Although it’s been two years since Brian McDermott readied us to once more charge upon the breach of promotion, it feels a lot longer. Much has happened to be fair, yet that probably indicates just how bad and strung-out last season felt. But there are a surprising amount of similarities and differences between now and where we found ourselves two years ago.
Following 2011’s summer transfer window, RFC were attempting to brush away Play-off Final heartbreak, whilst some pondered an uncertain future. Given how close the Royals came against Swansea, sections of fans were left frustrated at the rhetoric of Sir John Madejski. Both manager and squad had shown their Premier League potential and with extra investment, many felt either keeping McDermott’s squad together or adding one or two quality players would finally bring success. Instead Sir John told us that RFC would sell off its star players in order to balance club accounts. Fans knew that however much cash said sales rose, only a fraction would go towards replacements, weakening promotion chances. Neither the news nor its candour was great, but the expressed desire for a Billionaire successor to realise the dream wasn’t wrong. It looked like the price of football and the club’s standing had finally outgrown the Chairman’s wallet after nearly twenty years of careful planning.
Undoubtedly the first half of 2013 was a bigger misery to watch than that fated 90 minutes at Wembley over two years ago. Yet although the club faces a bigger penance through Premier League relegation, statements towards financial structuring haven’t been officially uttered. Likewise Sir John and the club’s hierarchy have been fairly positive too. Instead most of the team’s top players have been signed-on rather than sold, with incoming players hailing from football’s elite, rather than its more moribund areas. The academy is now category one with a new state of the art training ground afoot and stadium expansion plans rejuvenated, old pipedreams are a potential reality! With links into Formula One and clubs like Galatasaray and reportedly Juventus as well, RFC is moving from being just a football club to a brand. Since TSI’s takeover, their approach has been something of a revelation.
Consequently though, things change. Whereas failure to capture apparent transfer opportunities during last season’s windows was lumped onto the ousted McDermott. The perceived repetition during the most recent window has subsequently ended TSI’s honeymoon with groups of fans. How quickly two years on can feel like steps back to some.
But this is all off-pitch, what about on it?
Even before 2011, Adam Federici was seen as one of the Championship’s best stoppers. But brief glimpses of Alex McCarthy had many wondering if Fedders’ ought to watch his back? Some even felt RFC may have fared better towards the season’s conclusion had the youngster played over the Australian. Mikkel Andersen however, could only watch on.
Going into 2013-14 there’s quite a turnaround! McCarthy has caught Roy Hodgson’s attention and despite relegation could potentially make the World Cup! Assuming England qualify of course. But mistakes and injuries followed by selections probably left Fedders’ wanting to forget last season. Few would doubt his prowess if called upon, but it seems RFC’s #1 will have to beat McCarthy down to be Adkins’ first choice. Frustratingly for Andersen, 2013 mirrors 2011. With the arrival of very experienced Stuart Taylor as well, regardless what achievements RFC make this season, finishing with all four keepers would be one in itself.
Post Wembley Andy Griffin and Ian Harte were still highly considered lynchpins to the side despite Swansea showing neither were young men anymore. Shaun Cummings however, had evolved enough that Griffin’s absence wasn’t feared. So with baited breath we waited as to whether untried newbie Joseph Mills could similarly displace Harte? Given Harte’s imprint on the team, it was a tall order.
The central defence was a different story. It was a brave new world as “could be captain” Alex Pearce looked not only to make a starting slot his own, but form a partnership just as strong as the departed Matt Mills and Zurab Khizanishvili. Although fanfare surrounded Bongani Khumalo for having played at the 2010 World Cup, his lack of pitch time at Spurs didn’t excite the realists. With initial viewings offering credence to those sceptics, Pearce faced an uphill task whether paired with the South African loanee or the untested Sean Morrison. In Brian we trusted, so shoring things up entered Kaspars Gorkss.
Looking at 2013-14’s fullback options surmises if RFC have ever had it better? Cummings is now shut out by the ambidextrous Chris Gunter and Stephen Kelly. Each were recent staples in their respective international squads with aptitudes surely no lower than mid-Championship? Then there’s Wayne Bridge. The former England regular may be aging, but being recently voted the PFA’s best Championship left back (Which Ian Harte won twice whilst at RFC.) indicates remnants of the player Man’ City paid around £10 Million for back in 2009 remain.
However last season’s contract saga has turned Alex Pearce’s standing into more “could’ve been captain,” with Sean Morrison the new “blue-eyed boy” with fans. But 2011-12 left few doubting Pearce and Gorkss as top Championship defenders, albeit on their day. Though appearances last term indicate Gorkss is sadly limited to the second tier. In summary, we’re better for now knowing the devils we once didn’t. But is three really enough?
Under McDermott, Reading’s wingers were seen as either their sling of David or Achilles heel. The changeable forms of new Captain Jobi McAnuff and notably enigmatic Jimmy Kebe were detrimental towards results. Brian’s direct style with counterattacking pace and creativity rested on them, so with only steadily up and coming Hal Robson-Kanu in reserve, fitness was paramount. Praises of hyped potential were put upon Michail Antonio and Jordan Obita, but neither looked likely to feature regularly.
Two years on and changes under Adkins have seen the sudden emergence of Garath McCleary and prominently Robson-Kanu. Given how well they performed in RFC’s closing Premier League matches, many now consider McAnuff a secondary option. But with Everton, Feyenoord and Real Madrid on his CV, Royston Drenthe looks the most exciting acquisition to arrive at the Madejski. Reading’s greatest strength has potentially doubled in potency! Plus Obita could be another HRK…
Looking at our central midfield of two years ago, change is more noticeable. Following his impact that steered the Royals to Wembley, many hoped Mikele Leigertwood and rising star Jem Karacan would pick up where they left off. Brian Howard offered a different option but seemed redundant from McDermott’s plans, whilst Bryn Gunnarsson and Jay Tabb provided competent experience if needed. Although there wasn’t any real attacking threat, we definitely had solidity.
The central midfield contingent of 2013-14 is very different. Still considered an ascending talent, Karacan looks set pass the 200 appearance milestone for RFC whilst only 25 years old! However last season was contrastingly unkind to Leigertwood. Who despite a monumental contribution towards promotion, probably ranks lower than out on loan Daniel Carrico as an option. Alongside Karacan as chief creator will likely be Danny Guthrie, credited for orchestrating Newcastle’s recent rapid return to the top flight. Where Bryn and Tabb offered aged experience, Hope Akpan and Danny Williams provide youthful energy and potential. Solidity aside, competition is surely the greater catalyst?
Two games into the 2011-12 campaign, Shane Long had been sold, leaving Simon Church and Noel Hunt as starting strikers. Although they’d score goals, evidently neither possessed the consistent firepower to fuel promotion. Mathieu Manset looked a decent impact player, but needed to step up, whilst Brett Williams was already put out to pasture on loan. RFC’s shrewd purchase of Rotherham’s star striker Adam Le Fondre offered hope, but the notion he’d jump up two leagues to immediately emulate the departed Long seemed utterly fanciful!
Despite Premier League experience, the options upfront for 2013-14 seem surprisingly worse. Nick Blackman is yet to score in open play and Pavel Pogrebnyak just hasn’t lived up to expectation, despite being the seemingly more capable. Meanwhile Karl Sheppard’s career follows Brett Williams’. From arrival in January 2012, Jason Roberts looked our most accomplished and consistent striker in the Championship. But at 35 and currently side-lined indefinitely, hope of seeing the same player again (if at all) is unlikely. Thus we turn back to Le Fondre. Adulations aside, earning a tag as “super sub,” indicates ALF hasn’t fully replaced Shane Long. So not only do we need him on form, he also needs to develop his prowess to cover 90 minutes as well as a partnership with his aforementioned colleagues… no pressure then?
Reading’s odds for 2011-12 hinged on McDermott’s signings having as much impact as the players they replaced. Much was also made on re-enacting the run of results that had served us so well previously. Altogether we stood a chance. Thus according to the pundits we were mere outsiders, not favourites. But look what happened?
Two years on with a squad that have already shown capabilities towards promotion and beyond, returning to the top tier seems realistic. This time the pundits tip us to at least make the play-offs, with sound bites coming from the club seeming to agree. When was promotion last considered an expectation? Let alone the club seemingly owning the resources to feasibly back that strategy? Although that last point is now debated.
True the events of this week have left many with bitter tastes. But we’ve faced tougher odds and fared OK before now! We still have most of the squad that last won promotion, plus the competitive depth lacked then in my opinion.
But what do you think?
Overall are we better or worse off now, than we were early on into the fateful 2011-12 campaign?