A couple of years ago I wrote a piece on this website examining our record in our first season in the Championship under Nigel Adkins, and whether the first team to score in a match was key to the final outcome. The results at the time were astounding - we were sensational at holding on to leads if we grabbed the first goal, whereas you could basically write off a recovery if we fell behind. Two years on, it still seems as though we're a team that needs to score first if we're to get anything from matches. Is that reality? Let's find out...
(All matches used are Championship only)
2013/14 - Middle Of The Road
In 2013/14 we finished 7th, missing out on the playoffs by a solitary point - of course, you wouldn't have thought that from the pitch invasion at the end of that last match against Burnley. Nigel Adkins' Reading got far better at recovering from conceding the first goal as the year went on, picking up six points from the last seven games where we fell behind. In contrast the form when going ahead early was very solid, one of only four teams to remain unbeaten when scoring first.
So we'd avoid defeat if we scored first, but gradually throughout the year we learnt to grind out results and get back into games when conceding first. Unfortunately history also shows that two of those comeback draws came against 8-man Yeovil and 10-man Brighton... a criticism often thrown at Adkins' teams that there was too much patience and not enough penetration surely proven here.
2014/15 - Fall Behind, Go Home
Yeah, this was bad. Only one team had a worse record than Reading when falling behind and that was lowly Blackpool who were relegated with 26 points. 84% of matches where Reading conceded first, they lost, speaking for a complete lack of spirit and drive in the side to put things right. As we all know, the FA Cup run was absolutely magical but it masked some severe problems with the League form; indeed relegation was a real worry until extremely late in the season.
On the plus side though, Reading continued their impressive record when going ahead early. Just one defeat all season (a 3-2 reverse at Charlton) showing that Adkins and then Steve Clarke knew how to defend leads when they came. Unfortunately, they just didn't arrive frequently enough...
In the entire Championship that season, only Middlesbrough had a worse positional difference between scoring (1st, 2.68ppg) and conceding (18th, 0.38ppg) the first goal. Ultimately that frailty may have cost them the opportunity for automatic promotion. Turning back to Reading, they did just about enough to get ahead in games to protect themselves from a relegation scrap in the final few weeks. But that dismal discrepancy showed just about every Royals fan that something was wrong, whether it be the players, tactics, or management.
2015/16 - Dicing With Danger
As we're all aware by now, this is another season that seems to be heading nowhere fast thanks to our exit from the FA Cup, just as we were all dreaming of another Wembley trip to salvage something from the campaign. In the league, it's been just as depressing as ever though - and from the above table, we can't even rely on scoring first to feel safe about finishing the match with three points, or even one.
Taking the games where we've gone ahead first, and the Royals are one of only five teams to lose three or more games from that early advantage. The others are Charlton (23rd), Bolton (24th) and then somewhat surprisingly QPR (11th) and Wolves (12th). One of those defeats came whilst Martin Kuhl was in temporary charge up at Hull, whilst the other two were under Steve Clarke, perhaps the infamous one being the 4-2 defeat to Fulham whilst cruising at 2-0 up.
Unfortunately it seems as though that confidence which had been maintained throughout the last two years has eroded away and the team is on edge when trying to defend a lead. Brian McDermott has at least got Reading more steady in that regard (more on that later) but it's worrying as a fan to see that this team, this season, has won less than two thirds of the matches they've gone in front first.
And as for conceding first... it's just as ugly as ever. No victories when going behind early doors makes Reading one of just five teams to not grab three points from that position - the others, far more predictably, are Rotherham (20th), MK Dons (22nd), Charlton (23rd) and Bolton (24th). Again this seems to point towards a side which isn't up for the fight, or a manager who can't turn things around when it's going badly. The malaise around the club at the moment would seem to stem from these attributes as it's getting far too predictable when Reading fall behind.
So how do the managers individually stack up?
Scoring First - It's So Positive
(NB one defeat in 2015/16 came under interim manager Martin Kuhl - Hull 2-1 Reading)
Say what you like about Nigel Adkins' positivity, but at least he had something to smile about when the Royals went in front. Thirty times it happened in his tenure, and not once did Reading taste defeat in those games. Steve Clarke had a far worse record when it came to scoring first, again dipping below two thirds for the amount of times we held onto leads when going in front first. And so far from what we've seen of Brian McDermott, he seems to be solidifying the team so that they can hold on for those all-important victories.
It could be why Brian has set up with a more defensive outlook in recent weeks, having confidence in the fact that his team can battle away and hold on for wins. It's only a small sample size (16 games) compared to the full seasons or more of Adkins and Clarke, but so far McDermott leads the way marginally in terms of points per game.
Conceding First - There Go Three Points
(NB one defeat in 2015/16 came under interim manager Martin Kuhl - Preston 1-0 Reading)
The last time Reading conceded first and won was in November 2014, when Jake Cooper's double at Norwich staved off the sack for Nigel Adkins for all of two weeks. Since then, the Royals haven't got a single victory when conceding first. Again it was particularly bad under Steve Clarke whose 0.21 points per game in that scenario is just awful and showed his teams were painfully going through the motions. Adkins managed 0.47 ppg from losing positions which is a lower mid-table number - had this improved ever so slightly, we'd have reached the play-offs in his first full season in charge. But the fact that it didn't demonstrates yet further the lack of fighting spirit which has engulfed Reading for the last three years.
And as for McDermott? Still without a win from behind in his time back in charge, though again the small sample size means it's difficult to draw any real conclusions so early into his tenure. He's at least managed to get something from a third of the games we've gone behind first which is something to build on for the future perhaps. It was never going to be a quick fix to get this team firing again and it'll take more time to see whether Brian is the man who can finally put Reading back on course after three years seemingly drifting in the wilderness.
As much as anything these stats seem to show that no matter which manager has been in charge over the past three years, the team has failed to deliver when falling behind - a problem with mentality as much as ability. Not one campaign where the squad has shown the fighting spirit to get back in games and power through to victory - indeed not one win when conceding first in over a year - shows just how tough it is for any manager to motivate this team at the moment. The constant changing of leaders both on and off the pitch can't have helped the team develop a style or rhythm either, and with a squad that seems to eternally be in flux with loans and free transfers, the post- and pre-season upheaval is ever-present.
It might be some time yet before a true battle-hardened Reading emerges from its slump.