Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the increasing apathy from long-term fans towards Reading FC at the moment can, at least partially, be explained by the lack of first team opportunities being given to academy graduates. In short, it means a lot more to supporters when ‘one of their own’ is on the pitch, rather than someone they have little emotional connection with.
However, there’s a similarly worrying trend about the club that’s emerged over the last few years - the increasing rarity of long-term players. That was brought into particularly sharp focus by the following stat from @TalkReading on Tuesday night:
“250 - Chris Gunter becomes the first Reading player to reach 250 games for the club since Ívar Ingimarsson hit the landmark in 2010!”
So, Reading have gone through a period of seven-eight years where no-one has hit the heights in terms of total appearances for the club. Long-term servants used to be a more regular sight at the Madejski Stadium - between 1998 and as recently as 2013, Graeme Murty, Marcus Hahnemann, James Harper, Nicky Shorey and Ivar Ingimarsson all got at least 250 games for Reading.
However, since 2013, only nine players have got to 150 - and just three of those are still at the club (Jordan Obita 165, Garath McCleary 208 and of course Chris Gunter 250). The other six? Adam Federici (245), Alex Pearce (240), Jem Karacan (175), Danny Williams (156) Hal Robson-Kanu (228) and Jobi McAnuff (206).
In hindsight, the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal back in April 2015 feels like it was the last hurrah for the ‘old Reading’. Granted, the club had changed a lot in the preceding two or three years, but it’s significant that players like Federici and Pearce (who would both leave on free transfers a few months later) were still key parts of the first team - fellow big-hitters Karacan and Robson-Kanu also featured that day.
Contrast that to the comically short-term transfer strategy of the following summer transfer window, when seven loanees joined the club, and the change in approach becomes even more evident.
The subsequent two and a half seasons or so haven’t seen the club recover from that - although Gunter, McCleary and Obita have largely been ever-presents, they’ve been surrounded by a constantly rotating cast. Danny Williams is the only post-relegation signing to have gone on to make more than 100 appearances, although Paul McShane (97), Oliver Norwood (92) and Ali Al-Habsi (91) have come close.
Why is this any of this important?
Reading have gone through an uncharacteristically unstable period over the last few years, and that’s certainly true for its squad. It’s telling that the 2012/13 Premier League squad contained five players who had been in Steve Coppell’s 2007/08 group, but the current side contains just one who made his Reading debut before 2012/13 (Jordan Obita, 2010).
Practically speaking, long-term servants have a much greater connection with the ideals of the club and the expectations of the fans than others. In the absence of such players, you have a team that’s just that bit less focussed and less driven. I’m not accusing recent signings of lacking passion, but it’s inevitable that players have an extra desire to succeed for a club that’s been their long-term home.
Take Brian McDermott’s 2011/12 title-winning side as an example. Whilst hardly being the most technically gifted team, it was built on long-term, devoted players like Adam Federici, Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan, Jobi McAnuff, Jimmy Kebe and Noel Hunt. Could Brian have fostered the same work ethic and passion to win if the starting XI had been made up of half a dozen loanees?
Loyalty is an increasingly rare concept in modern day football - now, I’m not demanding that players blindly stay at a club for as long as possible, but I am suggesting that those who do show loyalty get the respect they deserve. In the current squad, Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary are the two best examples of that - sure, you can give out reasonable criticism about what they do or don’t do on the pitch, but you can’t fault their commitment to the club.
Both have been with us now for more than five and a half years - some of the most turbulent times in the club’s recent history. They’ve had chances to leave - Gunter for one was offered a more lucrative contract by Middlesbrough last summer, but turned it down to stay in Berkshire - despite being treated as a bit of scapegoat by some fans on social media over the last few years.
Are either of them amazing footballers? No, of course not, but both have proven a long-term dedication that, despite being increasingly rare at Reading FC, hasn’t in my view been properly appreciated.
I’d also love it if some other junior members of the squad replicated the achievements of Gunter and McCleary and end up completing their Reading careers with at least 150 appearances under their belt. Ultimately, only time will tell, but I’ve got high hopes in this regard for John Swift, Liam Kelly, Modou Barrow and Omar Richards to name but a few.
Career appearance stats come from Transfermarkt.com.