With a forthcoming takeover of the club in the works and Jaap Stam holding talks with the current owners in late December, most Reading fans would have assumed the January transfer window was over before it had begun, much like it had been in the 2013/2014 campaign under Nigel Adkins when Russian financier Anton Zingaverich and his promises slowly drifted away, leading to the enforced sale of striker Adam Le Fondre in August 2014.
But what followed was in fact one of the most successful mid-season transfer periods in recent years, with five players arriving across the month (three on deadline day) hoping to match the success of previous January acquisitions such as Jason Roberts, Jimmy Kébé, Adam Federici and Steve Sidwell. First was the early signing of Tiago Ilori, a young Portuguese defender from Liverpool for a rumoured initial fee of £3.5m. Then nothing until the 30th, when winger Adrian Popa arrived from Romanian top-tier side Steaua București for around £500,000. Finally, transfer deadline-day brought three extra players to the club on loan deals for the rest of the season; midfielder Jordon Mutch from Crystal Palace, defender Reece Oxford (West Ham United) and forward Lewis Grabban (AFC Bournemouth).
Here’s a lowdown on how the new signings are faring so far:
Say “Portuguese defender” to any Reading fan and the name Daniel Carriço will probably come up; a rushed transfer made by an under-fire Brian McDermott during The Royals last trip to the Premier League. He played a total of 87 minutes for the Berkshire side as hit fitness was called into question, and he was loaned, and eventually sold, the following year. With both McDermott and Reading’s top-tier future disappearing as quickly as it had begun, the less said about the player the better.
But the arrival of Ilori from Liverpool caused more of a stir than usual for the very fact that it actually happened. With takeover talks from Chinese siblings stretching across the whole of December and beyond, there was speculation that the current Thai owners would not be willing to spread the wealth if they were about to relinquish their majority ownership of the Berkshire club. And, with Reading in such a good position to possibly earn some glory at the end of this campaign (along with Jaap Stam’s fantastic achievements to date in his first season), many believed additional recruits were no less than the club deserved.
His lack of match-time will worry many, as he had not appeared since February 2016 in a token FA Cup appearance for Liverpool, but Stam brought him straight into the mix, playing in the first Reading game following his arrival, a 3-2 defeat to fellow promotion-chasers Derby County. He played the entire ninety minutes of the game, with the under-par Tyler Blackett watching from the bench and Joey van den Berg sitting next to him, still nursing a slight injury. He also came on in the following match, playing the final twenty minutes of The Royals’ 1-0 victory over Fulham at the Madejski Stadium, replacing Blackett in a game where solid defending was crucial. But this would be where his Reading adventure would end for the time being, as an ankle injury suffered against The Cottagers lead to a four- to six-week layoff. But the fact he is a permanent signing at Reading means that he will have plenty more opportunities to shine.
With no news coming for weeks after Ilori’s arrival, there was renewed apprehension from fans regarding how much money was actually available, and whether it had all been spent on a youth player from Liverpool. Cue the £500,000 signing of an unknown Romanian winger who swapped Steaua București (Romania’s most popular football club) and yearly European football for a team whose biggest strength is in his natural position (on the wings) and trips to Wigan and Rotherham, at least for the time being anyway.
The move was slightly surprising, considering he plays in the same position as Garath McCleary and Roy Beerens, the former being the current top goalscorer at Reading and also one of the most creative players in the squad. And, while Beerens doesn’t quite have the same consistency as his neighbour, he does provide crucial goals for the team on occasion as well as a threat to distract opposition defences. Popa’s permanent move means he is not just cover for Callum Harriott’s current injury layoff (although the former Charlton Athletic winger’s untimely absence from the team might have pushed a deal for Popa sooner than the club wanted) but it has meant that the Romanian international has been pushed up the pecking order quicker than expected.
With McCleary irreplaceable in his current form and Jaap Stam happy to tinker with his tactics as and when, Popa sat on the bench for his first two Reading matches, watching his new team beat Birmingham City 1-0 and draw 2-2 at Ipswich Town. He was given the final ten minutes against Barnsley (a goalless draw) but it would be unfair to judge him too harshly on what was no more than a cameo appearance for the player, his first time playing English football. As with Ilori, the short-term future shouldn’t worry Adrian Popa too much; he has until at least 2020 to make his mark with The Royals.
If there was one area in The Royals squad which didn’t require additions it was the midfield contingent, with three places on the pitch being contested by no less than six players currently. Nevertheless, Mutch came from Crystal Palace on deadline day to bolster the ranks, and to perhaps keep players like Danny Williams and John Swift on their toes with added competition.
And Reading fans haven’t had to wait long for the midfielder to make his impact for his current side. He started his first game just days after arriving at the club, away to Ipswich Town, and went on to score the first Reading goal of the afternoon, helping The Royals to a 2-2 draw. It was a chance which probably would have previously gone begging, with Kermorgant less known for his goal-poaching and more for his defensive work in the forward areas this season. But Mutch was the ‘right-place-right-time’ player as he passed the ball to fellow loanee Grabban, before moving into a dangerous position for the return pass. With excellent control with his first touch, he was able to calmly sweep the ball past a helpless Bartosz Białkowski in goal.
But, just as it had with Ilori, injury would strike early for Jordon, with a groin strain keeping him out of the goalless draw against Barnsley at the weekend, but he would bounce back quickly and play the full ninety against Brentford on the following Tuesday in a fully-charged affair which ended 3-2 to Reading, with Mutch raring to go from the off, creating one of Reading’s first chances of the game and outlasting all three substitutions. The reasons why he wasn’t required by Sam Allardyce at a struggling Crystal Palace will only be clear to a man whose own negligence led him to lose the England managers job after just 68 days, but his brief time at the club have already shown that he can put a shift in the midfield, and challenge for the meagre places available.
Out of the five new players, Oxford is perhaps a surprising name to crop up. Firstly, the injury crisis in the Reading defence is still fairly fresh, having only taken shape during the month of January as Paul McShane and Joey van den Berg were both declared unfit for several weeks. Ilori only joined the list toward the end of the month. But, even with a potential vacancy in defence for a loan player to slot in (something Oxford has yet to do even with McShane still on the sidelines), it is slightly odd that a young player with a great deal of potential joined The Royals for the rest of the season when the back three/four are so well defined that Royals’ youngster Jake Cooper was forced to find options elsewhere.
On the surface, Reading have got a great deal. With pundit (and ex-Reading defender) Martin Keown declaring that Oxford could be “the next Rio Ferdinand” there is every hope that he will ease any fears of further crises with the defenders in the side. But it is slightly concerning that Slaven Bilić, a former defender himself, was happy to let such a talent go, even on a short-term loan, as, at eighteen years old, he has already made twelve appearances for The Hammers last season and, having just signed a new four-and-a-half contract with West Ham after turning down interest from Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, there is every reason he expected to continue pushing for a permanent place in the first team.
Three unused substitute ‘appearances’ won’t have helped the youngster, who will be raring for game time between now and the end of the campaign. But his saving grace might lie with the manager, as Stam is not afraid of changing a winning team when he feels it is necessary. Added to this is his penchant for using three centre backs, giving Oxford a one-in-three chance of being selected.
As early as October, manager Jaap Stam addressed the need for additional resources up front, along with 99% of the Reading fan base. Aside from some cameo appearances from Dominic Samuel and Joseph Mendes, the burden of the lone striker role has fallen on the shoulders of 35-year-old Yann Kermorgant. With the Frenchman delivering just eight goals so far (although his contributions have covered far more than placing the ball in the back of the net) and Deniss Rakels on the long-term injury list, the short-term loan of Lewis Grabban for the rest of the season (taking place during Reading’s 1-0 win against Birmingham City that night) cast a big sigh of relief across the county of Berkshire.
Unlike Jordon Mutch, however, he wasn’t thrown straight into the team, with his name showing up as a substitute for the Ipswich Town game. With The Royals a goal down at halftime, Stam brought the new forward on for the usually-dependable John Swift, and he made an impact fairly quickly, with his pace providing the catalyst for the opening Reading goal of the afternoon, and showing the Reading fans an early sign of a good partnership with Mutch at the same time. But the assist wasn’t his only bright moment. He proved a danger from there on out, and offered the attack something Yann Kermorgant can’t: pace.
He was once again brought on at half-time during the Barnsley game, although, for reasons only Jaap Stam will understand, he was a like-for-like replacement for Liam Kelly, playing in the midfield rather than alongside Kermorgant. The game ended 0-0, with the Bournemouth loanee offering no shots during the second half. He finally made his starting debut in the midweek affair against Brentford, and played in his preferred position in a front two with Kermorgant, but was unable to show anything during his seventy minutes on the pitch, with still no shots attributed to himself during that time. What’s worse is that the win came almost as a direct result of the triple-substitution Stam made on the seventy-third minute, replacing Grabban with Roy Beerens, the scorer of the winning goal. He definitely offers something in the final third but, with Yann Kermorgant failing to dent the goalscoring records this season, fans will want to see Grabban notching sooner rather than later to really prove his worth.