The popular saying goes that it's 'the hope that kills you' and while you could use that to sum up Reading's 2014/15 campaign, I'd prefer to use 'it's the lack of application that peeves you'. This has been Reading's lowest league finish in more than a decade but has this been the worst group of individuals we've had in that time? Even if you say yes, has it been a group that should have finished 19th? To me the answers are maybe and an emphatic NO.
So how did two talented managers with proven pedigrees and a squad comprised of close to 20 internationals combine to produce such a pathetic league campaign, while at the same time take us to near historic cup glory?
Off The Pitch
Perhaps we should just be happy we have a club at all. During the early summer months it looked quite possible that more than 140 years of history could have been wrecked by the 18 months of appalling and irresponsible ownership of Anton Zingarevich. A string of horrendous contracts had brought the club to its knees, and only the sale of top goalscorer Adam Le Fondre kept the tax man at bay. The takeover by the Thai consortium eventually stabilised the club but their long-term plans still remain unknown. In the short term, no amount of money could undo the damage done by Zingarevich, as the Football League's FFP rules forbade too much outside investment in one single season.
Simon Cox, Oliver Norwood, Jamie Mackie, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake and Glenn Murray were decent short-term plasters but the squad needed much more serious work to remain competitive with the best. The sales of Alex McCarthy and Sean Morrison were bigger blows for the long-term while the acquisitions of Anton Ferdinand, Yakubu, Zat Knight, Jure Travner and Kwesi Appiah all left much to be desired. Ferdinand in particular proved a spectacular flop with 46 minutes his total contribution in the first of a two-year deal.
Quite simply, the squad was an imbalanced mess for most of the season, a situation summed up by the fact we had three international right-backs and yet just one or two strikers.
The club's academy did its best to fill the gaps and while their overall effectiveness may have been limited, there were promising performances from Jake Cooper, Aaron Kuhl, Jack Stacey and Craig Tanner while others including Jake Taylor and Ryan Edwards gave 110% to the cause, even if their own abilities were limited. Fellow academy graduates Michael Hector and Jordan Obita also continued their own progress, with the former's development arguably the best story to come from a miserable season.
Shaun Cummings and Royston Drenthe both departed mid-season, only one of whom contributed anything positive to the football club. Danny Guthrie and Stephen Kelly look to have played their final games for Reading while the futures of Adam Federici, Alex Pearce and Jem Karacan remain up in the air.
Neither Nigel Adkins nor Steve Clarke could find a combination of players that could deliver week in week out. Both masterminded excellent one-off performances, with Adkins overseeing a wonderful win over Fulham and impressive wins at Middlesbrough and Norwich, while Clarke masterminded wins at play-off chasing Wolves and Ipswich. More importantly Clarke took us on our best cup run in nearly a century, a fact that will never be forgotten by Reading fans.
Wins over Huddersfield, Cardiff, Derby and Bradford set up a date at Wembley with Arsenal and had it not been for an unfortunate Adam Federici error, our season might not be over. The cup run summed up all that was good and promising with this squad and yet at the same time, their league form showed all that was bad and broken.
Adkins was sacked after a run of just three wins in 13 games ending with a 6-1 hammering at Birmingham. While many felt Adkins was dealt a bad hand, few were sad to see him leave as his media persona had worn thin with the fanbase. Positivity is a good thing but the relentless messages of hope and the spin that came with them just didn't match up to what fans were seeing on the pitch.
In came Clarke and initially he got the club back on track. A run of just one defeat in seven saw us climb the table and build a vital buffer to the relegation places. His no nonsense approach in the media and good coaching pedigree won him plenty of fans early on but that initial goodwill soon ended. Reading would win just one home game after January and score in only two of nine games at the Madejski. Fans began to vote with their feet as the club recorded its lowest average attendance in a decade as the stadium resembled a ghost town for the final few games.
It's easy to blame a manager for a bad run but in this case the players have to take a large share of the blame for the problems. Goals were the biggest issue and in football, that's a pretty big problem to have. Between them, Hal Robson-Kanu, Nick Blackman, Nathaniel Chalobah, Garath McCleary, Oliver Norwood, Hope Akpan, Jem Karacan and Jordan Obita managed just eight league goals, three of which came from the penalty spot. Glenn Murray and Simon Cox produced a partnership that yielded 16 goals before the New Year, but Murray's departure back to Palace and Cox's lack of form saw 0 added between them in 2015. Pavel Pogrebnyak tried his best with six, and five from Jamie Mackie were vital in February but overall this was an appalling campaign in front of goal.
The defence was also weak when it mattered. While Clarke restored some pride and helped Michael Hector move forward, Jordan Obita, Chris Gunter and Alex Pearce all failed to produce on a consistent basis. Adam Federici has a wonderful season in goal but had those in front of him done their job more effectively, he shouldn't have had to earn so much attention.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The season's final game at Derby was almost a final middle finger to the Reading fans, one of those Bullseye style 'here's what you could have won!' gimmicks. While it was great to go home with a win, the nagging sentiment throughout this season has been, 'why can't you do this every week?!' How can a team go unbeaten against four of the top seven in Norwich, Ipswich, Middlesbrough and Wolves, yet fail to beat Wigan, Leeds, Birmingham, Charlton or Bolton?
Clarke has described the squad as being one in decay and a team used to losing, but they've had so many chances to end slumps and not taken them. I've already mentioned some of the fantastic performances we've had this season and yet still the players have failed to use them as a springboard. I wrote earlier this year that the squad was stale and sadly that's just what they've been. Unless serious changes are made this summer then this team is destined for a relegation battle and our owners have plenty of work to do to make this a team capable of winning promotion again.
The FA Cup run won't ever be forgotten by Reading fans and for that reason alone you could consider this season a success. Yet to judge it simply on an ultimately unsuccessful trip to Wembley would be unfair and those Reading fans who've shelled out hundreds if not thousands to follow the team this year deserved much better. We've all had to watch awful Reading teams before but this was the worst one for me since those assembled under the late Tommy Burns. This squad has far more quality and potential but it under-delivered on a bigger scale. That's what's going to frustrate Reading fans in years to come - the question of why we didn't get more from such a talented group.
So looking forward, we go into a summer that's arguably the most important the club has faced in a generation. Get it right and we could be mounting a serious promotion push, get it wrong and we could be the next Wigan.
This was just the first in what will be a whole raft of pieces analysing the season just gone. Regardless of what happens we'll be here to cover all the big stories as they happen and we'll continue to try and bring you honest fan opinion and analysis. I'd like to thank everyone who's visited the site this year but in particular to our editorial team and writers who've helped make this our most successful season at The Tilehurst End. Like Reading we'll be hoping for more in 2015/16 and if you want to get involved please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. The players may be off on holiday but we're not, so please keep checking back over the next few weeks and months.