last year have suggested that we are seeing the end of "The Reading Way".
God how I have hated that phrase. "The Reading Way". It sounds so pompous and arrogant. I’ve always respected, and to a large extent agreed with, the approach that Sir John Madejski took to transfer dealings and running the club in general but that phrase has always stuck in my throat, especially the pride that was obviously taken in parroting it about. So if it is on the way out, I won’t be too unhappy to see it go!
Inevitably when you think about how times have changed you will immediately point at the slightly cold manner in which Brian McDermott's services were ended. Indeed it was discussed on this site at the time, but I think it's deeper than that. McDermott's dismissal was similar to Brendan Rodgers before him, a necessary move and things have changed beyond that. The methods and philosophy previously employed are evolving into something new, especially where it comes to player acquisition.
So what do I mean by "The Reading Way"? Cynics would I’m sure say that it is a tight fisted owner wanting a cheap deal but I don’t think that’s it. It was an approach to team building that was best implemented by the trio of Sir John, Nicky Hammond and Steve Coppell. Yes it had the advantage of being cheap but it was an undeniably successful model. Rather than splashing out money on whoever the hottest player currently was, targets would be carefully identified and researched. They were not always the most obvious ones but they almost always fit into the team.
It wasn’t just the ability of the player that was looked at but the character as well. Coppell built a side that was more than the sum of its parts and it meant knowing that the likes of Kevin Doyle, Brynjar Gunnarsson, Ivar Ingimarsson and Steve Sidwell would not just be contributing on the pitch but off it as well, forming a close knit group that really clicked and work hard for each other. Unfortunately this approach proved to be limited when we got to the Premier League.
The side that won the title had a fantastic first year as they carried on the momentum but the following season was a disaster. Almost to a man everyone that came in over this time failed quite spectacularly. Millions were wasted on flops like Emerse Fae, Seol Ki-Hyeon, Liam Rosenior, Greg Halford and Marek Matejovsky precisely because the same kind of approach wasn’t taken. They just didn’t fit in.
Coppell’s loyalty to his original, limited, players eventually cost him and Brian McDermott followed the same path as his mentor almost to the letter. "The Reading Way" was in full effect with the signings of solid pros like Jobi McAnuff, Mikele Leigertwood and Ian Harte and once again it had the effect of producing a team that was more than the sum of its parts. However, McDermott isn’t and wasn’t Steve Coppell and it unravelled a lot quicker.
Once again players were signed who just did not fit into the club, on or off the pitch, it felt like they were arriving just because they were available. Pavel Pogrebnyak never fitted the system and when he did play, Danny Guthrie seemed to spend most of his time under McDermott in different matches to his team mates. In the mean time players who were a bit more in keeping with the 'old way' like Chris Gunter, Hope Akpan and Stephen Kelly struggled to make much of an impact (although Adrian Mariappa was perhaps the exception).
The limits of Reading’s approach of signing, often young, lower league players and building an effective system is clear. You can win the Championship with that but no more. That’s not bad thing in my opinion, dozens of club would give anything for that! That however is not what Anton Zingarevich has signed on for and the softly, softly approach is going out of the window.
Not that the Russian is being reckless with his money, far from it, but we are seeing a new way of running the club. Instead of younger players to mould or Football League journeymen, they are targeting bigger names that have played at a higher level who can be brought in on the cheap. That much is very clear with the arrivals of Wayne Bridge and Royston Drenthe but even more so when you look through some of last year’s signings. Jason Roberts, Daniel Carrico, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Danny Guthrie, all experienced at the top level, all high earners and all relatively cheap to sign.
On the surface that can only be a good thing. The older players will only be on short contracts and it frees up funds for the odd extravagant splurge (how different the perception of Reading’s transfer policy might be if Leandro Damiao had completed his move to Spurs in January and thus allowed Reading to nab Gylfi Sigurdsson for £10m+!) but with the exception of Roberts, none of them to date have really fit our style of play. Whether it was the wrong players or the manager not being flexible enough to accommodate them is largely irrelevant.
Moreover ‘character’, such as it is, doesn’t seem to factor in so much. Alex Pearce has just signed a new contract after a much publicised falling out with the management, something that he has in common with both Danny Guthrie and Adam Federici. Drenthe’s misdemeanours have been discussed on here previously and how much research went into bringing Pavel Pogrebnyak to the club when Anton presented him as a gift to Brian McDermott?
In fact the last 12 months have seen more public player unrest than I can ever remember as a Reading fan. Alex Pearce and Danny Guthrie were both very publicly admonished by their manager whilst Adam Le Fondre, Adam Federici, Jimmy Kebe and Hal Robson-Kanu have all given interviews in the last 12 months questioning team selection and criticising the club. This doesn’t really evoke a strong sense of togetherness, a pretty fundamental part of "The Reading Way".
A lot of that fallout I think probably stems from the new wage structures. Whilst I very much doubt the oft quoted figure of £65k/week that Pavel Pogrebnyak is reportedly on, it is obvious that Zingarevich’s millions are being ploughed into salaries rather than transfers fees. I suspect this has led to a bit of a two tiered structure within the club. New players like all those listed above will be on much more money than the rest of the squad; this in essence was Alex Pearce’s main gripe with his contract offers. Of course the flip side is that it makes the club a more attractive proposition to quality players, something that the powers that be are keen to priorities with constant talk of 'brand awareness'.
I don’t really know where this leaves us now. The club has gone to great lengths to try and present themselves as a warm family club but in doing so has, in my opinion, become increasingly anodyne. Plus we’ve had the not particularly wholesome deal with Viagogo, the unpaid ‘internship’ they offered sport science graduates and the ‘commercial partnership’ with the Malrussia Formula One team. As a whole I’ve found the club to be acting more and more in a cynical and opportunistic way that is in keeping with the Premier League they aspire to be part of.
Ultimately the club’s ambitions have changed. Under the new owners they have the financial backing to attempt to establish themselves in the Premier League but the signs are that Zingarevich won’t throw millions away aimlessly trying to do it. However, from the outside looking in the general approach seems to have changed drastically. From the playing style to the transfer policy to the club’s attitudes in general, it is clear that for better or worse, "The Reading Way" is in its death throes. What comes next is anyone’s guess but the evolution of "The Russian Way" will be interesting to watch.