Going into an uncertain summer, discussion is rife about what situation Reading are now in, and where they should hope to be in the short and long terms. However, rather than writing another article directly about Reading, I thought it'd be helpful to provide some wider context. As part of our ongoing 'State of Reading' series, this entry looks at where the club finds itself in relation to the teams around it.
To explore this topic, I'll take the bulk of Premier League and Championship sides, and break them down into four categories: 'established Premier League', 'yo-yo', 'upwardly mobile', and 'fallen giants'. I'll assess which teams are currently in each of those groups, and Reading's chances of joining them.
Established Premier League
Leicester City (obviously, apparently they won the league or something), Crystal Palace, Southampton, West Ham, Swansea, West Brom.
Having each been in the Championship in recent years (Leicester, Southampton and Swansea have all been in League One in the not too distant past), these clubs have all broken into the Premier League and stayed there. For me, what unites all these teams is that they have effective long-term strategies, and are healthy clubs off the pitch. They're all financially stable, and can rely on their academies and scouting to bring in talent.
Bar the end of the 2006/07 season, Reading have never really looked like getting here. Although there are similarities between Reading and the above examples (the focus on the academy being one), the club is yet to build its long-term infrastructure up to the same level as the likes of Crystal Palace, Swansea etc.
Norwich, Burnley, Newcastle United, Watford, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Hull City.
Essentially, these teams are the ones who haven't yet established themselves in the Premier League, but look quite likely to do so at some point. When these sides are in the Premier League, they tend to be in a relegation fight, but when they're in the Championship, they're strong bets for promotion. Having only very recently been promoted (Watford and Bournemouth) or relegated (Aston Villa, and presumably soon Newcastle United), some teams are harder to put in this category. However, I'm pretty confident that the above list will, loosely speaking, prove to be an accurate one.
This is probably the highest level Reading have reached. Having been relegated in 2007/08, a squad with Premier League experience looked like bouncing back at the first time of asking. Similarly, after 2012/13, Nigel Adkins very nearly guided the Royals into the Playoffs, with much of Brian McDermott's squad still intact.
Crucially though, in both cases Reading couldn't take advantage of their recent Premier League status, with not enough money going into the squad. In contrast to the likes of Burnley and Norwich who've invested significantly in renewing their squads after relegation, we haven't been able to do that. As a result, we've slipped down the pecking order.
Brighton, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Ipswich Town, Birmingham City.
With the exception of Middlesbrough, who managed it a few days ago, none of these teams have been promoted to the Premier League recently. However, looking back over the last few seasons, it's these sides that frequently look like some of the strongest contenders to break into the top division of English football. Interestingly, it's hard to make a pattern here - for example, whereas Derby County have cash to splash, Ipswich Town don't.
For me, that's encouraging from a Reading point of view, because it shows that to compete at the top of the Championship, you don't necessarily need to be a rich club. Obviously, to actually get promoted and then stay up, it helps a lot, but initial progress can be made without a massive transfer kitty. Back in September, we actually looked like being in this group - who knows when we'll return to it.
READING, QPR, Cardiff City, Fulham, Blackburn.
The above teams have all been in the Premier League recently but, in contrast to the last two categories, they aren't going anywhere any time soon. Despite gracing the lower half of the Championship table, the likes of Fulham and Blackburn have managed to stay in the division. However, they're similarly unlikely to make a promotion charge in the near future.
What unites all these teams? For me, some degree of ownership problem. Although they've all theoretically had owners with deep pockets, that hasn't played out well on the pitch. The vast riches of Tony Fernandes and Shahid Khan haven't put together coherent squads for QPR or Fulham respectively, Cardiff City have had a torrid time with Vincent Tan, and Blackburn's Venky's owners haven't been much better.
For me, it's that factor that most strongly affects Reading at the moment. Despite helping us to win promotion under Brian McDermott, Anton Zingarevich - as well know - did far more harm to the club than good. It's his mess that is still being cleared up by the current Thai owners (you can read Wimb's in-depth analysis of them here). If the club is to get back on its feet, and hopefully move closer to the Premier League, that process needs to be continued.
Looking at the likes of Charlton and Bolton who have both been relegated this season, bad ownership can spell serious trouble. At the moment, it looks we ourselves are on solid ground after a very rough patch in recent years. So, with that in mind, I highly doubt that we'll be joining Charlton and Bolton in League One.
Frustratingly, we've been overtaken by sides that, only a few seasons ago, were in Championship mid-table obscurity or even League One. Six years ago, the likes of Leicester City, Bournemouth, Watford, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Burnley and Hull were probably in a worse state than Reading. However, with good ownership and effective long-term strategies, these teams are all 'yo-yo' sides at the worst - or Premier League champions at best.
What really strikes me is the fluid nature of this hierarchy. The upper echelons of English football are always changing - after all, one-time Premier League regular Wigan has just been re-promoted to the Championship, whereas past top flight teams such as Portsmouth and Blackpool are now both in League Two.
I'm sure many of you are worried that we might join those unlucky sides, but that fluidity works both ways. If, both on the pitch and off it, Reading start to get things right again, there's no reason why we can't start to climb the ladder once more.