With a third of the season gone we find ourselves sitting 14th in the Championship, eight points clear of the bottom three, four out of sixth and ten points behind the top two. With just one defeat in our last ten games we're starting to look harder to beat but just four wins in that time and just two at the Madejski Stadium has left many fans feeling underwhelmed about our short term prospects. However is such a negative feeling justified and if it is, what's the solution?
Below the jump I'll be giving my own take on how we've got to this position and what might be around the corner.
Perhaps we should all have seen this indifferent start to the season coming.
The run to Wembley was such an unexpected and exciting way to finish what had looked a dull midtable season and to be within 90 minutes of a Premier League return was the stuff of dreams rather than meeting our pre-season expectations. Sadly 30 minutes of madness and the width of a post denied us the ultimate fairytale finish and what has happened over the past six months has firmly sent us back to reality.
There's a reason that commentators make constant reference to a 'play-off final hangover' because as much as you like to think it won't happen to your team, it quite often does and just as with 'second season syndrome' Reading have found out the hard way that there's some truth in hackneyed expressions.
Transfer wise it's been hard for even the most rose tinted of fans to get excited since Wembley. Matt Mills, Zurab Khizanishvili and Shane Long have all left the club, as did the long serving Ivar Ingimarsson. In their place have come Joe Mills, Kaspars Gorkks, Bongani Khumalo and Adam Le Fondre and while they've all had good moments, it's fair to say that Gorkks aside, we've gotten worse as a team in the short term. That's not a knock on any of the players coming in, nor is it to say they won't turn out to be better in the long run, but I think we'd have a few more points on the board if we had the squad we had available back in May.
I'm not going to critisise the club for those moves as each made financial sense and were driven by the player's desire to move more than the club's decision to sell. Even so it's hard to get excited when the club's putting out statements about the tough financial climate we're in and how we don't have a big budget to spend, despite seeing a reported £9 million or so come into the club's coffers.
I absolutelty agree with the way the club is being run and admire the way we're trying to run ourselves as a self sustaining business but I can't pretend to be excited about it. It's a little bit like the envy you get when you see the bloke down the road get a flash new car while you're scrimping away getting the most out of your 10 year old banger to make sure you've got enough money for Christmas. Even if he has gone and got it on credit and long run could be worse off, you're still jealous, you still want to go out and get one yourself. Reading Football Club in 2011 can hardly be described as a 10 year old banger... but right now they are more like a functional 5 door family car rather then a flashy 2 door sports model that makes you look twice when it goes by.
The performances this season certainly back up such comparisons as we've yet to see a flashy exciting performance but at least since the Watford game we've not been let down terribly either. At this point I'm happy to write off the first few games of the season and since the Doncaster game we've been a steady Championship outfit who hasn't been outclassed by anyone we've played, which includes a number of the top six. The worrying thing is that we've not been able to outclass anyone either. The fact that we’ve played the entire bottom eight and won just three times is something that’s a big problem if we have any play-off ambitions.
But are expectations too high? should we be expecting more from this group of players and would expecting less make the fan experience any better?
The players may be suffering from a play-off final hangover but as fans we're arguably still trying to come to terms with everything that's happened since Ivar Ingimarsson saw his goal ruled out at Blackburn on the final day of the 2006/07 season. The failure to get that goal to win the game and send us into Europe was the first setback for a group that had swept all before them in the 24 months previous. That squad had won the Championship, and stormed into European contention in the Premier League. Heck even the reserves had managed a decent cup run, pushing Manchester United all the way in the 5th round and won the Premier Reserve League as well (under Brian...). But with the European dream gone and our plucky underdog/surprise package tag well and truly removed, both fans and players struggled to know where to go from there.
For the fans, the past 2 years had been a dream, hell the past 15 years had all been pretty good, with a move to a new stadium, two play-off finals, three promotions, two League Cup quarter-final cup runs and a top 10 Premier League finished only really soured by a relegation and a bit of a struggle from 1997-2000. For the fans of a club like Reading we'd achieved all we'd realistically ever hoped for in such a short space of time and it was always going to be tough to get excited by anything that was realistically achievable.
That being said, few would have been disappointed or bored with consilidating in the Premier League and really establishing ourselves as one of the biggest clubs in the South.
Sadly, what happened next led to a lot of the apathy many of us are feeling today. It wasn't so much the relgation that left a sour taste in the mouth, but the way it happened. Players who had been mainstays at the club suddenly didn't seem to feel so close to the football club anymore. Sidwell had gone and the likes of Nicky Shorey and Stephen Hunt were reportedly asking for moves. The big money Premier League buys like Halford, Cisse, Fae, Seol and Matejovsky all failed to really live up to their seven figure transfer fees and never settled. Fae was perhaps the biggest failure, a £2.5m dud who's biggest impression on the club was his refusal to play for Brian McDermott's reserve team along with Ibrahima Sonko. For players like Fae to disappoint was one thing, but the way the Shorey, Hunt and Sonko situations unfolded showed the worst side of the Premier League and how players loyalty can rarely ever match a supporters.
That season arguably spoiled the Premier League dream for a lot of fans and if rumours are to be believed... perhaps killed off the Chairman's appetite for it as well. It's not that SJM or many fans no longer want to see the club promoted, but there's a more a sense of is it worth it now that we've been there and done it and seen the ugly side of top flight football. Getting to Wembley was exciting, as was the possiblity of being in the limelight again but at least for me it wasn't the gutting experience like losing the 95 play-off final. It was easy to console myself with the thought of cheaper tickets, Saturday 3pm kick-offs and knowing that you'd actually get a chance to see some home grown players continue to develop rather then relying on the mercinary types that you often have to bring in to survive at the top level, at least in the short term.
It's that last point about seeing a team develop that perhaps gives us our biggest reason to be excited about this season and the ones to come. Reading may have been there and done it before but to do it on an even tighter budget and with a lot of players who have come through our academy would be something special. On top of that we've got a manager who has also come through our ranks and is as genuine, honest and frank as any manager in the game right now.
There's a lot of potential in this squad, which it must be remembered is still very young and is still gelling together. Of the XI that started on Sunday only five started at Wembley and our team remains one of the youngest in the Championship with Gorkks the oldest starter in the team on Sunday, on what was his 30th birthday.
It's fair to argue that the team isn't flying in the final third of the pitch right now but if we're looking at the positives so far, the back five are growing in confidence with each game they play. Adam Federici has been one of the best goalkeepers in this league, Gorkks looks every bit as good as Matt Mills, while Shaun Cummings has been one of our best players this season. Alex Pearce looks better with each game and can only get better the more games he plays in a settle back five and while Joe Mills struggled to claim the shirt in his first few games, his last two or three performances have been impressive.
Midfield wise and by his own admission Mikele Leigertwood was off the boil to start the year but has gotten better as the season has gone on. Jem Karacan may not ever be the new Steve Sidwell but he's certainly solid at this level and his workrate can't be questioned.
Our two wingers have perhaps been the biggest disappointment, with Jobi McAnuff failing to inpsire and Jimmy Kebe spending more time injured than on the pitch. Hal Robson-Kanu has also struggled to really force either out of the team, but both Michail Antonio and Jordan Obita have promise and their development out on loan and with the reserves/academy could see them making a strong push for the first team sooner rather than later especially if Kebe leaves in January.
The strikers have been a mixed bag this year and I'm still not convinced that Brian knows his best combinationright now. Adam Le Fondre has been the pick of the bunch though, having already scored some key goals after playing just three months at this level. Manset was playing in the fourth tier this time last season and again has already fired some vital goals, his double against Millwall showing what he's capable of, though he does need to work as hard as possible on his stamina levels.
Simon Church and Noel Hunt have also shown that they can score goals though neither has produced as often as Brian McDermott might like. Church in particular faces a big six months that could decide his future at the football club. The Wales striker is into his third full Championship season and he's yet to fully establish himself despite being fit for the majority of that time. Fans should know better than to write a young striker off (Shane Long anyone?) but three full years is a good period of time in which to make a fair judgement on a player and if he hasn't shown he can produce regularly in the Reading team by season's end it might be time for a fresh start. Noel Hunt also needs to show he can stay fit and play well week in week out though as an older more experienced player you'd settle for a worst case scenario of him being at a versatile dependable sub.
Squad wise we've also got the talent to step in and hold the fort if we have injuries, or if we need to give some guys a break. We've three great goalkeepers at the football club while Andy Griffin and Ian Harte are vastly experienced players who can play a role both in the first team and on the training ground. Sean Morrison is young and has plenty of years ahead of him, with Brynjar Gunnarsson about as dependable and versatile as you can get. Jay Tabb didn't let himself down in his run in the side, while we have a variety of striking options available to us. Throw in some good prospects in the shape of Jordan Obita and Jake Taylor and we've got plenty of reasons to feel confident we'll at least be a decent Championship side over the next few seasons.
How Mills, Pearce, Karacan, Obita, Robson-Kanu, Church and Manset develop will determine our fate in the next few seasons and the potential of those players if anything should give us reasons to turn up each week. Sure they may not deliver week in week out, but the chance to see them getting better as players and knowing what they are capable of shows the potential in this football club. It's not going to happen overnight and we're probably going to have to put up with Manset looking knackered after 60 minutes, Chruch running down blind alleys and Pearce making us nervous when the ball is in the air.... but if give them our support and a bit of patience this season and beyond, the results could be spectacular.
Brian has already built two successful teams in his time at the club and while it's hard to do it year after year on such a tight budget, the guy has shown he is capable and worthy of a lot of patience and support. The board too deserve a bit of slack because despite not pumping in as much money as we'd like, they've have created an environment that attracts a good level of professional and youth talent and have continued to make reasonable investments into signing new players.
It's a little bit of a glass half empty or a glass half full debate when you look at the club. Yes we're not as strong as the past ten years but we've got the potential within the squad and the right manager to reach lofty heights once again. The greatest teams never appear overnight and sometimes they appear when you least expect it.
It can sometimes take just one player to really make a difference, as we've seen in the past Simon Osborn, Steve Sidwell, Martin Butler, Mikele Leigertwood and Kevin Doyle have all come in and changed a season around, while other seasons have been defined jut as much by the emergence of a pre-existing talent. Shane Long and Bobby Convey are just two players who exploded to life and would you totally rule out the same emergence from a Robson-Kanu or a Simon Church?
Rather than lamenting the mistakes of the past or our fall from grace, perhaps it's now time for Reading fans to throw pastr problems away and look at what we could achieve again in the future. I'll not make a rallying cry for everyone to be super positive and if you want to stay away its fine. However any success feels a lot sweeter when you've sat through the bad times and every bum on seats is a few extra quid that might convince the board to part with a little bit more cash. So what I do implore is for all fans to come on down to the Madejski give the club your patience and see where it goes.