While there will be plenty of misery following defeat in the playoff final to Huddersfield Town on penalties, the other side of the coin is to celebrate the fact that Reading jumped from finishing in 17th place last season to challenging for promotion in the space of just one season. And, as this article will show, there is a history of glory following misery.
In three of the last four seasons of the Championship, a team reaching the playoff mini-tournament has achieved promotion the following season. But, over the last decade of second-tier football, there have been just three play-off finalists who have followed bitter disappointment at Wembley with automatic promotion just a year later. Below is the story of all three...
Middlesbrough (beaten play-off finalists 2015, promoted 2016)
Like a lot of the teams who drop out of the Premier League after lengthy service, Middlesbrough had struggled to regain their top flight status since relegation in May 2009. Their road to promotion began with the arrival of a new manager, Aitor Karanka, in November 2013 after Tony Mowbray was sacked. The first non-British gaffer for 'Boro, Karanka came to England with no previous managerial experience to speak of, although he had served as Jose Mourinho's assistant at Real Madrid prior to his new job.
Karanka spent the summer of 2014 clearing out the deadwood in the side, transferring fourteen first team players, most of them on free transfers. Despite an iffy start to the campaign, they wouldn't leave the top six from the start of October until the end of the season, even topping the table a few times to give the fans hope. The penultimate game of the season perhaps decided their fate, and made some question the managerial decision of sending his goalkeeper forward for a last-minute corner, which allowed Ross McCormack to score the winning goal in a 4-3 scoreline, and end any hopes of automatic promotion for the side. They finished the season in fourth place, and, despite comfortably seeing off the threat of Brentford in the semi-finals with a 5-1 aggregate score, they lost 2-0 to Alex Neil's Norwich City in the final, meaning they are still yet to win at Wembley Stadium after five defeats from five games there.
The transfer window in the summer of 2015 would be crucial for 'Boro, as Karanka brought back fan favourite Stewart Downing to the club, as well as influential players Christhian Stuani, David Nugent and Jordan Rhodes. While the club would enjoy a position near the top of the table, the manager caused confusion when, in early March with the club in second place, Karanka left the training ground after an argument, threatening to once again disturb their plans of promotion. He eventually returned though, and led the side to automatic promotion, although they only pipped Brighton & Hove Albion to it on goal difference alone.
Reading (beaten play-off finalists 2011, champions 2012)
Who can forget this wonderful zero-to-hero story from the little club in Berkshire? After Brendan Rodgers brief-and-woeful term in charge of Reading at the beginning of the 2009/2010 season, the club chose relative-unknown Brian McDermott to replace him, whose previous accomplishments were looking after the youth team and a spell managing non-league Slough Town. He managed to bring The Royals from the brink of relegation to a commendable ninth place in that first half-season with the side, and fans were waiting to see what he would do with a full season in charge.
The answer was marked improvement. Bringing in players such as Andy Griffin, Ian Harte, Sean Morrison and Mikele Leigertwood into an already-formidable team (along the way seeing much of Steve Coppell's 'old guard' departing), and, thanks to a thirteen-game unbeaten run stretching from mid-February to late-April, they finished the campaign in fifth place, five points clear of Leeds United in seventh. After easily negotiating a 3-0 aggregate victory over two legs against Cardiff City (with all goals scored away from home), they set up a play-off final against Swansea City, managed by none other than Brendan Rodgers. The Swans went into the match as favourites (with much buzz surrounding the possibility of being the first Welsh team to enter the Premier League), and they never allowed The Royals to get the better of them, going 2-0 up within two minutes thanks to Scott Sinclair in the first half. Despite Reading scoring two themselves early in the second half, an eightieth minute penalty from Sinclair to seal his hat-trick secured the win for Swansea, and left Reading in tears.
With pivotal figures Shane Long and Matt Mills leaving the club after play-off disappointment, Brian McDermott had to pick his side up for yet another season in the Championship. Just one win in their first six league games proved that bouncing back wasn't going to be easy, but McDermott's scouting knowledge proved useful as he built up a strong 'spine' of the team: Adam Federici in goal, Sean Morrison in defence, Mikele Leigertwood in midfield and Jason Roberts in attack. They hung around the playoff places at the start of 2012, but crept into first place during the final eighteen games of the campaign, losing just twice and winning fourteen to be crowned champions, one point ahead of runners-up Southampton.
West Bromwich Albion (beaten play-off finalists 2007, champions 2008)
West Bromwich Albion had a much shorter stay in the second tier than either of the previous teams, relegated the year before they reached the play-off final. Manager Bryan Robson was retained despite the relegation, but left the club in October 2006, eventually being replaced by Tony Mowbray, whose only real managerial experience came north of the border, where he had enjoyed recent league success with Scottish Premier League side Hibernian.
The Baggies brought a talented side into the second tier, and they dominated the top positions for most of the season, but six defeats in nine games during the latter stages of the competition meant they missed out on automatic promotion entirely, ending the season in fourth place. They played local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers in the semi-final, and beat them 3-2 and 1-0, with striker Kevin Phillips scoring three times in two games, and were able to play at the national stadium against Derby County in the final, with the new Wembley Stadium just about completed in time for the end of the 2006/2007 season. WBA and Derby set a new record attendance at the time for their final but, despite The Baggies dominating most of the match, a single goal from Stephen Pearson saw The Rams earn promotion and West Brom stuck in the second tier for at least another season.
Tony Mowbray remained in charge for the following season, and made big replacements in his squad, selling big-name players like Jason Koumas and Curtis Davies whilst bringing in fourteen new faces for his side to challenge for promotion once again. The wholesale changes would reap immediate benefits, with Mowbray winning Manager of the Month in September after a good start, and the attractive football played by WBA helped them remain strong contenders for promotion. While Kevin Phillips was top goalscorer of the season, other stars such as Ishmael Miller, Robert Koren and Dean Kiely would all shine as the club romped home to win the title with eighty one points.