So, Christmas day has been and gone, and after all the expectation the exquisitely wrapped present turned out to be just a lump of
Perhaps the big mistake was investing so much emotional energy into the game, but in many ways that’s unavoidable. It’s been interesting over the past couple of weeks to see the differing excitement levels of different Reading supporters. The youngsters who’ve never experienced a play-off final before, have been massively excited and completely invested in the final, but the older heads have been a bit different. As well as being more world-wise and cynical, they’ve (or rather we’ve!) started off being a lot more detached, and refusing to get fully drawn into the excitement – possibly as a defence mechanism.
Last week I described supporting Reading in the play-offs as like going back time and time again ex-lover who has hurt you so many times in the past – you know you’re likely to get hurt again, but you just can’t stop yourself. And so it was today – the circumstances
of the game meant that even the most detached and aloof supporter couldn’t help but get drawn in and invest everything they had emotionally.
Never before has the phrase "I don't mind the despair, it's the hope I can't cope with" felt quite so real. Despairing at three nil down is one thing, but every team suffers defeats, and we all ought to be able to cope with them, emotionally. But the wave of hope that’s buoyed by scoring two in quick succession as your team fights back from being three goals down – followed by hitting the post – is what hurts all the more. Even the most world-weary, cynical and detached person in the world surely can’t help themselves from being drawn in, forgetting all their reservations and dropping their emotional defences? But when the emotional crash comes with such emotional investment, it inevitably comes so much harder.
Moving onto the future, the real tragedy is the way football finances work for small clubs like Reading. Brian McDermott has performed near miracles building this team so quickly, but it’s inevitable that bigger clubs with Premier League cheque-books will now be buzzing around a number of Reading’s players. Shane Long is a clear target, as potentially are Jimmy Kebe, Matt Mills and probably Adam Federici and/or Alex McCarthy. The same maybe also applies to Jem Karacan (my man of the match today, incidentally) – and no-one can really begrudge any players a big money move if there’s the chance. Supporters talk about loyalty, but I’m sure any one of us would happily change our job at the drop of the hat if we had the chance to double or treble our pay cheque in an instant, as well as facing new exciting challenges on a much bigger stage. I certainly don’t begrudge any player leaving to further their career – it’s life, it’s inevitable, it’s how football works.
But it’s a crying shame that the finance gap between the Premier League and the Championship means that we will almost certainly now witness a major breakup of this team that has played with so much spirit and determination, and come so close to pulling-off a success that no-one in February gave them a whelk’s chance in a supernova of achieving. But that’s football and the play-offs – doing
so well and failing at the last hurdle has only drawn attention to them and what they can do.
Continuity is so important at a club like Reading which needs to build with minimal resources, and that’s the thing that will most be hit now. Coming so close inevitably means Brian will lose a number of key players and so next season won’t be able to
carry on where he left off, but instead will need to start by plugging the gaps left behind by departures. And seeing a team
with such potential and such spirit being broken up whilst still a work in progress is something that hurts almost as much as the result today.