It’s taken me until now to fully reflect on our dedicated, but disastrous defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday. First I was shocked that we’d actually lost at home to what, before the game, I thought was the poorest team in the league (very, very closely followed by ourselves I might add), then I was furious that certain decisions yet again didn’t go our way. Quickly following this was time spent rejecting the fact that, save the sporting miracle of the century, we’re going to be a Championship team again next year, until finally, this afternoon, I accepted that when you have a team that simply isn’t good enough, losing really shouldn’t get you as down as Saturday’s result got me and instead we should just be proud of the dogged effort our players always give.
I thought that was it, but to complete my reflection I now find myself simply feeling ashamed that I was one of the thousands of Reading fans that chanted ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ at McDermott when he subbed Hope Akpan, and simply disappointed and angry with myself for later ironically cheering and clapping the announcement that ‘coming off was number 8, Mikele Leigertwood’. I know Leigertwood’s role in the team has already been discussed in a very good article on this blog, but I feel there’s another viewpoint you can take on the Leigertwood fiasco which also explains the difficult position that Reading fans found themselves in after 82 minutes on Saturday.
It wasn’t Reading fans unleashing a wrath of hate for Leigertwood and his below par performances of late when his number came up, but a collective sense of relief and amazement that McDermott was finally touching an untouchable. I’ll give credit where credit is due, and it goes without saying that Leigertwood does play an understated role in our midfield, even if, in my opinion, he hasn’t warranted playing this role for a good few weeks. Some dub him the babysitter – what he lacks in technical ability, as the previous Leigertwood article documented, he makes up in graft. He’ll willingly undertake the ugly side of the job. However laboured his figure sometimes seems in the middle of the park, he unwaveringly chases back, closes opponents down, will go up for headers, do anything he can to win a second ball, control it (even if it looks a struggle at times) and distribute to a player that does have more technical ability to allow us to mount an attack. It is easy for such efforts to go unnoticed, and in my 10 seconds of madness when he was plodding, dejectedly towards the side-lines at the weekend, I forgot about all the positive elements he brings to our Reading team.
After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we burst onto the pitch in jubilation when the final whistle went against Nottingham Forest and stood in a state of euphoria, cheering with delight and holding our promotion winning hero, Mikele Leigertwood, aloft before carrying him over to the very same side-line that we as fans crushed him down across on Saturday.
However, for all the good that Leigertwood does and will always try to do no matter how much we slate him, he has been poor in a large number of matches this season, and in the last few games particularly. Fans that jeered him off haven’t forgotten the ability he has and the effort he will always put in, but at the same time we remember the fact that other heroes from last year, Cummings, Gorkšs, Federici to name a few, were all dropped when their performances fell consistently below par this season. Why too shouldn’t Leigertwood suffer the same fate? Even the most ardent of Ledge fans cannot claim he’s been playing up to scratch recently. He’s been scuffing seemingly simply clearances, passing the ball straight to the opposition, consistently failing to control the ball, and hopelessly hoofing it in whatever direction seems easiest. He may always have done a bit of each of these through the years, but at the moment these errors are all happening regularly in each game. Being fed up with Ledge doing this isn’t the reason we treated him how we did at the weekend, it was being fed up with McDermott persistently choosing him to play him in the same role in games when it is blatantly obvious it hasn’t been working. Ledge took the rap, and probably unfairly so.
All players go through bad patches, and Mikele Leigertwood has certainly been having one. Equally, he will find his solid, holding midfielder performances again, but how much of the viscous outpour of emotion on Saturday was meant for him, and how much was meant for his manager that persists playing him in poor form?After 50 minutes yesterday, every Reading fan in the stadium could see that Villa’s second half game plan was simply to try and keep the ball, run down the clock at any opportunity they could, and dig in to cling onto their lead and frustrate us. It worked. Our determined players flooded forward without any sort of shape time after time again and eventually gave the ball away. That’s nothing new, we’ve been doing it all season, but with tensions running high, our fans didn’t tolerate it. We shouted, swore and swung our arms.
This negativity must have spread to the players, and it did nothing to help, but at the time it was a culmination of desperation, despair and despondency at our tactics when a nail was about to be banged into our coffin. After 50 minutes, it was there for all to see that our midfield was being overrun and that our one-dimensional play out wide before crossing it into the box was looking pitiful, with McAnuff having a pretty poor time of it. What worries me most is that McDermott continued with the same tactics at 50 minutes, 60 minutes and 70 minutes. The game was crying out for fresh legs in central midfield and instead we took off one of the only bright sparks in the game, Hope Akpan, and pushed a burdensome McAnuff into the middle. I’ve said before all I want to say about the role Guthrie could have, but whether it was him or Karacan that McDermott opted for, freshening it up and pulling Ledge out of the firing line when he was having one of his poorest ever games, epitomised by a blasted back-pass from inside his own penalty area to Staurt Taylor who just about scraped the ball off the line, was what a good manager would have done much earlier than McDermott managed.
In the post-match press conference on BBC Berkshire, McDermott, when asked about the crowd’s reaction to Leigertwood, claimed he was upset for Mikele. He said that all he does each week is pick the team he feels is best equipped, and loyalty has never even crossed his mind. That’s where I close my eyes and shake my head. McDermott’s deluded if honestly thinks Leigertwood’s recent performances warrant him being picked, whatever tactic we’re trying to deploy, and even more deluded if he’s telling himself it isn’t out of loyalty – every other player who’s had a few bad games this season has been dropped, but not Ledge, or McAnuff for that matter.
A run of bad performances means you shouldn’t hold onto the shirt. That’s what caused the rush of blood and venting of relief when McDermott finally pulled off Leigertwood. We love Ledge, we’ll never forget how well he’s done in the past, and how effective he can be if he plays his assigned role well, but when he’s playing so woefully game after game, logical management says give someone else a go. That’s what Reading fans were ironically cheering, that McDermott had finally realised what was needed, even if it was far too little far too late.
I’m ashamed at cheering as Ledge trudged off and I’d definitely think twice before taking frustration out on a player again. He was a hero last year, and had he not been given a chance this season, I would have been angry at the lack of faith rewarded by Reading. But that has to be balanced with a notion of rationality. Its not his bad displays I was cheering off the pitch, it was the bad tactical choices of McDermott finally showing a glimmer of hope that was cheered in haste. McAnuff would have suffered the same treatment had he been subbed too. Can this be justified? Maybe. You should never jeer your team, especially when they’re plainly not good enough for this level of football, in out of their depth and a bunch of honest lads who will always give everything to try and get their heads above the water. But, it says a lot to listen to our players, fans and even the management to a certain extent in interviews.
For all the positives they try and put on things, there is always an underlying air of ‘not-belonging’, like there isn’t really any belief that we deserve to be in the Premier League. This comes down to our ‘small club’ mentality. It is right that we have been financially prudent and pick the right players for the vision of Reading FC, but sooner or later we have to realise that we ARE a Premier League team and the 11 men on the pitch who will give their all, run their socks off and play their heart out will not always be the recipe for success. That outburst when Leigertwood was subbed was the first time I’ve heard more than a mere rippling of discontent from Reading fans, more than a small-club mentality emanating from the terraces, and as much as I doubt it will be noticed, I really hope it is and that Brian doesn’t even have to so much as puff his cheeks to decide who plays central midfield next week.