There is a cracking line in a song from one of my favourite ever bands, Modest Mouse, which reads:
“How can someone so inconsistent mess up so consistently?”
After a pre-season which was heavy on politics and light on actual business you’d associate with a pre season (you know, that ancient art of planning, bringing players in to add depth to an already depleted squad and the gradual building of optimism and excitement amongst the fans), you’d be forgiven for thinking the club was on repeat.
If I’m honest, I didn’t actually want Saturday to come. I have never looked less forward to a season starting as I have with this one. Blame Covid, the lack of ability to physically attend games, the chaos in and around the boardroom, the fact I had to fork out a tenner to watch the most mundane of opening games on the world’s worst sports streaming platform, the fact that the season should have started a month ago or the realisation that the Football League can’t even have its weekend in the sun without the Premier League spoiling it, meant that I literally could not be arsed with it. At all.
Indeed, after the absolute capitulation that was our final game against the South Wales Swans, I couldn’t wait to not watch us, not write articles and generally forget that I had a football team to support. As July turned into August (as it does every year), I began to come around to the idea of football again. I lapped up the comments by Our Former Saviour Mark Bowen, listened with interest as we were linked with some fairly intriguing signings and began to believe.
In what though, Ben? What did you believe in? Well, dear readers: I began to believe that we may vastly improve on our 14th-place finish. That for once, we might head into the season looking upwards over that bloody mountain. That we might have a solid base from which to build. And then the sandcastle that is Reading Football Club collapsed in on itself, like a dam built like a lazy beaver. Howe was moved on. Bowen was gone. I picked up my angry pen and wrote some stuff. Pauno was confirmed as the new coach. And that was that. Pre-season was done.
There has been so much said, written, tweeted and analysed by our fan base. Whether Bowen should have stayed as manager or taken his old job and left, the planning that had taken all summer to carry out was shot to pieces. The gentle optimism was replaced by nagging doubts. And Sone Aluko was still taking a wage from the club (side note: I actually don’t mind Sone. He’s a really nice guy and has been made a bit of a scapegoat for the last few years’ worth of rubbish).
On Friday night I sorted iFollow (wasn’t easy, why would it be?), paid my 10 English pounds and went to bed. Normally, on the eve of a new season, I’d be texting anyone I knew that we were going up and to put a bet on (up to a ceiling of £10, anymore and you’d be a lunatic in my opinion) us winning promotion. There were no such texts (WhatsApp’s for any readers under the age of 25) on this Season’s Eve (made up holiday alert).
As I pulled back the duvet and got into bed, navigated around the cats (we have two - anymore and you become that neighbour that people are scared of) and lay my 35-year-old head on the pillow, I wondered what Steve Coppell would make of it all. Not only is he our greatest-ever manager, he’s also the person I tend to put down first when I play that “name your celebrity dinner guest” game. Most people tend to put Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Jeremy Beadle. Nah, not me. It’s Coppell every time, followed by Bob Ross the painter (lovely voice), The Rock and Kirsty Gallagher. Probably some other people too, but they tend to be the mainstays.
Indeed, Coppell has a reputation for being calm, consistent and wearing ill-fitting clothes. I wondered what he would say about the current circus unfolding in the Royal County. The club seems such a long way from the days when we’d keep a manager for a season (sometimes more!) and as I tried to sleep, the horrors that could be-fall us this season tumbled around my head like trainers in a washing machine.
I awoke early (two five year-olds and two hungry cats dictated that) and made my way downstairs. Normally, I’d make sure I used my Reading mug on game day (tradition, innit) but I just thought “what’s the point?” and used another mug. As I sat with my coffee (bean to cup) I looked over some predictions for the weekend’s games but also the overall Championship season. I quickly came to the conclusion that no one really knows what they are talking about and that, actually, the Championship is a proper nightmare this year.
Some “pundits” tipped us for relegation (flipping idiots), some put us in mid table (optimistic idiots) and one lunatic put us in the playoffs (the playoffs mate? THE PLAYOFFS?!). On top of all that, Sky Bet (#gambleaware) had put Derby in their ‘Soccer Saturday Super Boost’, along with Liverpool and Bournemouth. At that point, it’s fair to say my mood plummeted like Pizza Hut’s profits. I trudged off to football training, knowing that when I returned home, it would be nearly kick off.
I suppose two questions were at the forefront of my brain in the hours leading up to KO.
- Would iFollow work?
- What formation would we go for?
I assumed that Pauno would pick the strongest side available, based on what he’d seen over the last week. The question was would the same formation as Colchester be used, but with slightly more natural fit in terms of playing personnel? Call me a loser (and people have/do) but this was genuinely quite exciting as I waited for the clock to strike 2, knowing that the team news would shortly follow (side note: I don’t actually have a clock that makes noises, it just moves silently).
The team news arrived and there were no surprises, save for the addition of Holmes at the expense of McIntyre on the bench. For me, the starting 11 was the strongest currently available and it appeared that the much-discussed 4-2-3-1 would be in operation. And then at around 2.17pm, something happened. Something so disturbing and challenging that it shook me to my very core: Mick Gooding said something and I agreed with it.
I was flabbergasted and the life seemed to drain out of me like a very efficient sink letting out water. He said, with words to this effect, that if Pauno were so good and had lots of options, why would he go to Chicago Fire to manage? I thought that was top drawer from MG, I really did. In a panic, I quickly vacuumed the whole of the downstairs (vacuuming instantly becalms me), sat down in the kitchen again and listened to the pre-match ramblings of the BBC Berkshire pundits. It seems odd to me that with the amount of changes that the club continually goes through, our local media chums have a job for life - no danger of a shake up there!
Part of an interview with Brian McDermott that was done in the week was played out and it just gave me goosebumps to be honest. Everything he said made sense and I felt quite sad by it all. He explained that stability was needed and some sense of direction was a must at any football club. And he’s right, he really is. Either way, it was time for the talking to stop.
The first real chance we had was a double miss from Joao and Swift on the 18-minute mark. Both should have done better with their efforts but it had been an encouraging start to the game from the team. Tim Dellor explained that Rotherham were the only team in the Championship to win. Apart from Birmingham. And of course, Watford on Friday night.
Terrible punditry aside, we were actually quite enjoyable to watch, both with and without the ball. On 40 minutes, Joao made the breakthrough with a very, very deft finish at the near post after an Olise corner. I wondered if it could get better at this point. Five minutes later, it did. A really, really splendid goal was tucked home by Ejaria after some skillful work by Joao. At this point, Reading were coasting and in no danger whatsoever of looking like losing the game, something that was very evident with alarming regularity last season.
At half time, I rewarded myself with a Ripple bar and a coffee (still bean to cup, thank you). I poured over Twitter, drinking in the positivity, excitement and general feel-good factor in the fan base like a thirsty person drinking continental-strength lager at a pub. Really wonderful vibes. Snack and hot drink consumed, it was back to the action.
The second half started with some slapstick comedy as Wisdom had been subbed (couldn’t cope with Ovie, but then again WHO COULD?!) and replaced by Byrne, but Byrne hadn’t told anyone. He was booked for his lies and it really was lovely to see the hilarity unfold. On 56 minutes, Joao rattled the cross bar after an intricately worked move from the forward players. Shortly afterward, I found myself getting quite emotional about the current state of play of the team and players:
- Winning away from home
- Moving into space
- Not being embarrassing
As subs were made, the game began to fizzle out. Reading went to a block and Derby tried, in vain, to break us down. The experience on the pitch showed and we were able to keep the clean sheet and record a massive ‘W’. The only downside to whole thing was that QPhahahahahahahahahahahahahaha scored late on to snatch top spot from us, the b*stards.
I could sit here and say where I think we’ll end up now. I could also try and guess what will happen this season. But I don’t care. We won this game easily and convincingly with some panache and sprinkles and that, for now, is all that matters to me and I’m sure, most Loyal Royals too.
Forget that lyric that I mentioned earlier. Replace it with one of their more positive ones:
“Now don’t you worry, we’ll all float on ok”
Until next time.