Jem Karacan has always been my favorite Reading player. A few years older than me, he came into the team while I was a wide-eyed teenager still imagining myself on the Madejski Stadium pitch one day.
It’s therefore perhaps a measure of how emotionally turbulent this truly was, that the first moment that jumped to mind when Karacan announced his retirement this week, was a ball ricocheting off a post, and the collective groan of agony from the blue and white corner of Wembley Stadium.
You know the story. Down 3-0 at half time in the playoff final, Reading found two goals from corners early in the second half as they seized the momentum of the game from Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea City.
Karacan then found himself perfectly positioned to complete the comeback just minutes later. Teeing himself up, he fired off a daisy cutter that sliced around De Vries in the net… and careened off the post. The Royals never got closer than that.
In terms of sliding doors moments, it’s tough to know how much that goal going in would have affected Reading’s future after that moment, but in terms of teenage heartbreak, this was worse than anything I experienced in the dating scene.
Thankfully, Karacan’s career was so much more than that moment. Just a year later he’d be an integral part of the Championship-winning team of 2011/12. Happier Royals memories also include scoring in a Premier League win over Fulham and being made captain of the team he’d been with for 11 years in 2014/15.
Jem’s playing style exemplified the kind of football you play in the park with your friends. Lots of huff and puff, a rampant sense of fun, and the occasional flash of improvised brilliance to top it all off. His partnership alongside Mikele Leigertwood gave Reading endless industry and box-to-box mentality in midfield.
Another proud product of the Royals' academy and starting 75 matches between 2010/11 and 2011/12, Karacan was a key cog in the team that won promotion under Brian McDermott.
Jem arrived at the title celebration that year in a wheelchair, after a disastrous tackle broke his ankle just a few weeks before the end of the season. That dire luck with injuries plagued Jem through his career, but he still amassed an impressive 155 appearances for Reading over his eight-year stretch in the first team.
Galatasaray came calling when it was finally time to move on from Reading - a move made sweeter by his frequent appearances in Turkey’s youth teams and the Istanbul club being the team his father supports. He scored his only goal for the club in his final appearance for them, and even played in the Champions League against Atletico Madrid. Not bad for a kid who started out at the Madejski!
Jem reunited with Adam Le Fondre in Bolton after leaving Turkey and enjoyed another promotion with his former teammate. This time, he wouldn’t have to take a wheelchair to the celebrations.
Since his second return to England after a short stay with Central Coast Mariners, it’s been great having Jem more present around the club again. He’s been an occasional guest on the BBC Berkshire commentary, was around the club during the 150th celebrations in 2022, and is clearly still in contact with Royals former and current.
Hopefully now that he’s more available, all of that can continue, and perhaps there may be other ways in which Karacan can be involved with the club. With two of Jem’s former teammates from that day in May 2011 - Shane Long and Noel Hunt - returning to the club in the past year, it seems the club understands the value of connecting with fan sentiment by being a hospitable environment to fantastic club servants.
Karacan is a player who conjures up memories both of his determined play and also of a time when Reading relied on countless players of his ilk. Jem was a particularly hard worker, and will stick forever in my mind because of it, but he was a symbol of the greater momentum at the heart of Brian McDermott’s project.
Enjoy retirement Jem, and don’t be a stranger! You’ll always be a Berkshire boy.