Winter is coming (Sean Bean voice) and once again in Brian McDermott we trust. It strangely feels like history repeating itself: Reading FC flagging, thankfully not so close to relegation (this time) and the new manager hasn’t quite yet magically transformed our fortunes. Are we relying on an FA Cup run again?
Whilst the transfer window presents an opportunity to make changes, let’s focus on what Reading’s manager needs to get a handle on going into 2016. Irrespective of the reasons behind Steve Clarke’s dismissal, his departure stemmed from a sudden on-pitch deterioration that’s arguably not yet been fully rectified.
Unlike the squad Brian inherited from Brendan Rodgers back in 2009, the current group are, or were, widely expected to at least make the play-offs in May. As optimistic or bombastic that sounds, it was (before Clarke left) the set target from Reading FC’s boardroom. Having hovered around the promotion places with only three defeats after fifteen games, the talent at the Madejski appeared capable of fulfilling that ambition.
Designating areas in the squad requiring further investment seems too simplistic but with six loanees already at the club, our options appear limited. I’m not denying we shouldn’t be active in January but there are budget constraints from FFP and I’d argue we possess capable talent already. Although, we have just sold our top scorer…
So what are the issues affecting a side that managed to go from second to fourteenth in the league, with only three wins since mid-October?
It’s well-documented that over the last decade, Reading’s strongest area on-pitch has been goalkeeping. It would be inaccurate to suggest former coach Sal Bibbo didn’t play a small part in maintaining that success too. Bibbo potentially returning, months after his services were deemed surplus is dreamland.
True, great players need great coaching, but whether good players make good coaches is a debate best saved for another time. And yet Bibbo’s successor Dave Beasant is hard to trump in terms of playing career experience. Whether that makes him a better coach is Brian’s call. Comparisons are worthless, given our keepers also joined RFC in the summer.
What matters, is between them Ali Al-Habsi and Jonathan Bond have amassed an unimpressive eight clean sheets from 30 games. Not wishing to condemn the pair, neither appears assured like their predecessors and occasional accidents have changed games. That doesn’t mean they’re total flounders either. Simon Sheppard anyone? The margins against both are slim, but for what they’re worth, Bond oversaw the Royals’ purple patch before succumbing to injury at Burnley in September.
Having managed Jack Butland, Adam Federici and Alex McCarthy, McDermott knows, maybe even nurtures good keepers. Unless a new goalie arrives this month, the debate will probably continue. Albeit obvious, it’s an important position that no player can develop into whilst indecision hangs over their status. Brian must choose. Youthful Bond, experienced Ali, or neither?
Sticking with indecision, we reach the Royals defensive line. Interestingly the three league games following McDermott’s return saw the same keeper and back four deployed in succession. September’s visit to Turfmoor was when such consistency last occurred.
RFC haven’t kept a starting defensive line-up across two seasons since Steve Coppell’s reign. Every campaign since, the favoured personnel of defence has changed, albeit slightly. Is it any wonder our faring over the last few years has disappointed? Of course it wasn’t primarily what held back former regimes. Inevitably it’ll repeat in May, following the expiration of Michael Hector’s loan and current contracts for Anton Ferdinand and Chris Gunter.
Truthfully injuries more prevented Steve Clarke sticking with line-ups. But established, solid defences only gel through familiarity, goalkeepers included. This could explain recent concessions in sloppy goals and lack of clean sheets, therefore this needs addressing if the current squad is to succeed. Quality within our current defensive crop surpasses past RFC squads, but quantity plus injuries depleting our options is concerning.
At centre back, Paul McShane’s arrival is widely applauded as is Ferdinand’s long-awaited return. But injury still haunts the latter, thus we’re blessed for Chelsea loaning Hector back; but what after May and could they recall him before? It’s a possibility. As promising Jake Cooper is, overexposure could damage his development. Twin ongoing injuries with suspensions and who’s left competing to start?
Save for a head bandage, Gunter’s absence would similarly leave right-back perilously exposed. The Welshman has played every game this season and exemplifies not just his importance, but that some within the squad can rest on their laurels.
Thankfully complacency isn’t afforded to left-back Jordan Obita as Andrew Taylor’s provided decent competition for the youngster. But when both occupied the physio room, we discovered Stephen Quinn is more than capable covering. Factor in that loanee Taylor can look knackered around 80 minutes or withdraws via tactical subs, should we keep him?
Obviously relying on academy novices covering flanks would be huge gambles, but equally we can’t afford to sign anymore injury prone/unfit players, especially on loan. The likes of Alex Fernandez and Quinn have shown they can do a job there when desperate.
In summary Reading’s defensive numbers are so thin, further knocks and suspensions could be more damaging this season than defeats. Funds permitting, McDermott needs a face or two offering consistency, experience and competitive flex.
What do you make of Reading's goalkeeper and defence? Comment below and stay tuned for part two tomorrow.