The recent news that Paul McShane is to leave Reading at the end of his contract next month should have been a nice, straightforward source of content. The Royals will soon be in need of a new captain; someone to take up the armband after the Irishman’s departure and lead the team into a brighter future - so let’s write about the candidates.
First up is Liam Moore. He’s certainly a leader on the pitch, highly rated by every manager he’s worked with at the Madejski Stadium, and is a true fans’ favourite. It didn’t take long after McShane’s announcement for Reading fans on Twitter to call for Moore to be made the club’s next captain, and that comes as little surprise.
Second, Andy Yiadom. The Ghanaian has done a fine job at right-back since joining on a free transfer from Barnsley, and was one of the first names on the teamsheet pretty much since August 2018. He deservedly made it into the club’s three-man shortlist for player of the season and, despite missing out to Andy Rinomhota, is in contention for our own award.
So who else? I’m struggling to think of anyone to add to the list.
Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary both fit the bill as loyal, long-term servants, but have been past their best and out of the team for quite some time. Sam Baldock has experience in abundance but may not fit into Jose Gomes’ plans, while Jordan Obita also faces an uncertain future - although in his case it’s down to long-term injury and how well he’ll recover from it.
There’s every possibility that none of those four are regular fixtures in next season’s side, or even at the club at all. That leaves us with just Moore and Yiadom - unless Gomes fancies a wildcard option.
Plenty of you will, I’m sure, not be overly fussed. Reading have a great candidate for the captaincy in Moore and a decent alternative in Yiadom, so what’s the need for another? In terms of the captaincy itself, this probably isn’t too much of a problem, but the lack of proper candidates for the role should be a cause for wider concern.
Any potentially successful squad needs character, maturity and leadership. The title-winning sides of 2005/06 and 2011/12 may have been very different in various ways, but both were full of qualities; full of players you’d trust to step up and take responsibility, regardless of age or experience.
The lack of those qualities in this current side shows an awful lot about how much the character of Reading’s squad has deteriorated in the last few years. In 2015, when the captaincy was last up for grabs, Paul McShane had decent competition for the role in the form of Gunter (whose stock was much higher then), Stephen Quinn, Danny Williams and even Anton Ferdinand.
Fast-forward a year and you could add the likes of Ali Al-Habsi and Yann Kermorgant to the list; both mature leaders who were crucial to Jaap Stam’s first-season success - and sorely missed in 2017/18. The decline since then though has been stark, and it’s something I’ve banged on about a few times (January 2018 and October 2018 for example).
To be fair, the club seemingly tried to address this a year ago. Andy Yiadom, David Meyler and John O’Shea had all captained sides elsewhere, while Sam Baldock also brought plenty of Championship experience. Of course, with the exception of Yiadom, that plan didn’t exactly work. In addition, Kermorgant would be released that same summer and Dave Edwards in January - two 30-year-olds with plenty of know-how but little impact on the pitch.
McShane, O’Shea and Anssi Jaakkola will all depart in a few weeks when their contracts expire. They could well be joined by at least a few of Meyler, Baldock, Gunter and McCleary as Nigel Howe and Jose Gomes trim the squad of its higher earners for Financial Fair Play purposes.
Ensuring that we have more leaderships from this summer onwards will be tricky as Reading have a particularly young squad - its average age was already the joint-fourth-lowest in the Championship across the course of 2018/19 (25.8). That’s a good thing in terms of developing the club’s young talent and making the most of the academy, but experience to guide that youth is vital.
Take Norwich City for example. Despite their success last season with young players, there was still an important experienced core; Tim Krul (31), Marco Stiepermann (28), Teemu Pukki (29), Mario Vrancic (29), Timm Klose (31) and Alexander Tettey (33) all made at least 30 appearances. Nonetheless, their squad was still young overall - in fact, it had the same average as Reading’s.
So the task is clear - Jose Gomes and Nigel Howe must make sure that Reading bring in an experienced contingent this summer to provide the leadership that a young squad needs. However, that won’t be easy, and we’ll have to learn the lessons of the last couple of years. The new recruits must:
- Fit the possession-based system,
- Have the right attitude for a club moving away from a relegation fight and hopefully towards the top six (hi Chris Martin),
- Not cost the earth, which will be especially tricky due to Financial Fair Play. Experience don’t come cheap
Those are fairly obvious, basic points - not least to those of us on the outside looking in - but they’re not principles that the club has followed in recent years. If Reading can learn those lessons though, perhaps it can finally move into some brighter times.