Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.
If Reading had attacked a bit more at Wembley. If Liam Moore and Jordan Obita had converted from 12 yards. If Christopher Schindler didn’t “take that chance”.
Play-off final defeat had become an all-too-familiar feeling as Reading fans trudged away from the national stadium following defeat to Huddersfield Town on May 29 2017, but there was also a sense of hope that this was only the beginning. After all, the previous two losses in play-off finals - against Walsall in 2001 and Swansea in 2011 - had been atoned for with promotion the following season.
But the Dutch Revolution did not continue. Jaap Stam was sacked just ten months later after a run of one win in 18 league games, and the club laboured to a 20th-place finish under his replacement Paul Clement - the worst that a losing play-off finalist had performed in 11 years. The rut continued in 2018/19, and Clement also lost his job last December with relegation looking likely. José Gomes stopped that from happening and boosted the atmosphere upon his arrival, but once again the season ended with Reading in 20th.
As the Royals prepare to face Huddersfield for the first time since our Wembley meeting, it’s difficult not to think about how things could have been different if the shoot-out result had swung the other way.
Considering how the last two years in the Championship have panned out, it’s easy to say that Reading would have crashed and burned in the Premier League, challenging Derby County’s record lowest points total in the process. But it’s not that straightforward. Firstly, there were similarly low expectations for Huddersfield’s first season in the big time, but the Terriers finished four points clear of the bottom three.
Furthermore, the Royals would have almost certainly made different transfers if they had been promoted. The Reading careers of Sone Aluko, Dave Edwards, Leandro Bacuna and more could be chalked from history, and in their place those of higher-quality players. Premier League quality players. Who knows who we could have signed?
Equally, we’ll never know for sure how big an impact losing Ali Al-Habsi and Danny Williams had, but the club’s downward spiral did coincide with their departures after a season in which they had been so vital. If we had reached the Premier League, the duo would have been much more likely to stick around.
Without Al-Habsi, Reading have used six goalkeepers in 96 league games in a search to find a reliable option between the sticks. For context, the Omani shot-stopper played in 91 consecutive matches before he left. Without Williams on the other hand, the Royals lacked energy and tenacity in midfield before Andy Rinomhota’s emergence towards the end of 2018.
But bemoaning their exits does come with a caveat: how much you can rely on an ageing goalkeeper in the top-flight is questionable, and all Williams did for Huddersfield in the Premier League was sit in the injury room.
Some things though would have stayed the same. Ron Gourlay would still have been appointed CEO and brought with him an approach not fit for Reading’s boardroom. Signings would likely have still been illogical and failures in the making - it seemed that Aluko for example was a target regardless of what division the club were in.
The bumper contracts handed out to certain individuals that look naive in hindsight would still have been handed out. In fact, more players would probably have got them. The one silver lining is that any prospective financial mess wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad thanks to the money earned from promotion.
Regardless of the players that we would have signed, Jaap Stam’s style of play would also have remained a focal point. That isn’t to say that the style was an overwhelming negative - it gave Reading an identity and still had its supporters right up until Stam’s sacking - but it would have been difficult to maintain in the Premier League without the club being on the end of a few thrashings.
These were happening anyway in the Championship against Newcastle United (4-1), Fulham (5-0) and Norwich City (7-1), and also when the Royals came up against Manchester United in the FA Cup (4-0). Sadly it’s very rare that teams can successfully preserve such a style of play upon promotion. Fulham found that out last season despite huge investment, and Norwich City’s philosophy was brushed aside by Liverpool a fortnight ago.
Ultimately, you have to ask whether you would rather be in Huddersfield’s position right now or Reading’s. The Terriers enjoyed a magical first season in the Premier League and secured their financial future with the riches that promotion provided - riches that would have been hugely beneficial for Reading, who have struggled with Financial Fair Play restrictions in the last 12 months.
But last season the West Yorkshire faithful witnessed some of the worst performances they’ve ever seen (arguably we’ve experienced the same in the last two years) and they have begun the current Championship season with three defeats in four games. Jan Siewert has been sacked and the club look poorly equipped for life back at this level.
For the Royals, in contrast, it seems the only way is up.
Perhaps this is just part of the life cycle of a football club, and Reading’s moment in the sun will come thanks to José Gomes, Ovie Ejaria and George Pușcaș rather than Jaap Stam, Danny Williams and Yann Kermorgant. As one wise soul once said, “you have to go through the worst to get to the best”.