April 17th 2012 is a day I will not forget as a Reading fan as that was the day we secured our return to the Premier League. Hearing Tim Dellor scream over the radio that Mikele Leigertwood had bundled Ian Harte’s free kick past Nottingham Forest hit home that little old Reading were actually going to do it! As a young fan of 15 at the time, I was so excited for the future as we had always came close but failed at the final hurdle (*cough* Wembley *cough*).
I remember begging my parents that night to buy me a season ticket as I couldn’t miss this opportunity to witness the dream of Premier League football. Unfortunately the dream bubble burst by late October as we got mauled by Chelsea and Spurs and couldn’t buy a win to save our lives. We were gone as quickly as we had arrived as the elite showed no mercy.
I still wonder now if we could have done any better. Were we just unlucky and if we had gone up in May this year would the same have happened again ? There is no clear answer to this so I have broke it down into three sections as to why we limped out of the league rather than going out fighting.
I’m sure most Reading fans would agree with me that the 2011/12 squad is one our most iconic teams since the 106 team of 2005/06. We hadn’t set the division alight like Southampton or West Ham but we showed we could beat anyone on our day through hard work and squad unity. Whatever happened afterwards, I still regard those players as my heroes for getting us there.
Sadly while they were heroes in the Championship, we needed firepower to gain survival. I do admire Brian McDermott for wanting to reward those who got the team there and it did keep the unity for most of that season. But more players were needed to be brought in to challenge as you could almost name the same 11 which helped the opposition scouts. The players that did come in were just small upgrades on what we usually bought which is great for a Championship campaign but the Premier League is something else! We got bullied in defence and midfield and our strikers lived off scraps.
The financial purse strings were of course kept pretty tight by Anton Zingarevich, so it's hard to blame Brian too much, but while Adam Le Fondre’s super sub miracles in January offered a glimmer of hope for survival, alarm bells were ringing amongst the fans that we depended on this tactic too much. This fear did come true as teams learned to finish us off early as they would be no time for us to rally back. Overall, whilst this was a great Championship team it simply needed more depth in order to secure safety.
The League At The Time
Reading entered the league where the divide between the top six and the rest of the division was enormous. Good luck getting any result at The Emirates or Old Trafford as the squads on show were incredible. I was lucky to see players such as Frank Lampard, Robin van Persie and even Fernando Torres grace the Mad Stad and they were on another level. I hoped Reading would eventually aspire to bring legends like that in in the future but instead we still insisted on retaining the majority of the Championship winning squad. Players elsewhere in the division were going for stupid money but they earned their respective sides valuable points during the season as they were proven in the league.
Reading simply couldn’t compete for signings with their lack of Premier League status and strict wage cap. With the exception of Daniel Carrico (a man who had to Google who we were before he signed) foreign talent sadly didn’t fancy joining Reading. It could be argued that QPR suffered a worse fate than us despite spending money like there was no tomorrow. However, their issue compared to Reading was that they had too many players, something which didn’t create squad unity, our problem was more that didn’t bring enough in to fire up the competition for places.
Ultimately, we simply didn’t adapt to the league fast enough and neither did our signings.
The Transfers (Or Lack Of Them)
As I've mentioned, the worst part of the season was our failure to bring enough Premier League quality players to the club in either window . Whilst the arrivals of Pavel Pogrebnyak and Garath McCleary were promising, they took time to adjust to the division and/or experienced major drops in form. The defence got ripped to shreds by any winger with pace which was a regular occurrence. Ian Harte even managed to be bowled over by a gust of wind to add insult to injury! Time is not the ally of a Premier League team (well unless you're Manchester United) and Reading had hoped their new players joining the system would click after January. In the Premier League regular goals and squad depth is needed to ensure survival.
Unfortunately due to Anton’s lack of legitimate money Reading regressed into old habits by buying for the future in players like Hope Akpan and Nick Blackman rather than the present which other teams in similar positions sort out to do. If we did have the money he promised then we could have bought Gylfi back for that rumoured £8 million which seems a bargain considering what he is allegedly worth now! I remember most of the press were convinced we had signed Andrey Arshavin in January, which in hindsight I don’t mind that we dodged that bullet!
I have always grown up with the fact that Reading were my little club that promised so much but often failed to deliver on the big stage. As much as it pains me to say it I can conclude that the club didn’t get to fully grasp this grand opportunity in front of them. Whether it was down to Anton, Brian or the board - Reading were so focused on its long term financial security that it simply got left behind by those who spent to win. Whilst I support this decision, you can only build for the future if you secure the foundations on the task in hand first. History often repeats itself but this time I hope Reading learn from the past in order to prosper in the future.
But I am proud to say that we have reached the Premier League twice in my lifetime and I’m confident the third time is just around the corner. Let’s just hope it’s not another Wembley roulette that decides our fate!