You have to go back to March 2015 - that’s six managers ago if you’re counting - to the last time Reading made a signing outside of the transfer window.
The player? 34-year-old free agent Zat Knight, brought in by Steve Clarke, who said it was “a sensible deal for both club and player”. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. Knight made two appearances in the blue and white hoops; his debut was the 4-1 defeat to Watford that preceded the FA Cup semi-final and then he gave away a penalty in a 1-1 draw against Blackpool. Neither are great ever-lasting memories.
Since then, the Royals have flirted with the idea of bringing in free agents at various points in various seasons, usually in moments of injury crisis, and have taken many on trial (Kevin Foley anyone?) before deciding against a contract offer.
Veljko Paunovic was not the first Reading manager to be asked about the chance of bringing in free agents outside of a transfer window when quizzed on it last month. It wasn’t even the first time he had been asked about it in his tenure, but perhaps that says more about the lack of options at his disposal over the last 14 months than anything else.
“It’s a possibility,” Paunovic said. “But it’s not easy to do that because there are so many things involved in bringing anyone in at this point. You have to look at the players who may be available and firstly, we have to get permission to get them in and then we have to look at their fitness.
“After being three months away (from competitive games), not being in proper training with a team and playing games, there is obviously a question mark about what type of free agent player are you going to get and what their fitness state is.
“What we need right now is immediate solutions. So it is a resource we are looking at but it’s complicated.”
Essentially, the door was left open to free agents joining, but in the same way the door was left open to a Friends reunion. It would be fun to think about, but it was never actually going to happen because there were too many pieces that needed to fall into place.
But of course, out of the blue, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross did get back together. And now, out of the blue, a free agent has arrived in Berkshire outside of the transfer window. Thankfully, James Corden isn’t involved.
It’s not just any free agent either. It’s former Liverpool and England striker, born and bred Geordie, Andy Carroll. But why Carroll and why now? Why make an out-of-transfer-window signing for the first time in nearly seven years? Why is bringing in a free agent no longer “complicated”?
Firstly, there is a genuine need for a new addition upfront; this isn’t just fan clamour. Chief executive Dayong Pang highlighted this upon the announcement of Carroll: “With long-term injuries to two of our key goalscorers [Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite], our strength in depth in attack has understandably been limited all season”. There’s also George Puscas’s seven-month goal drought to contend with.
In truth, even before Joao got injured in August, Reading could have done with another striker. Even if Puscas had scored in every game, Reading could have done with another striker. To go through a whole Championship season with just two senior centre forwards is a risky game when you take into account the chance of injuries and poor form. Reading have suffered with both.
It has meant that Jahmari Clarke, an under-18 player last season, has come to the fore when he otherwise wouldn’t have. His two-goal second half performance at Birmingham City before the international break was majestic, but a teenager with 143 league minutes to his name should not be expected to be the team’s talisman every week.
So then, to the list of free agent strikers. “Who may be available”, in Paunovic’s words. You could probably narrow down Reading’s options to centre forwards who most recently played in the top two tiers of English football.
In addition to Carroll, those are: Jerome Sinclair, Hal Robson-Kanu, Yaya Sanogo, Oumar Niasse, Bright Enobakhare and David Nugent. Hardly a stellar cast, which is not a surprise considering we are three months into the season. There are question marks over all of those players, Carroll included. But on the risk-versus-reward scale, the former Newcastle United man probably comes out on top.
The concerns are obvious. He arrives at the age of 32, with a patchy injury history and just one goal in his last 1,495 minutes of league football.
Similar red flags were waved when Danny Drinkwater signed on loan in the summer (no more ferociously than me, I’ll admit). There are several similarities between the midfielder and Carroll: a failed big move, reports of off-field issues and a lack of playing time in recent years. But Drinkwater, for the most part, has been a success at Reading so far and there is something to be said for a player wanting to prove a point. That appears to be the striker’s mentality too.
“I think I’ve still got something to give, to be part of Newcastle or any club,” Carroll told The Athletic in September. “I’ve still got that hunger in me... I’m just waiting for the right club to come along for me and get back in the game and start scoring goals and playing each week. And giving something that I feel has been there for the last two years at least.”
Drinkwater’s experience, and that of free transfer Scott Dann, has also been vital this season. Seeing how vocal and commanding the pair are is refreshing to see. Carroll undoubtedly brings that too: he has made nearly 250 Premier League appearances, appeared in cup finals and played (and scored) at the European Championships.
Let’s not forget that Reading’s squad is packed full of youngsters and, at the moment at least, there is not much experience out on the pitch.
There is the question of injuries and Carroll admits that they plagued his time at Liverpool and West Ham United. But as for the 2020/21 campaign? “I was fit all season,” Carroll told The Athletic. “I was training every day; I think I was in the top four in training throughout the year.”
He’s not wrong. Of the 38 Premier League games last season, the striker was not available for only one of them. The rest of time he wasn’t playing, he simply wasn’t being picked.
Time will tell how long it takes Carroll to get match-fit and ready to feature for Reading which, as Paunovic pointed out, is a potential peril with free-agent signings. The striker has not played competitive minutes for six months, but has been “working hard with a couple of trainers one-on-one” while without a club. It took Junior Hoilett a couple of days to get up to speed. It took Scott Dann four weeks.
Carroll has not managed a full 90 minutes since January (when he played 105 against Arsenal in the FA Cup) but there is unlikely to be an expectation for him to do that at Reading. Considering how Paunovic has substituted strikers in-game like clockwork, the chances of the 32-year-old starting and finishing a match seem slim.
Nor will there be a huge pressure on Carroll to score goals. It seems strange to say - considering last season’s top three scorers are either no longer at the club or injured - but Reading are not crying out for someone to put the ball in the back of the net.
In the absence of a prolific centre forward this season, the team’s supporting cast have stepped up; 15 goals this season have come from midfield and out wide, which is already only two shy of last season’s tally from those positions. With Junior Hoilett, Femi Azeez and Alen Halilovic all to come back in the next few weeks, the Royals will not be short of attacking threat.
What the new man does offer is a different type of threat upfront. It’s easy to stereotype 6ft 4in Carroll as a big lad up top, but it’s also true. No one in the Premier League won more aerial duels per 90 minutes than Carroll (12.2) last season. The problem is Reading are not set up to play to those strengths - no team in the Championship averages fewer crosses per game than the Royals (12) this season.
So if Carroll plays, the team need to cross more, specifically certain players. It is telling that John Swift, playing largely as a number 10, averages the most crossing attempts per 90 (4.8) this season. The contributions of wide midfielder Ovie Ejaria (0.3 crossing attempts per 90) and right-back Andy Yiadom (1.8) are severely lacking. Again, there is hope that the returning Halilovic and Hoilett will help in this department, but they only average 2.2 and 1.6 crossing attempts per 90 respectively.
If Paunovic can encourage more deliveries from out wide and develop a system that allows that to happen more comfortably, Reading will lose the one-dimensional element to their game that has been their undoing on a few occasions this season. Playing to Carroll’s strengths might be predictable, but different to the way Reading are currently predictable. As Newcastle fan Jake Jackman told us, the striker is also capable of “linking up the play well”.
Ultimately, all of this comes with the key point that Carroll has only signed a two-month contract. For the sake of wages that we presume are under the EFL’s reported cap of £8.5k-a-week, it is a risk-free signing and simply a stop-gap until January. There’s not a five-year, pay the transfer fee in instalments, contract in sight. In the New Year, the situation will be reassessed. Either Lucas Joao is back fit, Carroll is a success and an extension is offered or the loan market is used to find an alternative.
There is a buzz around any new signing, regardless of the reputation they come with, so to get that in-season is a refreshing feeling. Whether it’s intrigue, astonishment or just pure bemusement, Carroll’s signing has created a bit of excitement around the club and that can only be a good thing as winter arrives.
After all, Paunovic has proudly stated that it is the “right move for both player and club”. Just don’t ask Steve Clarke how that sort of statement worked out.