Over the years there has been a tendency in football where the number of available first-team players has increased constantly. Every single position is at least occupied twice. To that, you add some young prospects from the academy and the 30+ squad is complete. As of today, Mark Bowen can count on a total of 34 players (not including the ones that are out on loan). Plenty of choices in the team selection, plenty of possibilities to change something. But does this mean the bigger the squad, the stronger the squad?
A brief look at the club’s recent history shows that whenever the Royals have been extremely successful, consistency in team selection was a key factor. Easy indicators to confirm that are the number of players used in total and the number of players with more than 30 appearances in one season (counting just the league matches).
Of course, someone could argue now that the principle of “never change a winning team” led to that consistency. Did we change the formation less because of the success we already had? Or did we stick longer to the same players until the first winning streak arrived? It’s like the question about the chicken and the egg - hard to say what was first. But a closer analysis of our best and worst seasons in the last 30 years suggests that some kind of correlation between the indicators above and the factor “success” exists.
In the seasons 1993/94 (champions of Division Two) and 1994/95 (runners up of Division One), the numbers speak for themselves. During 1993/94 Mark McGhee used only 22 different players. 10 of them collected 30 appearances or more, and seven – Gooding, Hislop, Hopkins, Kerr, Lovell, Parky and Ady Williams – crossed the “40 matches” mark. Same story the following year: just 23 players used, 12 of them with 30+ apps. Changes were few. Team selection looked pretty easy.
In comparison to that, we have just some years later the disappointing seasons of 1997/98 (relegation from Division One) and 1998/99 (first season at the Madejski) where the statistics give a clear indication: 38 different players wore the blue and white shirt in Reading’s last year at Elm Park and even five more (43 in total) were used in 1998/99. Nearly double four years before! The number of squad members with over 30 apps? Relatively low. six players in the relegation season and eight in the first year at the Madejski. Many changes, little consistency.
But also the history after the turn of the millennium confirms these tendencies. On the positive side, there is for example Reading’s record-breaking season 2005/06 season when Steve Coppell “needed” only 24 heroes to win the league, 13 of them with 30 appearances or more. An impressive eight Royals – Ingimarsson (46 apps), Sonko (46), Hahnemann (45), Harper (45), Convey (45), Doyle (45), Murty (40) and Shorey (40) – were nearly ever-present.
A similar picture in the 2011/12 promotion-season under Brian McDermott: 13 players collected more than 30 appearances, Federici and Pearce not even missing a single minute. And also, five years later, when the Royals missed promotion on penalties, Jaap Stam had 11 players with 30 matches or more in their legs before reaching the play-off-final at Wembley. Whenever there was success, the number of first-team players with 30+ apps reached double figures.
The opposite is the case in less successful seasons when numbers remain predominately in the single-digit range. In addition, the list of players used all season is relatively large (as seen before between 1997 and 1999). A more recent example: 2018/19, when we had a total of 39 players used, but only seven of them made more than 30 appearances. Again, many changes, little consistency.
So, what is the reason for that lack of stability when things don’t work out? Did we change so often the formation because bad results forced us to? Or did the temptation of having a big squad lead to impatience and (too) early changes? Difficult to answer. Maybe a bigger first-team squad with many players of the same level of performance encourages you to vary more because of the countless available options.
Somehow you get the impression that less could be more - also in terms of reaching a stronger cohesion in the dressing room. And you get the impression that to be successful, a solid foundation of regular players is needed. The likes of Hislop, Gooding, Lovell and Ady Williams in the 90s or Hahnemann, Murty, Ingimarsson and Harper of the legendary 106 team were that kind of basis on which success was built. Something that had to grow over the years.
These days, new faces have to build that foundation. Liam Moore, Andy Rinomhota or John Swift, just to name a few. Still, others need to follow. Maybe it’s worth giving some of the actual squad more time and confidence so that they can grow into a future key role. Because history has shown that simply signing further players is not the (only) solution. Again, sometimes less could be more.