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Reading's Season Ends: An Initial Reaction to 2013/14 and Beyond

No amount of pessimism can prepare you for that moment when your season ends. For nine long months you hope and try to believe it'll all be ok in the end but ultimately Reading just couldn't get themselves over the line. Right now we have far more questions than answers, while my feelings are still raw.. even so, here's some initial thoughts on what we've just seen and what's to come.

Mike Hewitt

Firstly a thank you to the players and staff at the club, the majority of whom have given it their all despite some very testing times on and off the field.

Unfortunately in many ways we got what we deserved, and an article I wrote around three weeks ago goes into detail about just why we should have seen this near miss coming.

What hurts right now is that it could have been oh so different for many different reasons.

The ownership situation is the biggest reason this could have been a much different season for Reading Football Club. In July it all seemed a much rosier picture, with big signings, strong talk and what seemed a genuine push to win the league and earn promotion at the first attempt.

Sadly for reasons we still don't know, Anton Zingarevich upped sticks and left the club in the lurch, saddled with a large but unbalanced squad that had six or seven wingers but just one ageing left back. Three first team calibre right-backs but just two out-and-out strikers.

Despite those issues, Reading still had the ability to compete with the very best but injuries took their toll and any team would have struggled with losing such big players including Jem Karacan, Danny Guthrie, Sean Morrison, Mikele Leigertwood, Jason Roberts, Danny Williams and Wayne Bridge. The squad's depth helped us overcome them on occasion but over the entire season Adkins just never had a chance to build on a settled side. The fact we had to travel to a key play-off rival in Bournemouth and field four wingers across the midfield just about summed it all up. Added to those problems was a mid-season change in playing style, as Nigel abandoned his attempts to change the playing style just to keep our play-off hopes alive.

But beyond those problems, Reading STILL had the chances to make the top six but will have to look back in relative horror at the knowledge they failed to put away sides much lower in the table. Reading took just 1 point from Barnsley, none from Sheffield Wednesday, dropped two points at home to 10-man Millwall and couldn't even earn all three points against an eight-man Yeovil side. Inspirational wins against Derby, QPR and Leeds plus the thrashings of Bolton and Blackpool kept us in the hunt but it's galling to think back on leads we let slip or games where we just didn't turn up against very beatable sides.

Sadly we also saw the down right ugly side of this football club at times. December was painful to say the least and over the course of the season we've had to watch pitiful displays at Middlesbrough, Bournemouth, Wigan, Peterborough and Sheffield Wednesday where we looked more like a pub team than Championship contenders.

Still, despite the disappointments there were some genuine joys this season. The back-to-back home thumpings of Bolton and Blackpool were fantastic while the first-half performance against Watford in the early season sunshine was a great example at what could have been. Away from home fans enjoyed 11 wins, one of our best ever returns and those who witnessed the dramatic end at the Keepmoat Stadium, the demolition of Leeds, taking apart Derby or the hugely satisfying win at QPR would no doubt have enjoyed themselves. Garath McCleary scored a number of screamers, while young Jordan Obita came from nowhere to win the Player of the Season award.

We were also treated to a tantalising glimpse into the future of this club as the Under 18's made the semi-finals of the FA Youth Club for the first time, while the Under 21's became the inaugural winners of the Premier League Cup, beating the riches of Manchester City in the final. The football played by those sides was just as encouraging as the results and certainly there's some real promise for the future in those teams.

It's a good job there is such promise in the youth ranks because the aforementioned ownership issues means that in terms of senior players, it's going to be a very tricky summer.

The first thing the club will have to decide which of those players out of contract they want, or can afford to keep. Stuart Taylor, Kaspars Gorkss, Michael Hector, Wayne Bridge, Mikele Leigertwood, Jake Taylor and Jobi McAnuff are all free agents this summer, as is Jason Roberts who we know will be retiring.

On paper there's some good Championship talent there but with finances far from certain it's hard to see Reading offering enticing deals to many of them and the players themselves might want a new challenge or the chance to test the open market for a better deal.

While those will be the first priorities, Reading are now in an equally tricky position trying to decide what to do with those players who have contracts expiring next summer. Of the players at the club, only Sean Morrison, Hope Akpan, Jordan Obita, Hal Robson-Kanu, Danny Williams, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Nick Blackman have contracts that run beyond 2015. If new contracts can't be worked out, we'll be left with the painful scenario of deciding whether to cash in while there's still time to run or risk letting valuable assets walk away for free next summer. With Premier League clubs wanting to get business done early, it'll be fascinating to see how the club handles interest in players like Alex McCarthy, Danny Guthrie, Garath McCleary and Adam Le Fondre, a few of the more obvious names that are likely to attract interest.

Frustratingly, some of those with longer contracts are those that haven't really lived up to their lofty salaries. Royston Drenthe and Pavel Pogrebnyak are widely reported to be on some of the biggest wages we've ever handed out (thanks Anton) and neither will be easy to sell given their mixed fortunes on the pitch this season. In Drenthe's case, he's ended the season injured and with just two goals, one more than Stephen Kelly and one fewer than Mass Sarr managed. I'm a big fan of Pog but his wages aren't overly sustainable for a club who have no outside investment coming in.

The manager's fate is also far from certain. Reading certainly won't want to sack Nigel Adkins but even if they did there's no way they could afford to. The more likely scenario would be another club poaching Adkins with the promise of more funds and greater flexibility than he'll enjoy at Reading over the next season or so and if he did want to jump ship who could blame him?

This summer is going to be one of the most fascinating in Reading's history and until we see what transpires it's foolish to try and make predictions for next season. What I will say is that Reading do have some talent both in the squad now and coming through the ranks and that coupled with a manager who's got a much better grasp of what he's got to work with, I don't see any reason why Reading couldn't emulate the success of a team like Burnley who with much smaller resources have not only managed to win promotion but play some excellent football along the way.

Tonight this hurts and there may be more pain to come over the summer but we can only place our faith in Sir John, Nick Hammond and Nigel Adkins to try and make this the start of a brighter future rather than another lowly step backwards.

Before wrapping this up I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has visited and supported the website over this season. In particular, thanks to those of you who've written articles or sent us feedback but beyond that, anyone that's sent us a tweet, mentioned us to a friend or just clicked around the website for a few minutes, it's been very, very much appreciated from us all. Also a particular thanks to our Deputy Editor Jonny who along with our new assistant editors Marc, Hoops and Bucks who have really helped push the website on this year.

While the season may be over we won't be going anywhere! We'll have more analysis of the season gone as well as  regular updates as to the preparations for next season and a few other fun bits and pieces as well. The Tilehurst End Podcast will also continue over the summer, starting with a wrap-up show on Thursday and sporadic shows over the summer months, so please stay subscribed to that and also keep checking in here to the website.

In the mean time, come on URZ!