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Reading Stalwart Kelly Chambers Will Be A Tough Act To Follow

Chambers left this week after a long, impressive spell in the Reading dugout.

Reading v West Ham United - Barclays Women’s Super League Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

It’s very easy and understandable to be angry, disappointed or upset (or just insert your own adjective here) when you can see your team sliding out of the WSL - as Reading Women eventually did with defeat on the last day of the season to champions Chelsea.

There can’t, however, be many managers that continue to be held in such high regard, praise and respect, following both an unsuccessful relegation season and leaving the club. Steve Coppell (Reading) and Eddie Howe (Bournemouth) both with relegation from the Premier League spring to mind.

I think it’s safe to say that, for most Reading fans, staff and players (past and present), alongside many individuals involved in women’s football, you can add Kelly Chambers to that rare shortlist. Chambers announced earlier this week that, after 20 years of service to Reading FC, she has made the “extremely difficult decision to step away from the club”.

This news, however, won’t have come as a surprise to many fans. Reading, under the current ownership and direction (or rather lack of direction) - and I’m loath to use the word stewardship - of Yongge Dai is in a mess and currently finds itself under a heavy cloud of pessimism.

Reading’s male counterparts were also relegated in the same season (to League One) and continue to find themselves embroiled in EFL charges for opposite ends of serious financial rule breaches: over-spending and for not properly paying wages to staff and not paying tax to HMRC.

So it probably also wasn’t a surprise that, with relegation to second-tier Championship football, it didn’t take Yongge Dai long to make the decision for the women’s team to convert to part-time and presumably even fewer resources - making life even more difficult to bounce back to top-flight football.

Reading v Chelsea FC - Barclays Women’s Super League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

What I do know is that, whoever takes charge of Reading from now, they are going to have a tough act to follow: taking over from Kelly Chambers.

She was more than just a manager and had many roles and responsibilities over the two decades of service and dedication - playing for the club’s Centre of Excellence team until she was 16.

Chambers left the club to play elsewhere but soon returned in 2017 as a player and club captain, finding herself playing alongside team members she had coached as young girls.

Her playing career was cut short due to an ACL injury in 2012 when she seamlessly moved into coaching and management - as well as still being heavily involved in the Centre of Excellence set-up and, I believe, Director of Women’s and Girls football (a title she held for many years).

In her first year in charge she achieved promotion from the third tier to the Championship - when Jayne Ludlow was appointed the new manager (enjoying a highest finishing position of third place in the 2014 season). Ludlow left to become the manager of Wales’ national team and Chambers found herself back at the helm again, from 2015.

It didn’t take her long to achieve success, winning the second division in 2015 and getting into top-flight football, where they stayed for eight years, ending with this season’s relegation.

The first top-flight season was touch-and-go with the Royals in a relegation battle, finishing just above the relegated Doncaster Belles (remember them!?). However, over the next few seasons - and before the money started to really flow into the WSL, particularly from clubs with affiliated Premier League teams - Reading enjoyed some success.

The 2017/18 was the most successful, Reading finishing fourth (behind Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City), and only losing four games all season. How times have changed with the Royals only winning three games this season!

The next season saw the Royals come close to an FA Cup final, losing to West Ham United in the semi-final (and a match that we never appeared destined to win, with just about everything going in favour of the Hammers that day).

Reading Women v West Ham United Ladies - Women’s FA Cup Semi Final Photo by James Chance/Getty Images

Even within this disastrous season the Royals were close to another semi-final appearance, losing in the quarter-final to eventual FA Cup winners Chelsea.

As the WSL has grown from strength to strength (which is great news) and on the back of the England Lionesses’ Euro victory (which was a delight to watch) - this only made it harder and harder for the Royals to stay in the WSL. Without the proper backing, support and funding (which has simply not been forthcoming), the task to remain in the WSL became impossible. No matter how many roles, transfer bargains and inspiring team talks she gave, it was inevitable that Chambers was going to run out of options, miracles and rabbits to pull out of the hat.

As an evergreen stalwart she will be missed and can leave the club with her head held high. Best wishes for her next exciting venture - she’s due to give to birth to her second very soon - but she has already been linked to West Ham (good for her).

There’s no news yet about who will be leading the Royals next season (I assume first-team coach Phil Cousins is still staying), and whoever it is will have a massive task with the new challenges of a very competitive Championship and part-time club structure, with limited resources. Good luck to them.