Reading supporters - extinguish your flaming torches and put your pitchforks back in the garden shed. Things aren’t as bad as you think, and there’s hope for the future among all the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. In fact, the current state of Reading FC may mean we’re forced to follow a route that may end up to be the best one in the long-term.
Yes, it may look dire at the moment, and four straight losses is hard to excuse. But I don’t think anyone can make a valid extrapolation form these four games and conclude that we’re relegation certainties next season, as many have. The season’s over, and has been for weeks – in fact it ended for everyone five weeks ago when Yannick Bolasie hit the deck in the FA Cup Quarter Final. At that point, we should have just shut the doors to the MadStad for the season and all gone on holiday – mentally, I think a lot of people have, mentally.
I know they shouldn’t have, and you might reasonably question the professionalism of those who have – but it’s inevitable. This has been a painful, stressful, horrible, season, with obvious dressing room unhappiness, a change of manager, a host of loanees, infighting amongst supporters and tirades of bile from sections some of them – and even from broadcast media! Does anyone really expect players to perform to their best in those circumstances? I don’t really blame them for not being at their peak of motivation, or at their most confident – it’s hard to play exuberant, free-flowing football and to try to make things happen when a misplaced pass wins you a chorus of motivational seat-banging from the back of Y25!
Despite that, though, the performances haven’t been that bad (Birmingham excepted, perhaps!) The last three defeats have been by a single, late, goal, two of them against teams very much in form and battling for promotion. It’s little, individual errors that seem to be the problem, just eliminating those and getting some consistency (itself built on confidence) will make such a difference. So I’m not too worried by this current end-of-season run, because it doesn’t matter, and the loanees will have gone by the start of next season.
At that point, we start with a clean sheet of paper – and by god, that’s what we need more than anything! I’m sure that the loan agreements have been a massive hindrance to change this season – it very much looks like we needed to play players who we didn’t necessarily want to in the circumstances, so that’s another reason that I – and I’m sure also Brian McDermott – will be delighted once the final whistle blows on May 7th.
So what will that clean sheet of paper involve? Well, I think it’s going to disappoint those fans who see the only way a club can progress is through "ambition" – a word which in football terms means spending more money than you’ve got on players you can’t afford, just to show others how much you want to go up, and to give fans bragging rights in the pub. Because I can’t see Reading breaking the bank, and I can’t see the Thai owners "investing" much ("investing" is another word that has a meaning in football that’s quite different to its meaning in the rest of the world). So any purchases will need to be funded by sales of players, and I can see one or two of the high-earners leaving this year – certainly Williams and HRK, but possibly quite a few others, too.
This will no-doubt ring out the usual doom-mongers on Twitter bemoaning "The Reading Way" – but the simple reality of the situation is that Reading is not a rich club, with a guaranteed big crowd and lots of TV revenue. Balancing the books is always a struggle, and it nearly always requires player sales – especially when the financial carnage wrought by the Zingarevich era hasn’t been completely eradicated.
So there are lots of certainties this summer. We’ll inevitably see lots of changes to the squad, McDermott will inevitably not have enough money to buy the players he wants (because managers never do) and we’ll inevitably miss out on some of the players we want to buy (because Reading has always had a problem with player recruitment). And inevitably sections of the fan base will be up in arms about "lack of ambition" and proclaiming us "relegation certainties."
But I’m looking forward to next season, and I think our financial situation could be a blessing in disguise. For it might force us to use more of the graduates from the Academy. I think it’s high time they were given more of a chance to show what they’re capable of, and a team based around them, with a few older heads, could be a perfect combination for us. Because the antidote to "all those loanees who don’t care about the club" are the kids who’ve been with the club for years, working their way through the academy. When they get their chance in the blue and white hoops, you can be sure they’ll give it everything – their youthful energy, enthusiasm and confidence is surely the perfect answer to everyone who’s complained about a lack of passion?
Even though they may not be the finished product, the prospect of seeing the youngsters turn out is an exciting one, and turning out is the only way they’ll get to be the finished product, so it’s potentially a win-win for everyone. And again, there’s much more likely to be a "connection" for the supporters with the academy youngsters then there ever will between them and highly-paid mercenaries, especially those on loan.
Another of the oft-repeated criticisms of the current squad is the lack of teamwork and lack of togetherness. Again the youngsters are the perfect answer to this – they’ve been together for years, they’ve developed together – a ready-made team, who are all Reading through and through and desperate to succeed here.
I can just see it now in my mind, as Tim Dellor commentates on something good: "That’s a good strong challenge in midfield from Tshibola. He comes away with the ball, and plays a sensible square pass to Kuhl. Oh, that’s a lovely 40-yard diagonal ball to Stacey. He finds Fosu on the wing, who beats his man and fires a cross over to the far post. Samuel!!!! Dominic Samuel fires the ball home to secure another three points for Reading!"
We’ve got some great young players up and coming, let’s give them a go and let’s build a team around them, so that everyone screaming "lack of investment, no ambition" can see that the players we’ve developed ourselves are the equal of those we could realistically buy. The only caveat is that young kids need to be given some slack, and the toxic atmosphere towards the manager and players from parts of the stands needs to be relaxed – if the kids are abused for mistakes the way the current team is, then I’d not want to see any young player exposed to it, and I’m half-convinced these is why McDermott has kept some of them away from the first team and out on loan this season. If I was manager I’d not want promising young players to be put in the situation that some of the senior pros find themselves in!
But if the crowd can bring themselves to realise that a team – especially a young team - will only do well when encouraged and supported, and that hostility and abuse will never, ever be a positive motivator, then I can see great this coming from this young squad. The thought of them together as the nucleus of the Reading team excites me – and if we bring back Alex McCarthy, as rumoured, my head will probably explode with excitement!
The future of this football club isn’t owners putting their hands in their pockets – because other clubs will always have owners with longer arms, and because we’ve seen that expensive players don’t always make teams work. The future of this club is the academy, so let’s start basing out future on it from now!
The future’s bright – the future’s young and it's wearing blue and white!