On Sunday, Steve Clarke was given a hero’s reception as he bade farewell to Kilmarnock fans ahead of agreeing to take charge of the Scotland national team. It was remarkably different to his previous managerial exit three and half years ago, as his Reading team were booed off the Madejski Stadium pitch after conceding late on to lose 1-0 to QPR. Clarke would be sacked the next morning.
His undoubted success at Kilmarnock - guiding them to third in the Scottish Premiership for the first time since 1966 with a club-record points total - may suggest that Reading were too hasty in their dismissal of the former West Brom boss. Indeed, when Clarke was announced as the new Killie manager in 2017, he was critical of his treatment in Berkshire, saying of Reading “that was also supposed to be a project where we were going to try and build something, but people lose patience very quickly these days”.
On the face of it, Clarke has a point. When he was let go by the Royals, we were ninth in the table and only one point off the play-offs. Of the 41 managers sacked since then in the Championship, only five have been in charge of clubs higher in the table. It certainly pales in comparison to Reading’s position in the table at the time of other recent managers’ departures: Paul Clement (21st), Jaap Stam (20th) and Nigel Adkins (16th). Of course, under Clarke’s successor Brian McDermott, Reading fell rapidly down the table and ended the campaign in 17th before he too was given the boot.
It wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that, for a period of two or three months, Reading played some of the best football we’ve seen this decade under Clarke. We have not scored five goals in one game or won a game by four goals since the 5-1 thrashing of Ipswich Town, while the 2-1 win over Burnley (then in fourth) and 2-0 defeat of Middlesbrough (then in second) made us real title contenders in October 2015.
A discussion on Clarke would also not be complete without mentioning the huge achievement of reaching the FA Cup semi-final - the club’s first in 88 years - where they put in a superb performance to take Arsenal all the way to extra-time.
This all paints a fairly rosy picture of the Scot’s time in RG2, but the reality is of course very different. The results across his whole 12-month tenure weren’t good enough. From a total of 53 games his win percentage came to 35.85%, which drops to 29.55% if you take away results from cup competitions. This ranks him sixth in Reading’s last ten permanent managers.
At the back of end of the 2014-15 campaign, Reading recorded just three wins in the final 17 league games and were only saved from relegation by their early season form and the fact that the relegated trio of Millwall, Wigan Athletic and Blackpool really were truly awful. At the time of Clarke’s sacking the following season, we had won once in eight games - against 23rd placed Bolton Wanderers.
Perhaps more significantly, Clarke never saw Reading as the right long-term fit for himself. This manifested itself when he spoke to Fulham about taking over as manager, despite the Cottagers being below the Royals at the time. We’ll never quite know how much that incident had an impact because he was sacked just three games later, but it certainly seemed like a turning point.
From that moment, the fans lost trust in him, and perhaps the players did too. However good a coach he was or now is, even if he had been the right manager for Reading before, things changed the moment he spoke to Fulham. It was a point of no return.
Clarke clearly saw Reading as stepping stone. His appointment was a quick one, just a day after Nigel Adkins had been sacked, and the 55 year-old himself admitted that he didn’t do enough due diligence on the club before joining. In fact, he had been lying on a beach in the Caribbean 24 hours before being presented to the media at the Madejski Stadium. That to me suggests he was too quick to take any job to get back into football; to climb the ladder. The Fulham job might not have taken his fancy, but the vacancy at Derby County three months later probably would have.
Now, Clarke has the biggest job of his career so far, and if he earns Scotland qualification to their first major tournament since 1998, then you would be naive to question his managerial ability. After all, just because he wasn’t the right fit for Reading, doesn’t mean he’s a bad manager.
Just look at Brendan Rodgers.