Rewind the clocks 12 months, and Chris Gunter’s days at the Madejski Stadium looked to be numbered. The right back had, like long-term teammate Garath McCleary, been sidelined by then-manager Jose Gomes in an apparent effort to exclude players the club were actively trying to get off the books.
Whether or not it was the right decision for Reading at the time, it was seen by many as being somewhat unfair on a committed club servant. Gunter had racked up hundreds of appearances for the Royals in the seven years since joining from Nottingham Forest, taking in Premier League struggles, promotion pushes, relegation scraps and two trips to Wembley. Don’t forget he was captain for the second of those, that fateful match against Huddersfield Town.
Then again, the last two years hadn’t been good for Gunter. First, an underwhelming 2017/18 campaign as Reading receded from a side that was a few kicks away from the Premier League to one perilously close to League One. As an ever present that year, missing just 14 minutes of the Royals’ league campaign, many - manager Paul Clement included - reasonably concluded that the right-back berth needed freshening up.
That’s exactly what happened in time for 2018/19, with Reading not even waiting until the summer transfer window opened to announce that they’d agreed a deal to bring Barnsley’s Andy Yiadom in on a free. The Ghanaian was a revelation that season, unluckily pipped to the club’s player-of-the-season award, even if he took The Tilehurst End’s equivalent honour.
By the time summer 2019 came around, Gunter looked like a spare part; a former first-team stalwart, but without a spot in the first team available. An exit looked inevitable.
But it didn’t materialise, and Gunter continued (alongside McCleary) to train with the under-23s under Gomes’ wishes. Even when McCleary was brought back into the fold, returning to the first team at QPR in Mark Bowen’s second match in charge and scoring in his first home appearance of the season against Luton Town at the beginning of November, it wasn’t until the end of the month that Gunter’s turn came.
First an inclusion on the bench at Brentford, then the full 90 minutes at home to Leeds United in Yiadom’s absence. Reading didn’t quite get the job done that night, but a fine defensive show against Marcelo Bielsa’s fluid promotion hunters almost earned an unlikely sheet, in which Gunter played his part with a solid performance.
An encouraging if limited return to first-team action, but more was to come. Yiadom’s injury from December through to February handed Gunter something he hadn’t been given since before the Ghanaian’s arrival: a clear run at an extended period in the side. Given his poor 2017/18 campaign, and a 2018/19 season in which he’d been overshadowed by the new arrival from Barnsley (despite playing 22 times in the league), expectations were pretty low for Gunter in December 2019.
However, his introduction to the team coincided with our best period this season. Solid away points at Barnsley and Stoke City before four successive wins built on a resolute defence; Reading conceded just twice in those six matches and racked up four clean sheets. Even when the form slipped, with no wins in the following six, Gunter was still part of a defence that conceded more than one goal on just one occasion during that run: the 2-0 loss at Millwall.
This isn’t earth-shattering stuff, but in contrast to the slide in status Gunter had gone through between Wembley and last summer, it’s a commendable turnaround. Given how written off he was a year ago, for him to knuckle down and take his chance in the first team when it came takes some doing.
In fact, Gunter’s average score in our player ratings this season comes out at an impressive 6.3/10 - joint top with the widely lauded Rafael. That’s much higher than Gunter’s averages for 2018/19 (5.4) and 2017/18 (5.7). Although the sample size is different in each case - he’s only played 15 times in all competitions so far this season - Gunter is yet to get a rating below 6/10. It’s not just that he’s doing an ‘OK’ job; his performances this season have been significantly better than in previous years.
Gunter is reported to have agreed a deal to keep him here until the very end of this season, but after that, he’s due to become a free agent. If reports are to be believed, he’ll then swap Reading for a Championship rival - perhaps Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough.
I’m probably in the minority in thinking that Gunter would be a good option to keep if a deal is feasible. For me, the experience, versatility and knowledge of the club make him a valuable asset, even if just for another year or two. However, regardless of whether or not Reading should try to give Gunter a new contract, the reaction yesterday to his possible departure is pretty striking.
Both on Twitter and Facebook, your comments were almost universally appreciative of him. Even if there weren’t many words of praise for his footballing ability, plenty of you commended his character and commitment to the club over the years. The consensus seemed to be that Reading would be losing a real asset if Gunter departs at the end of this season. That’s a far cry from this time last year, or even six months ago - before Gunter had properly shown he could still be a solid, dependable part of Reading’s first team on a consistent basis.
All in all, this season has been something of a renaissance for Gunter, at least in terms of his reputation at the club.