The iconic sides of 2006 and 2012 aside, it is hard to picture a Reading team without Chris Gunter in it. This might sound outlandish, but let me put it in to context. Gunter has made 314 appearances for the Royals – only James Harper (348), Graeme Murty (321) and Nicky Shorey (317) have made more for the club this century. For a generation of supporters, they have seen few other players don the shirt on more occasions. At times, Gunter’s name on the team sheet has simply been assumed; he has been a cornerstone of the football club.
As the Welshman calls time on his eight-year spell at the Madejski Stadium, it is worth considering whether he should be held in similar regard to those three 106 legends. The straightforward answer would be no, considering that Harper, Murty and Shorey were all title winners and record breakers in RG2. But as a loyal servant, dedicated professional and charming individual, Reading have not had many better than Gunter.
He has been a consistently reliable option in defence for the best part of a decade, and you could be confident that, when selected, he would always give 100 percent and fight right until the end. That, ultimately, is all you can ask of any player. The full-back position has evolved during Gunter’s time at Reading, but he has been able to adapt and a number of managers have depended on him with little worry.
It is not easy to earn plaudits as a Championship full-back, but Gunter is solid defensively, confident on the ball and has bucket loads of energy. He may not be the star of the show, but nor should he need to be. The less noticeable a defender is, the better job they are doing.
Not that Gunter has ever been someone to crave attention. A self-described “boring, sensible sort of guy”, he quietly goes about his role with little fuss or furore. He is softly spoken with an enamouring smile, and his words are considered and thoughtful. His life away from football is kept largely private and he is relatively inactive on social media – best pal Garath McCleary expressed his surprise tongue-in-cheek when Gunter posted a second Instagram photo in the space of two months earlier this year. A scroll through his Twitter page suggests he only speaks when he needs to - whether that is supporting charitable causes or calling out journalists.
In many ways, he is exactly the sort of player you want around a football club, and Gunter has been a popular member of the dressing room. There are fewer players with a better attitude or greater level of professionalism, while the experience he brings is virtually unmatched. As an ambassador for Reading, he has been exemplary. Perhaps that is why he has been kept around for so long.
As the club around him has changed drastically – seven different managers, three sets of ownerships and a high turnover of the playing squad on a regular basis – Gunter has remained the reassuring constant. He has been the dependable comfort blanket despite Reading becoming almost unrecognisable at times from the club he joined.
It is easy to point to the team’s struggles in this period and suggest they sum up Gunter’s time at the club, but the last eight years have not been without successes. A first FA Cup semi-final in 87 years came in 2015 and another quarter-final appearance the year after, while the team were two penalty kicks away from the Premier League in 2017.
If you are keen to focus on the not-so-good seasons, it is somewhat of a stretch to say that one player’s continued presence is responsible for a whole club’s misfortunes. It is also testament that the full-back has stuck by Reading through thick and thin.
The Royals’ play-off final campaign was even more of a remarkable achievement for Gunter considering he had barely had a break from football for two years. After playing 52 games in 2015/16 and not missing a minute for Wales at Euro 2016 as they reached the semi-finals, Gunter went on to miss just eight minutes of the entire 2016/17 season in all competitions. The Wembley showdown with Huddersfield was his 64th match in under 12 months - not that you could tell that in the way he performed.
The image of Gunter slumped against the goalpost deep in thought after that penalty shoot-out defeat is one of the most defining Reading images of recent years. He was captain that day, and here was a man who had given everything that season to have another shot at the Premier League, a man who knew more than most what promotion would have meant for the football club. His disconsolate expression was shared by every supporter.
Gunter had perhaps his biggest opportunity to leave Berkshire that summer when Middlesbrough activated his release clause. A move to the Riverside would surely have been tempting – the club had just come down from the top-flight and were offering higher wages than Reading. But instead, he signed a new contract at the Madejski Stadium, epitomising his loyalty and dedication.
The last three years have not been easy for Gunter, particularly when he was ostracised from the first team group last summer by Jose Gomes. In hindsight, excluding someone held in such high regard by his teammates was surely a mistake, but Gunter never publicly showed his discontent, instead keeping his head down and remaining professional. It can’t have been easy to go through, especially with news articles and social media comments constantly discussing his attitude, ability and future. Unsurprisingly, Gunter admitted on Instagram in the first few days of January that he was “glad to see the end” of 2019.
Since coming back into the side under Mark Bowen, the full-back has put in some of his best performances in a Reading shirt. He has proved a more than capable back-up to the injured Andy Yiadom, providing a reminder of the solid, reliable presence that he can be. There’s plenty of life left in Gunter’s career yet.
Nonetheless, it now seems the right time for him to move on. There is a tinge of sadness that Gunter will not complete ten years in the blue and white hoops and be given a testimonial, but for both parties it is time for a difficult goodbye - made harder by the fact that supporters will not be able to give him the send off at the Madejski Stadium that he deserves. Yet Reading’s financial position remains precarious, and ultimately the defender’s wages need to be taken off the books.
Meanwhile, Gunter knows that he is not first-choice right-back when Yiadom is fit, and he cannot afford to be sitting on the bench if he wishes to be in the Wales squad for next summer’s European Championships. He turned 31 earlier this month, and will feel he is still capable of playing regular Championship football for the next couple of years.
Gunter has split opinion throughout his time at Reading, but I hope that, now it is over, he can be remembered fondly. A committed professional and humble individual, that number two is going to look slightly strange under someone else’s name. Diolch, Chris.