2011/12 will go down in the annals of Reading Football Club history as one their greatest successes. Promotion to the top flight for only the second time in 141 years was achieved by a team that was more than the sum of its parts. A hodge podge of young players and veterans who’d not quite cut it in the top flight. What saw them through was an incredible self-belief that enabled previously average players to suddenly find a new gear that took them to a higher playing level than any fan dared dream in the summer. In amongst it all though is the incredibly frustrating figure of Simon Church. The Wales international started the season as Shane Long’s replacement yet by the end of it, despite some goals in big games, he’s ended it as fourth choice with a disappointing return of 7 goals in 32 games. How is it that when everyone else seems to have produced their best season for the club to date, Church has stagnated and fallen by the wayside? Is it a lack of games, faith from the manager, confidence or is he simply not very good?
The first place to start when looking at what’s gone wrong is the latter point. Is assessing Church a little bit pointless because ultimately, he’s not up to scratch? It’s certainly the popular opinion and one that raw stats certainly back up. Church is employed to be a centre forward and centre forwards are there primarily to score goals. A quick look at the maths for Church shows a pretty poor return of 22 goals from 102 matches. That means waiting over 4.5 games to see him score. Compared to Adam Le Fondre’s 12 in 32 or Jason Roberts’ 6 in 17 (that’s 2.6 and 2.9 games/goal stats fans) it certainly doesn’t look good but those numbers can be a bit misleading.
Noel Hunt, a favourite for a few years now has played 121 games for the club finding the net only 31 times, averaging just under 4 games a goal. Yet there are no question marks about Hunt. Another and perhaps better barometer is Shane Long. The Irishman really came of age in the run to the playoff final finishing as the second highest scorer in the league but what is easily forgotten is how long it took him to reach that point. In fact if you ignore his final season with the club (and his one game against Millwall in 2011/12) his stats read 122 games played and only 19 goals scored, an amazing 6.4 games per goal. When put into the grand scheme of things, Church’s record doesn’t look that bad. Also, when you factor in just how many of those appearances have been as a substitute (almost exactly half) it can begin to indicate that maybe the Welshman’s been misjudged a little.
As every good fan knows though, there’s far more to football than numbers and God forbid that I tried to base this piece on maths; we all know that you can use statistics to prove pretty much any view point! What I would say though is that he is a player that shouldn’t really be judged purely on the number of goals he’s got. Obviously goal scoring is a pretty major part of being a centre forward and whilst he hasn’t exactly been prolific, he has popped up and scored at important times. It was his goal that took Liverpool to a replay in the FA Cup (albeit off his shin!) and this season he grabbed a brace in the massive home win against West Ham along with one of the goals of the season in our first ever win at Elland Road.
You only need to look at some of the goals he has scored to see that he clearly has something about him but the thing that really holds him back is that I don’t think any of his managers have ever really known what to do with it. In hindsight Coppell probably didn’t do him any favours by throwing him into his league debut in the playoff semi-final against Burnley in 2009. Already trailing from the first leg it was a ridiculous time to blood him and put far too much pressure on him, not just for that game but it effectively set him up to fail as ‘one for the future’. When Brendan Rodgers arrived that summer, Church was one of those that he highlighted as having real potential, describing him as having the "movement of a top striker".
Personally I was surprised at the time when he was picked out like this having heard nothing but negativity about his abilities from a Wycombe supporting friend during his loan spell there. It was I suspect more to do with not having the means of replacing Kevin Doyle (who had just been sold to Wolves) than any real belief in Church. Mind you, that didn’t stop him starting the majority of games under Rodgers as he flitted from one week to the next between playing centre forward and on the wing. Whilst he wasn’t the only one to suffer from Rodgers’ rotation and tactical naivety it was the start of a familiar routine for him.
That Rodgers didn’t really know what to do with him isn’t something to hold against him (this was the manager that dropped Gylfi Sigurdsson for Scott Davies) but what is more telling is how much Church has struggled to impose himself under Brian McDermott. He has at least had a degree of continuity in that he will always play up front now but his role within that has continued to change. Initially he was seen as a forward to play off the last man and to work space for his teammates (something I think he’s actually quite good at) but with Shane Long in the form of his life that role was irrelevant so instead he was asked to be a ‘fox in the box’ type player, a goal hanger as we used to call them at school. The problem with this though is that he just doesn’t have the instincts for it, he isn’t Gary Lineker and never will be.
McDermott favours having a main striker and then someone to run around them and the simple fact is that Church isn’t the former and Noel Hunt is much better as the latter. Even with Long’s departure I think it was quite apparent very early on that it was always going to be Le Fondre & Hunt and then Roberts & Hunt that were the preferred options. Church’s confidence has plummeted as a result. He’s seen two big players leave in Doyle and Long and both times he’s been talked up as the replacement only to end up as an impact sub. His role at the end of this season has been to come on and run games out when Reading have been winning, if they’ve been chasing the game, on came Le Fondre, hardly a massive vote of confidence for Church.
I can’t think of a player that has played so much for Reading that I honestly can’t decide if I think they’re any good or not. I’m not sure those within the club even know the answer. That where the real frustration comes in. Over the last two years Jem Karacan, Shaun Cummings, Adam Federici and especially Alex Pearce have gone from youngsters with question marks hanging over their abilities to top quality first teamers. They’ve all taken strides forward yet Church has gone nowhere.
What is clear however is that promotion to the Premier League will probably end Church’s time at the club. If Reading are to have a successful season (by which I mean not get relegated) then they will need reliable players who can play to the system in place and it seems clear to me that McDermott doesn’t have the faith in Church to do that. Also, at the age of 23 it is the point in his career now when he needs to be playing football. He needs to find that confidence because buried in there is a decent player. He's recently been linked with a move to a few Championship clubs and if he can find a club and manager willing to put their faith in him, he could do a great job for someone. It just won’t be at Reading and I find that frustrating.