Reading ‘s 13/14 season ended in despairing circumstances. Chasing a playoff spot, a final day 2-2 draw with already promoted Burnley wasn't enough as Brighton's last minute winner at the City Ground knocked Reading out of 6th spot. Promotion was imperative as anything but would render the club financially crippled. 13/14 saw TSI do a runner when, after effectively mortgaging the future of the club with unsustainable contracts on mercenary, substandard, figurehead signings, they saw the writing on the wall and left John Madejski high and dry to run the show after the deadline to buy the second half of shares had passed. Anton Zingarevich wasn't seen at Reading from August 13, and Nigel Adkins was left with no ability to sign any players in January when it was so obvious we desperately needed creativity. Even worse was to follow after the failure to reach the playoffs when the club was forced to sell striker Adam Le Fondre in order to be able to pay a tax bill. No inward player movement was made until late in the window after the current owners of the club had sealed a deal to buy.
The pre-season campaign didn't feature the now traditional overseas tour due to the financial constraints, so, comparatively to previous seasons, a short set of pre-season fixtures were arranged against Exeter City (1-0, yours truly enjoying an excellent day out on the cider), Yeovil Town (1-1), Wycombe Wanderers (2-0), Stevenage (0-0) and finally Swansea City (1-3). Promising signs were shown by relatively inexperienced academy products in games, Ryan Edwards scored the only goal in the game against Exeter and generally looked a more than capable player, while Jake Taylor had a fine game against Wycombe and scored the second goal. Youthful ability would be needed in the early stages of the season as a list, the length of which Oscar Schindler would be proud of, was regularly declared for publication on the club's injuries and suspensions page on the official website.
Nick Blackman also scored a stunner against Swansea and started to look like his unquestionable ability on the ball may begin to bear some fruit in the Swansea game, while talking of unquestionable ability, one notable absentee from Reading's pre-season squad was Royston Drenthe who had been instructed to find a new club after a disruptive first season at Reading. Drenthe would play no part in Reading's pre-season, Sheffield Wednesday eventually taking the player off Reading's hands on loan until January. From my perspective it was sad but inevitable to see, as his ability was streets ahead of anything seen in a Reading shirt before or since, but an appalling lack of application rendered the level of ability utterly meaningless and Adkins had few dissenters when the news was announced.
A Promising Start
The season kicked off on 9 August, the fixture computer kicking out an opening fixture that unanimous thinking suggested couldn't be harder - Wigan away. With the majority of the Latics squad remaining intact after their excellent showing under Uwe Rosler, many felt they were nailed on certainties for a promotion charge. As it was, an impressive Reading performance saw the team walk away with a more than creditable, if somewhat frustrating point. Wigan led at half time, McManaman scoring against the run of play after a breakaway (the ensuing chants of "we're gonna win the league" now seem rather silly), but Reading roared back after the break and scored a deserved equaliser through the most unexpected source of Shaun Cummings. Six minutes after equalising, Reading took the lead through Sean Morrison who was making his last appearance in a Reading shirt before an unexpected move to Cardiff City just days later. Reading looked to be seeing the game out comfortably, but a soft equaliser was gleefully gathered up with seconds left to play, James McArthur benefitting from the typical soft Reading underbelly. However despite the last ditch disappointment, there was plenty to be positive about with the performance, and a genuine feeling that maybe, just maybe, after the last minute heartache of the previous season and a summer of complete uncertainty and worry, it may not all be so bad after all.
The following week, after an uncomfortable 3-1 victory against Newport County in the League Cup, Mick McCarthy's Ipswich arrived in town for the first fixture at the Madejski Stadium. If the game up at the DW was dominated by Reading, the Ipswich game was a complete role reversal. Jake Taylor pounced on a short back header and knocked the ball past Dean Gerken for his first Reading goal, and from then on it was kitchen sink stuff from Ipswich, who threw everything they had at the Reading rearguard. Despite coming close on a couple of occasions they could find no way through. The victory was all the more impressive as Reading's injury list was already at extraordinary length, and a youthful side it was that held out against the bombardment. Michael Hector in particular was superb, lining up at the back after Morrison's departure, completely endearing himself to the Reading faithful with his commitment and attitude, a feature of his game throughout the season.
Two league matches in and Reading had showed two totally different facets of their game, and the third match was to throw up another rather unwelcome one that would prove to be frequently encountered throughout the season - the propensity of Reading's defence to completely capitulate. Going into the game with confidence after two wins from three, Reading turned in a performance that was to be typical of their season, a first half of insipid possession football, and going into the break behind. Costly errors by Hector and Gunter saw Reading find themselves 2-0 down to a side that had not yet won and had sacked manager Mark Robins after just the first match. Aaron Kuhl, Jamie Mackie and Craig Tanner livened things up after the break as Reading threw caution to the wind and were rewarded with a token Simon Cox strike (his first for the club) and were a tad unfortunate not to come away with a point, but the damage had been done by individual errors.
And then to the City Ground, and a day to forget. Reading rolled up with the typically long injury list, and duly rolled over and had their youthful puppy-like bellies rubbed by Forest's pace, power and all-round guile. Riding the crest of a wave after Forest legend Stuart Pearce's appointment, two goals by former Reading winger Michail Antonio followed by Matty Fryatt and £5 million signing Britt Assombalonga saw off Reading 4-0 who never looked like getting into the game. Debuts were given to new signing from Huddersfield, Olly Norwood, and Aaron Tshibola, while Aaron Kuhl made his first start and didn't let the side down. The result was inevitable from the moment Antonio's first half header found its way over Federici.
A midweek trip to Scunthorpe, a first return to the club where he made his name for Nigel Adkins, saw Reading progress to the League Cup 3rd round, Jake Taylor's late strike proving sufficient to see off the challenge, although Reading made hard work of it, while Reading's last league match in August came up at the Riverside as the list of unavailable players stretched to 14 names. Simon Cox's early lob was enough to secure the three points as Reading showed again that they are capable of battening down the hatches and seeing off the opposition. Yet despite three wins from five, August was viewed in sceptical terms as fans struggled to buy in to what Nigel Adkins was trying to do. Having said that, the crippling injury list hindered what many felt could potentially be a more secure and stable side that was looking more capable than the previous season's mainly insipid attacking force.
Murray Makes An Impact
September kicked off with an international break, before a welcome return to action in the middle of the month at home to a desperately poor Fulham side. Nigel Adkins had been able to persuade Crystal Palace to loan Glenn Murray with a view to a permanent move in January, and the debut was a striker's dream as a comfortable 3-0 win saw Murray notch twice with close range headers before Blackman rounded off the scoring late on. Matt Smith found himself having an early bath after a criminally poor lunge on Hope Akpan. Felix Magath lost his job soon after, not too soon in the eyes of Fulham fans.
Another home midweek match followed, and the cracks showed once again as Reading dominated against Millwall early on, taking a 2-0 lead after just 15 minutes, but a tactical substitution by Lions manager Ian Holloway wrenched the initiative from Reading who were, in the end, fortunate to come away with the three points after initially spaffing a 2-0 lead. Simon Cox scored the winner late on from a set piece, after the same player and a Nick Blackman penalty had seemingly given Reading a superb platform to build on. A goal beck from Ricardo Fuller just before half time and an early second half strike from Mark Beevers changed all that. However three points is three points, and Reading travelled north to Hillsborough in an attempt to wreak some revenge for the annihilation served the previous season, but alas despite having the better of the game and seeing a Glenn Murray penalty saved, Reading walked away with a 1-0 defeat after Stevie May's late, heavily deflected free kick found its way past debutant ‘keeper Mikkel Andersen.
The League Cup run came to an end at Pride Park, Derby, after a routine 2-0 win for the hosts, Johnny Russell and an Alex Pearce own goal doing the damage before the televised clash with Wolves on the final weekend of the month. Reading controlled the first half and deservedly led through Michael Hector's first goal for the club, however a needless tactical substitution from Adkins gifted the initiative to Wolves who equalised through former academy product James Henry after a Sako cross caused panic and indecision across the backline. Just a short while later, an inexplicable error from Jordan Obita gifted possession to Lee Evans inside the penalty area and he swept home confidently. Just a minute later, Jake Taylor was played in by Simon Cox and finished with equal aplomb to immediately equalise. Wolves retook the lead late on when Blackman found himself nodding past Federici, and the points looked to be heading to the Black Country but for an excellent long range strike from Murray that saw an exciting game for the neutral finish 3-3. Adkins needless tinkering allowed Wolves a way back into this game, and for me this was the exact point where Adkins really started on the descent as a run of just three wins in thirteen games (including this draw) saw Adkins sacked.
The Rot Sets In
The run of games painted a generally predictable path, Reading being allowed possession of the ball, not taking chances when presented, and the opposition being gifted goals through what in Layman's terms can only be described as piss-poor defending. However, the run kicked off with a creditable 0-0 draw at Elland Road, a game of few chances. From then on, however, three goals conceded was to become a familiar statistic.
First Brentford put Reading to the sword with goals from Jota, Pritchard and Douglas, Simon Cox providing the sole response in a 3-1 defeat. Then home to Derby as Chris Martin twice and Jordan Ibe fired in for a 3-0 win, Derby walking away with three points from Reading for only the second time in their history.
Bournemouth away next and a familiar story, Callum Wilson's simple opener quickly followed by a brace from Brett Pitman, another 3-0 defeat. Respite was found in the form of desperate Blackpool, Murray, a Clarke own goal and a late Blackman penalty securing a comfortable 3-0 win in the right direction for Reading, but the predictable pattern ensued at Ewood Park as Rudy Gestede's brace and a Ben Marshall free kick saw Blackburn ease past Reading by 3-1 despite Murray's equaliser on the stroke of half time. More respite was found in the form of a poor Rotherham side as Mackie and two Cox strikes saw another comfortable 3-0 home win, but Charlton rocked up with a decent, hardworking side and walked away with three points themselves as Vetokele's free header was enough to win a match 1-0.
Close behind that, a Friday night trip to the Cardiff City Stadium. If you are Alex Pearce, stop reading now. An own goal, a penalty conceded (scored by Whittingham) and a red card inside 45 minutes gifted Cardiff the points, Hector's late strike proving a mere consolation. 2-1 defeat. An unexpected 2-1 win up at Norwich papered over cracks, promising defender Jake Cooper scoring twice to snatch the three points after Gary Hooper's opener.
The End For Adkins
But that was really it for Adkins, as an insipid goalless draw at home to rejuvenated Bolton, now managed by Neil Lennon, was followed up by the nadir, the ninetus minutus horribilis, the capitulation, the moment Adkins could never return from. Just 8 weeks previously, AFC Bournemouth strolled around the St Andrews pitch and scored eight without reply. Reading turn up and concede six, quite frankly pathetic goals to Paul Caddis, a trio of strikes from Demarai Gray, Andrew Shinnie just 30 seconds into the second half, and a wafted free kick from David Cotterill. Glenn Murray's lone strike provided all but no consolation that day. 6-1 defeat. Adkins was sacked the Monday after.
So that was it for Nigel. My views are that he clearly wants to play entertaining football, and has done so with great effect at Southampton and Scunthorpe, while at Reading he forged a squad of players that seemed blighted by injuries, while the continual financial problems hamstrung the man big time. Nobody in their right mind can question that he was dealt a raw deal by the club, and who knows, with proper backing and support from a sensible consortium who didn't sign players and present them to a manager as fait accompli, we may have seen a significantly better result. Interesting that Adkins has not been mentioned seriously for any other managerial positions since, my gut feeling is he had his fingers well and truly burned by Reading and it is a huge stain on his CV, so he is looking for a stable job to go in to.
But despite all of that, when it comes to the crunch, Nigel Adkins did himself absolutely no favours when he did have the opportunity to play a settled side. All too frequently we would see a change out of thin air, for no other reason that he wanted to change the team to suit the opposition, seemingly giving no regard to form or ability. And his team set up was ludicrous, the balance was so horribly lopsided which led directly to the typical feature of Adkins football - how easy it was for teams to get at Reading's defence. Nigel Adkins' tactics and style of play made pretty solid Championship defenders look like clowns at times as his midfield, despite regularly setting up with two sit back defensive types, left the back line exposed.
Nigel Adkins second in command was a central defender with over 600 games under his belt, and even he couldn't see what the problem was, or if he did he didn't have the balls to assert his opinion on the manager. The errors committed by individual players were so frequent but to stop the problem at source is to eradicate the chance of an error being committed. Adkins left his team frequently unable to stop the problem at source, particularly down Reading's right hand side where a dismally ineffective Chris Gunter was regularly partly culpable for goals conceded, and so Adam Federici was continually facing uncontested shots and one-on-ones. If you do that, you're going to concede regularly. Reading were on a downward slide, and when that happens you have to think outside the box. In times of adversity, you're looking for your team to be hard to beat. Reading under Adkins ultimately were not hard to beat, and Adkins paid the price with his job as a result.
Many weren't sorry to see him go. His continual insistence to "take the positives and move on", his natural inclination to look unintentionally smug, his continual tinkering, his baffling tactical changes (see Wolves above), there was so much not to like about him. He took over from a popular manager and needed to get fans onside. He rarely looked like he had that capability. Reading fans are a patient lot all told, and they grew fed up of shipping so many soft goals and watching over a season's worth of games without a sniff of an opportunity. The ability to create chances did improve this season as Adkins signed his own players, but it was far from sufficient to counterbalance the serious issues at the opposite end which were to overshadow literally everything Nigel Adkins did in his Reading tenure.
Stay tuned for Handbags' next instalment in our review of the 2014/15 season, featuring the arrival of Steve Clarke and the historic FA Cup run...