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The A-word

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There’s a word that seems to be cropping up more and more often these days : "Ambition." It seems that "lack of ambition" is the ultimate insult in football, and that’s a term that’s being constantly thrown at Reading FC over recent weeks. So let’s take a closer look at "ambition" and what it means.

The dictionary definition of ambition is “desire  for success : a strong feeling of  wanting to be successful in life and achieve great things.”   To  suggest that the people in day-to-day charge at Reading, or Sir John Madejski, don’t want to the club to be successful is patently ludicrous.  It’s to everyone’s advantage for the club to  be in The Premier League – finances would be easier; crowds would pour back; sponsorship money would be much easier to get; everyone’s job would be far more secure and so on.   And it would also make the club a whole lot for saleable – which is the only way Sir John can actually recoup his investment.  Talk to any one of them and it’s clear how much they want to club to succeed.

So, let’s look at what we know.  I think all except those who don’t want to see will acknowledge the below as true.  Firstly, Reading FC makes a loss of approximately £4M each season.  This is largely down to their salary bill – whilst they’re by no means a massive payer of salaries, the outgoings are so much higher than their income each season, leaving what some love to deride as an annual “black hole.”  Secondly, we know that Reading has a superb track-record of selling players at a profit - or, more accurately, at making good money when they are unable to stop their best players from leaving when bigger clubs offer them more money or better prospects. Thirdly, we know that the club has to be self-sufficient financially – no outside investment from Sir John, and no money being taken out (and those who doubt this last point need to check the accounts which show no repayments of directors’ loans).  The other two factors we know about are that investment in the academy over the past ten years has seen a promising crop of young players coming through and finally we know that over recent years Reading has consistently over-achieved.

So why do they keep getting this “lack of ambition” tag thrown at them?  Clearly, there’s a mismatch between what these supporters want and what the club are doing.  Because while it’s clear that everyone at the club certainly does have ambition, it’s not ambition at any cost!   On the other hand, many supporters aren’t looking that far ahead.   They want success - and they want it now, and
they don’t stop to think about risks involved or the implications.

Several years ago I was at a football when an old and be-whiskered elder statesman of the game said to me “You know what the problem with supporters is, don’t you?  They want the moon on a stick and someone else to pay for it.”  And to a certain extent that sums it up nicely.   Because for some supporters, it seems that its not about what you achieve and how you do it - but what you’re seen to be doing.  And for these supporters “ambition” equals not just spending large sums of money, but being seen to be spending those large sums.

But that’s not something Reading is ever going to do – they work in a very different way to most other football clubs, working on a longer-term strategy, not conducting their business through the media, and not just throwing money at a perceived problem – or risking that money on purchases just for show or to appease supporters.  Because they understand that they’re never going to win if they get involved in a financial pissing competition – there are clubs with bigger grounds, larger income streams, richer (maybe foreign) chairmen, not to mention clubs who are quite happy to run up debts that they may never be able to pay off.   We just can’t compete financially with those clubs because the facts of the matter are that spending money never guarantees success, it only ever makes success more likely, and whilst there are richer clubs spending more trying to compete financially would inevitably end in disaster.  The first year it fails you then have debt to service as well as the expenditure that you couldn’t afford in the first place.

Instead, we know that if we’re going to compete we have to do so differently.  We make so much effort to make the club one that players love and don’t want to leave, but more importantly we realise that if we can’t spend lots of money we need to spend it more efficiently than other clubs.  And in fact our record of what we’ve achieved over the past 10 years compared with what we’ve spent is surely better than any other team – we’ve got an outstanding track record of buying good players cheaply and selling them for much larger sums.  Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and, today, Shane Long are just a few examples.

And the immediate response of some, of course, will be to say that we need to spend the money coming in – to “invest it in players.”   Well, for starters, we do to the tune of about £4M each season, since the so-called “black hole” comes from investing in players – by paying their wages. Salaries are a much longer-term, much more significant investment, than transfer fees, which are a one-off expense.   And I’ve no doubt that some of the money coming in from West Brom for Shane Long will be spent on players.  But I don’t think  it’ll be spent on a high-value, big name striker to replace Shane Long.  Instead it’ll be targeted on strengthening specific gaps in the squad – in the same way that the excess from the money received for Gylfi Sigurdsson was spent bringing Ian Harte and Zurab Khizanishvili to the club last season.

What it won’t be spent on is a big name player to appease those who want to see big money spent for the sake of it – because those who want to see that need to realise we’re not in that sort of game.  Spending wisely as we do so well is much, much, better than spending big - because spending big is a game that we just can’t win.

But we’re back to where we were in August last year, with doomsayers predicting dire calamities because we won’t spend big and we can’t stop our best players moving on.  But we reached the play-off final last year, despite all the dire predictions, and if the current management of the club have faith in the youngsters we have that’s good enough for me – especially with a little targeted spending to improve, rather than to replace.  Because many of those doomsayers who predict the worst unless we spend big money are those who were vociferously calling for Shane Long to be thrown on the scrapheap between August and December last season.  And when it comes to making judgements on where money should be spent and how good the squad is, Brian McDermott’s scorecard is way, way ahead of people on the internet who insist that token big-money gambles are necessary to prove “ambition”.