Clarke Starts Well
After the slow but progressive decline in fortunes under Nigel Adkins that saw his inevitable sacking,the last thing Reading needed was to drag their feet selecting a new manager to take over. Typically Reading have done this in the past, leaving weeks between appointments however in a refreshing turn of events Royals were managerless for just a little over 24 hours. Odds had plummeted throughout the day on Steve Clarke taking over and it came as no surprise when it was formally announced on Tuesday 16 December. The feeling was one of relief and a little surprise given Clarke’s relative success at West Bromwich Albion, but pleased a high calibre name had been appointed.
Given three full days of preparation, Clarke had a good opportunity to look at the squad and decide on his first team to face eventual league runners up Watford. Sadly, despite looking distinctly better defensively and benefitting from a fortunate sending off decision on half time, Angella seeing red for a second booking, the all too familiar defensive error cropped up when McCleary and Williams lost the ball inside their own half. Watford broke rapidly, and the ball was worked to the edge of the area to Almen Abdi who smacked home from 16 yards. Through the anguish of conceding, those like me who appreciate a good crowd bounce will have enjoyed the Watford fans celebrations. Not the result Clarke, or anybody of a Reading persuasion wanted for the first game but an improved performance nonetheless.
Up next came an away trip to the Amex and a bright start, Palace loanee Glenn Murray scoring twice inside the opening 25 minutes but Reading’s defensive frailties came to haunt them as Jake Forster-Caskey (son of Darren Caskey, stepson of Nicky Forster if anybody’s interested) notched just before half time and Inigo Calderon equalised in the last minute. Two points dropped but the second half performance was well below par.
The first win of the Clarke era came at home to Norwich City, a nice little fillip for the club after Norwich manager Neil Adams’s comments in the aftermath of the game at Carrow Road less than a month previous. Six points from them, four goals scored, thanks very much, Robson-Kanu scoring a penalty and Simon Cox netting what was to be his last goal of the season before Bradley Johnson’s late strike gave Norwich a consolation.
Que Sera Sera...
The FA Cup brought some welcome respite from a difficult league campaign and a trip to the John Smith’s Stadium saw Reading progress with a turgid 1-0 win to set up another all Championship fixture at the Cardiff City Stadium. The only shot on target all game came from Nick Blackman, and the only other notable incident came in the last minute when Jonathan Hogg was sent off for a fracas with Danny Williams.
In the league January was almost a fruitless month with only a highly impressive 2-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday yielding maximum reward with goals from Pavel Pogrebnyak and new loan signing from Chelsea, Nathaniel Chalobah on the last day of the month. Goalless draws against Middlesbrough and Millwall were the bread to the filling of a 2-1 defeat at Craven Cottage, a match in which Reading were desperately unlucky not to win having given Fulham a second half roasting, Pogrebnyak equalising Kacaniklic’s opener and a last minute Bryan Ruiz winner. The FA Cup match in Cardiff was to prove fruitful however, as a dominant performance saw Royals proceed thanks to a 2-1 win, second half goals from Olly Norwood and Hal Robson-Kanu cancelling Kenwyne Jones’ first half header. Derby County away awaited in the 5th round.
Seven matches in all competitions in February, and a very mixed bag all told. Clarke’s stamp on the side had been well and truly established, a counter attacking style that to my own eyes is remarkably similar to that of Steve Coppell. Similar to Coppell’s first part season, the results were indifferent, however February started with what many would suggest being the best performance of the season with a highly deserved 2-1 win at Wolves. Pogrebnyak scored again in the first minute, and although Benik Afobe equalised Danny Williams steered home with aplomb mid way through the second half. Sadly, however, the form deserted Reading as the Molineux win was closely followed by an abject performance at home to Leeds, the Yorkshiremen strolling away with a midweek 2-0 win, while the next home match a week later was equally poor as Wigan walked away with what seems now to be a customary three points from Berkshire.
A hard earned 1-0 win at Portman Road, Ipswich, was welcome thanks to Jamie Mackie’s long ranger, but that was immediately followed by successive 3-0 defeats to Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest, although admittedly the latter was fortunate as had Reading taken the numerous chances created the result would have been very different. Forest scored two absolute beauties on the way, and walking away the feeling was "how the hell have we lost that". Midway through the month the FA Cup proved extremely fruitful once again as Stephen Warnock’s dismissal on debut helped Reading walk away from the Ipro victorious. Hal Robson opened the scoring 10 minutes into the second half, Darren Bent equalised fortuitously, but Yakubu imprinted his name in the history of Reading FC when he finished with typical composure to send Royals through and set up an away fixture at Valley Parade, Bradford.
Just the six matches in March, and the rot was starting to set in. A last minute equaliser from Jamie Mackie ensured a creditable midweek point was earned at Bolton after Eidur Gudjohnsen had opened the scoring midway through the second half, while a battling goalless draw at Bradford saw Reading bring the tie back to the Madejski, the replay to be held controversially just two days after Reading’s visit to Vicarage Road. A midweek match against Brighton reaped rewards with what was to prove Reading’s final home victory of the season, Jamie Mackie doing the damage again with an excellent brace either side of half time, sandwiched by Chris O’Grady’s penalty. Two defeats followed however, with a heavily weakened team taking the field at Watford, the rejigging owing to the replay against Bradford just 53 hours later. Reading rather predictably were on the end of a heavy 4-1 defeat, although there was some cheer as Jem Karacan scored his first goal in just under two years having come off the bench.
And then the Quarter Final, and Reading blew Bradford away in the first 10 minutes with an opening double salvo from Hal Robson-Kanu and Garath McCleary. Felipe Morais was sent off for a crude challenge midway through the second half to all but seal the tie, and if it wasn’t sealed then Jamie Mackie certainly did seal it with a third on 68 minutes. Reading were going to Wembley, their first FA Cup semi final in 88 years, and the biggest draw available to us – Arsenal. Pandemonium in the stands when the goals went in, and for me personally the ghost of Aston Villa had been well and truly exorcised. The match was marred somewhat by firstly racial abuse directed towards McCleary in the first half, while a somersaulting pitch invader during the match held up proceedings while stewards ponderously wondered what to do. And post match some ugly scenes during a pitch invasion as missiles were exchanged between fans, including a smoke canister.
Notwithstanding that excellent result that left the club on a high, Reading didn’t push on and despite holding a half time lead at The Valley courtesy of Pogrebnyak, Reading succumbed to three second half goals from Yoni Buyens twice and the inevitable Simon Church tap in. Pogrebnyak notched once more in injury time after Danny Williams had been sent off, but the inconsistency and fragility was on display for all to see once again.
Eight matches in April and not a single win, a miserable month for Reading all over despite the FA Cup Semi Final. Cardiff City walked away with an undeserved point having notched a last minute Conor McAleny equaliser after Pogrebnyak’s fortuitous opener, and then a second 1-1 draw at Blackpool with our own fortuitous equaliser from a Grant Hall own goal afterJamie O’Hara’s early penalty. A third successive draw, this time goalless with Blackburn was hard fought, but the club bought themselves a large amount of goodwill with the adoption of the well publicised "Ryan’s Royals" day. Promotion chasing Bournemouth rocked up and rocked away with a nervy 1-0 win thanks to Callum Wilson’s early strike.
And then to Wembley. Reading played their hearts out with a disciplined display that saw them match Arsenal throughout. The experience was a nervy dream to behold particularly given the club were given next to no chance. Heavy defeats were predicted but the anticipated glut of goals never materialised. In the end Alexis Sanchez did the damage, his opener a coolly taken slot between Federici’s legs after a marvellous ball over the heads of the defence from Mesut Özil. Unlucky to be losing at half time, the magical moment duly arrived when Pogrebnyak fought his way to the byline and stood up a far post cross. Garath McCleary strained every sinew to connect cleanly and while the connection was clean and straight at Szczęsny, the ball squirmed through and over the line.
(Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Right in front of the Reading fans, the scene was utter mentality in the stands, a deserved equaliser and a genuine feeling that we may be on to something. Truth be told, we had more chances to win it than Arsenal, if not the better chances. Ramsay stole through and hit the post with an open goal at his mercy, but Danny Williams had a glorious opportunity on the edge of the area while Pogrebnyak also had a late chance to snatch victory in the last 2 minutes.
And so extra time loomed, and a similar chance to Pogrebnyak early on, but with no real chances created by either side until stoppage time (given despite no stoppages). Sanchez worked another shooting opportunity and, and similar to McCleary’s effort straight at Szczęsny, but the ball squirmed through his legs and agonisingly over the line. Arsenal saw the second half out and Federici was understandably inconsolable post match. Reading had done enough to earn penalties at least, and were denied in cruel fashion. This match, along with the Bradford and Derby victories was a glimmer of what Reading could do and it was disappointing to not have more of the same in the league, as the next three fixtures would prove.
Back To Reality
Three defeats to Birmingham (a match in which Reading decided it would be better not to shoot at all), Clayton Donaldson scoring a late winner, then an excellent Brentford walked away with three points thanks to Alan Judge and James Tarkowski efforts, and then helping Rotherham secure safety with another defeat, this time 2-1, Matt Derbyshire and Lee Frecklington winning the game despite a late Olly Norwood strike.
At this point, fans' patience was beginning to snap, defeats to supposedly inferior teams week in week out, people were getting fed up, and many were resigned to defeat in the final match of the season at the Ipro, where Derby awaited for a fourth time this season. Reading were on a hiding to nothing. Derby chasing the playoffs, Reading totally out of form, not scoring any goals, leaking at the other end, nothing to play for, home banker. Many people would have lost money on this as out of nowhere, Reading notched three efforts to Derby’s none, Kwesi Appiah, Michael Hector and Garath McCleary’s penalty surprised everyone. Darren Bent spurned a glorious chance to equalise with a penalty right on half time, but Federici pulled off an excellent save to push the ball out for a corner to his right, a critical miss for Derby, but one which helped Reading obtain their 8th victory at Derby’s "new" stadium.
Reading finished the season in 19th position, with 50 points, three positions below where Clarke took over from. Despite this, it is far too early to judge Clarke as he was working predominantly with a squad of players that lacked regular goalscoring since Long left. And that is exactly where the problem lies – goalscoring. Creativity has been lacking, and when chances have been created we have lacked a goalscorer with a killer instinct since Glenn Murray’s loan ended. Goalscoring from the middle of the park has been lacking considerably also, you need a couple of your midfielders to chip in with 6 or 7 goals a-piece and a pair of strikers to get 17-20 a season. That is critical, Clarke knows this and I fully expect the business to be done in the summer. It is clear Clarke was getting progressively more exasperated with the standard of the squad, his words after the Charlton defeat left little to how he truly felt and if we can shift some of the stagnant players then Clarke can start to bring in players to fit around his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.
As for the season as a whole, a promising start quickly turned on its head as a poorly set up, constantly tinkered team did for Adkins, and while Clarke stopped the rot somewhat, the fragility was consistent. Some excellent performances against Wolves, Derby, Wigan and particularly Arsenal were too few and far between, instead we had more Birminghams, Bournemouths and Brentfords than is acceptable for a squad of Reading’s outlay. This season was always going to be one of transition as a result of the financial mess left behind by TSI, but nobody in their right minds considered finishing as low as 19th surely? A poor finish, and next season can only be better...can’t it?
Thanks to Handbags for his round-up of the season. What was your highlight of this campaign? What needs to be improved for next year? Let us know below - and don't forget, we'll have plenty more analysis in the coming months.