Before we get into this, let's be clear. I don't want Jaap Stam to go and I hope he sticks around for a long time based on how he's doing a fantastic job so far. Yet with success at a smaller club, not to mention one with ownership strife, comes the increasing fear that Stam will at some point move on, a point which could come at any time after May.
Since the first rumblings of West Ham's interest in our big Dutchman, I've been pondering what direction I'd like to see the club go in if he did decide to move on to pastures new. So, here's a few theoretical choices we could see the ownership make and how much we'd like to see them.
Find Another Stam - Stick To The Style
I'll admit that the chances of us landing another manager with the playing pedigree of Stam is remote, yet finding a man whose philosophies are the same, shouldn't be. If Brian Tevreden is still around, he'll know exactly the type of qualities we'll need to continue Stam's work, so in that sense, finding a replacement becomes a bit simpler.
This is a strategy that's worked pretty well elsewhere, with Barcelona the biggest example and Swansea a closer model for Reading to follow. Those are two clubs that appoint a manager to best fit the club's footballing philosophies, rather than appoint a manager simply because of who he is, or what he's done. In Swansea's case, Roberto Martinez installed a possession based game with the club in the third tier, with Paulo Sousa picking up where he left off and Brendan Rodgers carrying that work on and into the Premier League. When each man left, the style stayed the same and until this season, it's a policy that's generally worked pretty well.
The good thing here is that it makes no manager indispensable. The downside is that it can limit the pool of coaches you have to work with and can stop the club taking a new direction. Likewise, if the manager is perceived to be dispensable, players may slowly lose their faith and loyalty to a boss, knowing that he'll be replaced by someone else they like, without the fear of losing their spots due to a style change.
Bring In A Big Name, Let Him Do What He Wants
Every owner is totally different, yet you can't help but feel a little nervous given the trigger happy nature of the three Chinese ownership groups currently in the Championship. Just this season alone, Birmingham ditched Gary Rowett for Gianfranco Zola and now Harry Redknapp. Aston Villa have gone from Roberto Di Matteo to Steve Bruce, while Wolves ditched Walter Zenga for Paul Lambert.
The link here is that they're all 'big name' managers that have big reputations in football. None have so far opted to give the reigns to a young hungry manager, instead opting for that glamour name (and yes, as hard as it is to believe, Paul Lambert just about counts as glamour).
Reading themselves did this same thing with Stam. Ditching the respected and loyal Brian McDermott in a bold bid to change the club's fortunes around. So far, that's worked out for us, so could our new Chinese owners opt to do the same again?
The positive of bringing in a big name is that it might help boost the club's prospects of signing a few players. The downside is that we could end up with either a man who's totally out of his depth (Zenga), flattered to deceive (Zola/Di Matteo), or high maintenance (Redknapp). Most big names will want their own staff, a sizeable transfer budget and a hefty contract, all things that can lead a club down a slippery slope.
Go For A Hungry Coach With A Different Style
This is probably the option I'd lean towards, based on what we know about the ownership right now and from what I've seen of Stam's style. It's not that I think possession football is dull, but to make it truly exciting to watch, you either need an extreme amount of patience, luck, or as we see with Barcelona, truckloads of cash.
Yes, Stam has got us back to winning ways and at times it's been fun to watch. Yet deep down, I doubt I'm alone in feeling that despite our success, we've been pretty boring to watch for large periods of time this season. If he does stick around then Jaap might be able to make tweaks and build but again, who knows what he'll be able to do given the financial reality of being a Championship club without parachute payments.
Right now we're on 61 goals from 43 games, a rate of 1.42 goals per game. Here's how that compares to our other Championship seasons.
So nothing to be particularly unhappy about, yet this season has still lagged behind in the entertainment category when compared to some of our other successful campaigns.
This is perhaps why fans are still voting with their feet and not turning up to the Madejski Stadium. Sure they know they've got a good chance of seeing a win, yet excitement is still something that's not been dished out on a regular basis. Of course, it's not something I'm blaming on Stam, nor should we be expecting a shed load of goals just 12 months after a 17th place finish.
Personally I remain unconvinced that you can play an exciting brand of possession football in this division unless you're really prepared to invest significantly in the squad, something I'm not sure we'll get going forward. If the Chinese owners ARE happy to splash the cash it could end up working, but look at how much Derby have spent and even they haven't made it fully successful. Fulham are an example of how possession can be entertaining, yet they're still picking up parachute payments and who knows if they'll be able to sustain this year's performances, which even in themselves might not be enough to even reach the top six.
Ultimately, the Reading crowd so far don't seem prepared to sit through the growing pains needed to make this style of football exciting. All season long there have been frustrated noises coming from sections of the stands, as certain supporters struggle to put up with the constant sideways passing. Those groans have been somewhat silenced by success and I'm sure they'll be as happy as anyone if it leads to promotion, yet if we're back in the Championship and the next manager fails to have Stam's aura about him, how long will the crowd's patience hold? The argument of 'it's better than last year' will be gone and anything other than top six will seem a failure.
I'm not saying the boo boys are justified but the attendance levels suggest that there is something that's not connecting with the wider fanbase right now.
If the new man thinks he can get the best out of the players available playing Stam's way, fair enough but personally, unless the owners want to spend big, I'd be happy to see this style ripped up and a new manager play something to help get the crowd back on their feet again. Alan Pardew, Mark McGhee and Brian McDermott all had supporters excited and relishing turning up to the ground to watch their team, here's hoping another relative unknown might be able to do the same.
So, what would you do? Let us know in the comments below.