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Musings: Our Poor Start And The Parallels With 2011/12

Re-contextualising August 2021 through the lens of August 2011.

Reading v West Ham United - npower Championship Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

It’s been a rough start. Reading sit miles away from where they’d like to be. The defence is so disorganised as to raise legitimate questions as to whether John O’Shea was operating as their collective brain. The only positive through the first three games, the attack, has managed just three shots on target through their last two games. All of this has led to questioning as to whether Pauno is out of his depth, and breathless fears of relegation.

But in the spirit of undying loyalty to the Royals (and a bit of blind positivity!) let’s flip all this on its head for a second. We are, right now, six points off the playoffs, and 10 points off the very top of the league. I don’t necessarily think those are our targets for this season, but it does at least make you realise how small the margins are at this point. I’m not here to tell you that actually everything is fine: it’s really not. However, it’s also not time to hit the panic button, and fire everyone all over again just yet.

More enticingly though, this slow start has illuminated a lot of parallels with the season exactly one decade in the rear mirror: 2011/12. Can you believe we’re 10 years removed from that glorious season? Reading stormed past the promotion juggernauts of Southampton and West Ham, punching them in the mouth at their own places on the way to storming a title just a year after losing in the playoff final. I can understand therefore that you may be confused by my discovery of parallels between then and now, but I assure you: they exist.

Reading v Birmingham City - npower Championship Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

The primary parallel is a slow start. In 2011/12, Reading lost three of their opening five games, winning just one. They lost to a Portsmouth team that would go on to get relegated and a Barnsley side that finished in 21st place. All of that naturally led to a lot of anger and frustration from the fanbase.

At the end of August, the Royals were in 20th place, nine points off the top of the league, just one closer than we are now. Yes, this is a very different Reading FC to the one that existed in 2011/12. Yes, that squad was larger. Yes, the very structure of the club has changed hugely since that season. But by August 28th 2011, not one Reading fan would have predicted the season to come.

And I know it too. Please see below gathered some choice comments from the “Faces in the Stands” club album on Facebook dated from August 2011.

Thoughts from Facebook

“Wow I’m in the photo! Doesn’t change that I wasted my money”

“WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH”

“Well it can’t get any worse, can it?” - Considering that Reading went on to lose their first game of September… yes, yes it can.

It sounds familiar doesn’t it? I can assure you that this was fairly demonstrative of the vast majority of the comments available to read as well. Nostradamus, these commenters were not. But who can blame them? It’s frustrating to lose. Scrolling through reams of comments like this though just reminded me how little we truly know about the true quality of a side.

So after digging through these decade-old comments, it’s difficult for me to trust my more negative opinions after the first five games. This season could end in inglorious relegation and the loss of key squad players, but it could also end with the stunning rehabilitation of Alen Halilovic and Danny Drinkwater’s careers: the point is we just don’t know, and that’s the wonderful thing about football!

Regardless, in the interests of tempting fate, let’s talk about other parallels to the 2011/12 team.

Star player sold

Reading v West Bromwich Albion - FA Cup 3rd Round Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

2011/12 was a season that also began with Reading selling their star performer from the year previous to a Premier League team. Shane Long joined West Brom in August 2011, leaving Reading with a 25-goal hole in their planning for the season ahead. This makes for a natural comparison to the loss of Michael Olise, but also to the goal-scoring loss in the long-term injuries to Yakou Meite and Lucas Joao.

Reading are scrambling around right now for the “next man up”. That man in 2011/12 was Adam Le Fondre (of course with help from Jason Roberts after January), a man who previously had no experience higher than League Two but became Reading’s super sub that year, scoring 12 goals with just 17 starts. Perhaps George Puscas will re-find his scoring form, and show us the striker that plays for Romania. Perhaps Jahmari Clarke is destined for stardom, and this is his breakout season.

Playoff hangovers

Soccer - npower Football League Championship - Play Off - Final - Reading v Swansea City - Wembley Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

In the 2011/12 season review video on YouTube, the narrator describes August 2011 as an “understandably slow start” after the previous year’s playoff disappointment. The 2010/11 team got closer to playoff success than the 2020/21 team, obviously considering we failed to make it into the top six last year.

But take one look at the below photo of Tom Holmes after the Swansea game that sealed Reading’s seventh-placed finish last year, and tell me with a straight face that near miss won’t still be playing on the players’ minds. A playoff hangover doesn’t only happen to teams that lose at Wembley, nor even only teams that make the tournament to start off with.

There’s no doubt that this team has been on a downward spiral since February of last year, and arresting that slide is going to be tough. That said, Pauno has gotten an impressive tune out of new and young players before, and for me it’s too early to assume that he’s now immediately out of his depth, given the erratic start to the season behind the scenes.

New faces, fresh start

Soccer - npower Football League Championship - Reading v Burnley - Madejski Stadium Photo by Tony Marshall - PA Images via Getty Images

A fresh slate of new faces, as have recently arrived in RG2, could be exactly what the doctor ordered. Especially when that slate of faces involves a glut of players who should have something to prove. If Drinkwater, Dann, Halilovic and Hoillett don’t prove they still have something to contribute at this level, just where do they expect to end up? Those new faces could be just the squad fresheners needed to put the previous season’s slide behind us, and look onwards and upwards.

The late August surge of arrivals also parallel the 2011/12 season. That year, two seemingly tame reinforcements arrived late in the window: Kaspars Gorkšs and Adam Le Fondre. Reading fans likely didn’t think much of those arrivals at the time, yet they would go on to have major impacts on the season to come. Famously, in two huge away wins late in the season against West Ham and Southampton respectively, Gorkss gave Reading the lead at Upton Park and Le Fondre buried two late goals at St Mary’s to effectively hand the title to Reading.

It’s way too early to say whether Halilovic, Drinkwater, or perhaps even the rumoured Andy Carroll (?) could impact this squad in that way, but history tells us not to blindly assume that they won’t.

My point is not to tell you that Reading are on course for promotion in 2021/22. I do not personally believe this squad is deep enough. All I’m saying is that we just don’t know at this point whether our concerns are legitimate, or just the result of a few bad performances with a team still frustrated by last season’s collapse: be upset about the loss to Huddersfield; entertain genuine concern for whether or not this squad can reach any position of note; and then be ready to back the boys again as loud as possible come Saturday September 11th.