Pre-season is important for many reasons. Match fitness, tactics, set pieces, integrating new signings and giving youth players a chance to shine. But results are not something I cared about… until last season when getting beat by Eastleigh lead to an ever-deepening concern as Reading went winless throughout July and never recovered, staying in the relegation battle all season.
A year on and I find myself wondering: was that a one-off or should we care about winning games before the season has even started?
Pre-season and final league position
Reading typically play between five and seven first-team friendlies and, over recent years, this has included a tour, and pre-season culminating with a match against Premier League opposition. In both the previous two seasons we have finished 20th and in that time have only won two matches - behind-closed-doors games against QPR on the same July day in 2017!
In fact, since 2010, Reading have only won half or more of their pre-season games three times - when we went on to finish fifth, first and third, so the only times we reached the play offs or were promoted during that time.
But before we all start demanding to play Basingstoke Town or Swindon Town in every friendly, it is also worth noting that Brendan Rogers won four matches in pre-season in 2009 (and drew 2-2 with Chelsea in the final game) but then took until November 21 and a 2-1 victory against Blackpool to record as many league wins. Brian McDermott replaced him a few weeks later and we finished ninth.
Looking through the rest of the Royals’ recent history and the link between our pre-season form and final league position really breaks down. Winning two games has seen us finish anywhere from seventh in 2013 to 19th and 20th.
The first six games
It’s not surprising to find no consistent link between league position. In a 46-game season, players, formations and even the manager can change. What happens on the pitch in July can have little bearing on results in April - but could it influence how we start the campaign?
Our pre-season record last year was W0 L3 D3. Our first six games, after unluckily losing to Derby County on the first day, left us with a record of W0 L4 D2. A year before under Jaap Stam - if we take the dodgy QPR results as wins - we finished pre-season with W2 L2 D3, and then started the season W2 L2 D2. In his first campaign there was a perfect match though, having a record of W3 L2 D1 both in pre-season and the start of the league season which saw us reach the Playoff Final.
Common sense says there could a link here. Football is a lot about confidence and momentum - something that Jose Gomes was keen to stress at the end of last season against Birmingham City. You need to get and keep in the habit of winning games. For example, in 2015 under Steve Clarke we managed just one win in pre-season and started the season W1 L1 D3.
Again, the further back you go the less the link stands up. Winning in pre-season does not guarantee you’ll keep winning as the start of the seasons under Brendan Rogers and Brian McDermott’s two after him attest, but I think there is more than enough evidence to ensure that I’ll be keeping a closer eye and caring far more about Reading winning friendlies in the years to come!