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Can You Win Promotion Without Being Big Scorers?

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We're eighth in the table on points but just 16th in the Championship on goals scored. So can Reading continue to buck the tend and compete at the top end without a high goals tally?

The 2004/05 Team Weren't Renowned For Their Goals Either...
The 2004/05 Team Weren't Renowned For Their Goals Either...
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Football is a simple game at its core. All you have to do is score more goals than your opponent and you win the game. While winning 4-1 or 5-3 is exciting to watch and brings more people into the stadium, the bottom line is you get just as many points for a scrappy 1-0 win with the goal deflecting in off a defender's arse.

Aside from notable spankings at Newcastle and Brentford, under Jaap Stam, Reading have quickly become adept and winning games in narrow fashion. In fact, the 2-0 win over League Two Plymouth in the EFL Cup has been the only instance where we've won by more than a single goal. 11 league goals in ten games hasn't been blockbuster viewing, a mark only good enough for joint-17th in the Championship, yet despite that we've managed 17 points in those games. Compare that to Nottingham Forest who've scored 18 and are 15th, or Rotherham who've also scored 11 but sit bottom.

So the question is, how much does your goal tally really matter and have teams who've been so stingy in front of goal gone on to win promotion?

To answer that very question, I took a look at the goal tallies of the top six sides from the past 10 seasons.

Championship Goals Since 2006/07
TOP TWO THIRD-SIXTH
HIGH 98 88
LOW 54 54
AVERAGE 77 70

The basic takeaway here is that Reading do need to slightly up their goal average if they're to get into the play-off places. We're currently on pace to register 51 goals, a tally that hasn't been enough to get into the top six spots over the past decade.

Yet history does show that you CAN win promotion with a tally not too far above our current pace. The 2008/09 season is one that still haunts many Royals' fans, as Steve Coppell's final season ended in frustration as we somehow finished fourth in a three horse race for automatic promotion. One of the teams to pip us to the top two was Birmingham and they did so despite managing a mere 54 goals in 46 games, two of which came on that fateful final day at the Mad Stad.

The backbone of that Birmingham side was a rock solid defence that conceded just 37 goals, with 18 of their 23 wins coming by a single goal margin. Yet while Reading's defence has been largely impressive, that Birmingham team had conceded just six in their first ten, while ours has already leaked 14.

So while the Blues showed it can be done, history isn't on the side of such low scorers. The average number of goals to get into a play-off spot is 70, while it rises to just under 77 to make it into the top two.

What about Reading's own history at second tier level, can that give us any clues?

Reading Second Tier Record Since 2002/03
Season Goals Finish
2005/06 99 1st
2010/11 77 5th
2008/09 72 4th
2013/14 70 7th
2011/12 69 1st
2009/10 68 9th
2002/03 61 4th
2003/04 55 9th
2015/16 52 17th
2004/05 51 7th
2014/15 48 19th

Again, it won't surprise you to read that the more goals we've scored, the better our finish has tended to be. Our top five goalscoring seasons of 99, 77, 72, 70 & 69 yielded finishes of 1st, 5th, 4th, 7th and 1st. Yet the lower down the chart you go, the more the random nature of this league and football in general becomes apparent.

Take the 2004/05 season, a campaign referenced heavily by Handbags Harris during our most recent Tilehurst End Podcast. That year Reading finished on just 51 goals, the same as our current pace, yet it ended up in a 7th place finish due to some excellent defending by a back five containing the likes of Hahnemann, Murty, Shorey and Ingimarsson. What it lacked was a potent attack as aside from Dave Kitson's 19 goals, fellow attacking options Nicky Forster, Shaun Goater, Lloyd Owusu, Les Ferdinand and Dean Morgan could only combine for 16 between them.

Yet while 51 goals was good enough to keep us in a play-off hunt until the final day in 2005, last year's goal total of 52 saw us finish way down in 17th spot. The difference? How about the 15 extra goals conceded in that season, with the team keeping just 11 clean sheets. That meant that to win a game, in 35 of 46 fixtures Reading had to score at least twice to win, not something that's easy to do when you're averaging only 1.13 goals a game. In 2004/05, the team kept their opponents out on 19 occasions meaning that Coppell's squad had eight more opportunities to win with just a single goal.

So far we've kept four blanks, putting us on pace for 18 clean sheets, a total that gives you the chance to win nearly half your games by one goal, whether that's a penalty, set piece, moment of Swift magic or whatever.

So again, goals aren't the be all and end all. I go back to my opening point that football is very, very simple in that you only need one more goal than your opponent to win a game. The key factor here is that a team scoring closer to two per-game has that luxury of conceding every now and again whereas for miserly teams like us, one goal can be deadly. While last night's capitulation was disappointing, as far as this season goes, Stam's defence could still be his best form of attack.