The burden of being Reading’s record signing has had vastly differing effects on the nine players who have held the honour of this title since the turn of the millennium. Some are regarded as cult heroes of the club; others, such overwhelming disappointments that their appearances in blue and white can be counted on one hand.
It seems to produce such a variety of different outcomes, with some relishing the pressure of a hefty fee and others crumbling under it, that perhaps the psychological significance of a being a club-record transfer is often understated.
Last Wednesday, new signing George Puscas became the latest big-money recruit and it makes an interesting comparison to see how his predecessors fared as Berkshire’s most expensive man.
August 1997, £800,000
Asaba would be Reading’s most expensive man for seven years prior to Bobby Convey’s arrival from across the pond. He signed off the back of an impressive campaign in the third tier for Brentford where he notched up an impressive tally of 23 goals in 44 games, which prompted then-manager Terry Bullivant to pay a significant sum for his services.
However, Asaba would fail to make the step up to the second tier and would be symbolic of Reading’s failure in a disastrous season that saw the club finish 24th. After eight goals in 32 games, Asaba was shipped off to Gillingham for a cut price of £590,000, but he would go on to redeem himself by finishing as the club’s top goalscorer in 1998/99.
July 2004, c. £900,000
Convey was Reading’s first outfield player from across the pond and arrived as a talented 21-year-old from DC United when he linked up with Steve Coppell in the summer of 2004.
Although it took him time to settle, Convey will ultimately be remembered fondly for his integral role on the left side of midfield in the 2005/06 record-breaking season. He scored the entirety of his seven league goals for the Royals in that incredible season, with the standout being a sublime individual effort against Millwall which epitomised his grit and determination.
A knee injury in October 2006 halted his progress in Berkshire quite significantly and he never reached the lofty heights of the 106 season. However, for his critical role in this, Bobby Convey will certainly be regarded as an astute record signing.
July, 2005 £1m
While Chelsea were busy spending £24.4m on Michael Essien, that same summer Reading broke their transfer record for the second time in consecutive summers when they signed Leroy Lita from Bristol City.
26 years after Trevor Francis became the first million-pound footballer, the Royals finally had their inaugural seven-figure man. Lita, like Convey, would prove to be a success as the pressure of being Berkshire’s most expensive man weighed little on the Congolese forward’s shoulders.
Lita scored three goals in his first three games and ended his first season with 11 league goals in 26 matches as Reading sealed promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history. He will be remembered for his acrobatic bicycle kick against Crystal Palace as well as his stunning hat-trick against West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup which was perhaps his finest performance in a Reading shirt.
He gained cult hero status in the Premier League for his part in the opening-day comeback against Middlesbrough as well as scoring against both Chelsea and Manchester United. After a series of loan spells, first to Charlton Athletic and then to Norwich City, Lita left on a free transfer in 2009 when he joined Middlesbrough.
January 2007, c. £2.4m
Halford signed for the Royals from Colchester during the mid-season transfer window in a deal that more than doubled Lita’s fee, which reflected the newfound riches of the Premier League. However, Halford was a huge flop, making just three appearances and giving away a penalty against Tottenham Hotspur.
Somehow Nicky Hammond managed to pull off a masterstroke and make a tidy profit on Halford when he was moved on to Sunderland in June 2007 for £3.5m. His eight Premier League appearances for the Black Cats showed that Roy Keane well and truly had his pants pulled down.
August 2007, £2.5m
A man who is widely regarded as one of the worst signings in Reading’s illustrious 148-year history, Emerse Fae continued the trend of disastrous record signings started by Halford earlier that year.
Fae’s time in Berkshire would be marked by his shocking attitude which came to a head when he refused to play for the reserve team against Tottenham Hotspur. In the aftermath, he flew back to France, leaving Steve Coppell with no choice other than to ban him from wearing the blue and white hoops again.
After just eight appearances, the Ivorian was sent out on loan to Nice in 2008, with his legacy in Berkshire being nothing more than the occasional pub quiz answer.
July 2012, c.£3m
Jamaican international Mariappa arrived at the Madejski prior to the Royals’ second stint in the Premier League in 2012/13. He was a solid player during that season but could not prevent relegation which came after the Royals achieved just 28 points.
However, after Nigel Adkins replaced Brian McDermott in March 2013, Mariappa found opportunities limited as he preferred a centre-back partnership of Sean Morrison and Alex Pearce. Mariappa’s time in Berkshire ended with a horror show defeat against Peterborough United where the Royals lost 6-0; he was sold to Crystal Palace for £3m the week after.
January 2017, £3.75m
Ilori arrived from Liverpool mid-way through the January transfer window and would play his part in ensuring Jaap Stam’s side were just one kick away from the Premier League. He put in an admirable performance at Wembley and was one of the better players during Paul Clement’s disappointing time in the hot seat.
However, Ilori was sold back to his boyhood club, Sporting Lisbon, by Jose Gomes who promptly brought American international Matt Miazga in as his replacement. Miazga would impress far more than Ilori ever did during his two indifferent years in Berkshire.
August 2017, c.£7.3m
Aluko signed a four-year deal from Fulham that is due to expire in 2021 and the Nigerian has proved to be a truly extortionate purchase. Despite flashes of brilliance against QPR and Derby County, Aluko’s name will no doubt go alongside that of Halford’s and Fae’s in underwhelming record signings.
Throughout the entirety of his time in Berkshire, the Royals fought against relegation which is symptomatic of many of his performances in a Reading shirt as he never showed anywhere near enough talent to warrant being remotely close to justifying a £7.3m fee.
He is currently on loan with Beijing Rehne in China and will return aged 32 with 18 months on his contract, which will undoubtedly worry Reading supporters.
August 2019, initial fee of £2m rising to c.£8m with add-ons
The Romanian international’s arrival at Hogwood last Wednesday sent waves of excitement around the Reading fanbase as he became the latest club-record signing and one who Jose Gomes will hope can propel his side up the Championship table.
Puscas is one of the hottest prospects in Europe and his four goals at this summer’s European Under-21 Championships ensured he won the Silver Boot and was included in the team of the tournament. This meant that the list of potential suitors for the former Inter Milan man was a long one and so it feels like a real coup for Reading to have beaten off such stiff competition to ensure they got their man.
Only time will tell whether Puscas will be remembered alongside the Litas and Conveys of Reading history or whether he will be tossed aside like so many of his expensive predecessors. However, with his impressive footballing CV so far, fans have good reason to hope he will be fall into the former category.