For a Championship club these days, a record signing of £2.5 million is low, especially when you look at clubs such as Burnley and Middlesbrough who have spent £9 million on Andre Gray and Jordan Rhodes respectively. Even with Anton Zingarevich taking money from his father, Reading have never had that cash to splash, so players have been brought in on free transfers, cut prices or loan deals. But is this working for the Royals? And if it isn’t, then how can it?
The type of players we’re signing
Last summer, 12 players joined the club in a squad transformation that fans had been crying out for. On paper, it made the team look like one of the strongest in the Championship, and for a while performances on the pitch showed that this was very much the case. But as results took a turn for the worse and we plummeted down the table, it occurred that these 12 players weren’t all that they were cracked up to be.
This is mainly in part to the fact that I think for many players, Reading Football Club is a step down in their careers. For me, I look straight at Ola John and Lucas Piazon in this scenario. The former came from Benfica, whom he won three trophies with last season and scored the winner in the cup final, whilst the latter came from the Premier League champions via the Bundesliga.
The reality is that neither of these players really want to be in Berkshire, despite the passion and excitement shown by their paint skills on social media. Royston Drenthe is another prime example of someone who arrived at Reading having previously experienced European football. His attitude problem is well documented, and part of that comes down to the fact that he was playing at a lower level to what he was used to.
At times when I watched Drenthe play, there was obvious quality there. But it’s not all about ability anymore. A player is likely to do well at a football club if he has the right mentality, the will to succeed and the desire to help the team do well. For too long Reading have just brought in players based on their ability, and haven’t thought about their attitude towards the cause.
That’s why having six players on loan this season is an issue. John, Piazon, Matej Vydra, Michael Hector, Alex Fernandez and Andrew Taylor know that they won’t be at the club next season so aren’t exactly bothered about what the outcome of the campaign is. They’re more concerned with building a reputation for themselves. Admittedly, I don’t think this is the case with Vydra and Taylor, who I would happily take back for 2016-17.
In my opinion, we need to go back to the days when players who join Reading see it as a real challenge. One that allows them to better their careers, which means their own success and reputation is linked to Reading's results. The 2005-06 squad had no players in it who saw themselves as bigger than the club, but players such as Dave Kitson (from Cambridge United) and Kevin Doyle (from Cork City) from smaller clubs and had the desire to play in the Premier League. With both promotion winning teams, there were few players who had played in the top division before, and that surely contributed to the team spirit.
A model that Will my fellow assistant editor gave was that of Peterborough. Yes, they are a league below us but have been in the Championship before and have a knack of finding lower league gems. Craig Mackail-Smith, Aaron McClean and Lee Tomlin were all signed from non-league and were crucial to earning promotions for the Posh before going on to bigger and better things. More recently, Dwight Gayle and Conor Washington have been snapped up from the Conference and then earned Darragh MacAnthony some profit.
Reading have had failed attempts at non-league signings in the past, Brett Williams being the most obvious, but it’s worth scouring the lower leagues for players who have the ability and mentality to player higher up. Rowan Liburd, signed from Billericay in the summer, is showing promising signs as he continues to bang in the goals for the Under 21s.
Influence of the owners
Could all of these ‘they look good on paper’ signings be down to the owners? Brian McDermott admitted that Deniss Rakels wasn’t his choice, whilst I highly doubt that Steve Clarke had his eye on Orlando Sa, Paolo Hurtado, Ola John and Alex Fernandez in the summer. Two have already left the club, whilst the other two can barely get a game. I’ve got nothing wrong with the Thais choosing players, it is their football club after all, but I don’t think they have a system. Of course it’s great if these unheard of signings turn out to be hidden gems, but so far that hasn’t been the case.
Brian McDermott is hugely knowledgeable in terms of players to sign as he has spent most of his career post playing as a scout. If you look at the 11 players below who started most games of the 2011-12 promotion push, six of them were either academy graduates or McDermott signings.
We, and the Thais, need to trust McDermott in the players that he brings in and let him build his team. This is also relates to giving him time in the job and not getting on his back, but that’s another debate and one that I covered a couple of weeks ago.
Of course I’m not telling the owners to keep their noses out, but there needs to be consultation between the two parties otherwise we aren’t going to get a squad that either is happy with.
Is there actually a transfer strategy?
There doesn’t actually appear to be that much of a strategy when it comes to signing players. If there is, it’s a confused one, with players being signed for a short-term basis, rather than whether they’ll fit in or not.
Back in November, the club announced that they were on the search for a Head of Player Recruitment Analysis, showing that they realised that perhaps something needs to change. The purpose of the job was:
"To assist and guide the scouting and player recruitment process through the provision of in-depth statistical analysis on English and European leagues"
The key thing to take from this is the "statistical analysis" part. This suggests that they could be aiming to copy the Brentford/FC Midtjylland model of crunching the numbers before signing a player. This has had mixed success – in Denmark they won the league, whilst it’s not going quite so well in West London.
I wouldn’t be against this sort of system being introduced, just as long as there’s still scouts out and about across Europe, not just boffins behind computer screens. This combination could work, whilst as aforementioned, there also needs to be a balance between the owners’ supposed independent scouts and those that are employed by the club.
It appears more and more and more nowadays that you have to spend ridiculous amounts of money in order to earn promotion. But Reading don’t have millions to spend, which doesn’t necessarily matter. Ipswich and Brentford last season, and to a point Brighton this season, have shown that you can build a side capable of challenging to go up with a relatively small budget. If you can get that to work for one season, once you get up to the Premier League, the monetary rewards are huge.
So next season I’d encourage the club to not bring in as many loans, not just sign players if they look good on paper, and perhaps use the academy more. But that’s for Wimb to explain tomorrow in the next article of our State of Reading FC series!