The old saying goes that "absence makes the heart grow fonder". If that is the case, then my year abroad, which I am just about to complete, was exactly the thing that I needed in order to reignite my passion for supporting and following the Royals. For the last 15 months or so, I have been living and working abroad in France and Spain as part of my uni studies. As I prepared myself for how I may deal with this European exile from Reading, I realised that I, like many, had already begun to feel exiled from the goings-on at my own club for some time.
During the Zingarevich era, confusion and suspicion for me at least, seemed to replace enthusiasm and optimism as the main feelings that I associated with the club. Things seemed to start well. Sir John Madejski stated that Zingarevich's takeover was the "dream ticket" and spoke of how the club would continue on with the "same ethos" of Reading Football Club under the new regime. Key signings followed too, such as Jason Roberts, who helped propel our unbelievable end of season run that saw us promoted as champions off the back of 17 wins from our last 23 games. It seems surreal to think that just 3 years ago, the name of "Anton Zingarevich" was being chanted by thousands of celebrating fans on having invaded the Madejski Stadium pitch. Big name additions that summer, like the now much-maligned pair of Pavel Pogrebnyak and Danny Guthrie, also seemed to ramp up the belief that good times had definitely arrived at the Mad Stad.
How did things start to go so wrong?
As time progressed however, this supposed dream seemed to turn into a very real footballing nightmare. The much promised acquisition of the remaining 49% of the club by Zingarevich never materialised. Fans were left out in the cold as to what exactly was going on at the club.
Who's running the shop? Where's Anton? Where's the investment? Fundamentally, what is going on?
None of these questions seemed like they were going to be answered any time soon. Now I understand that in terms of being a Reading fan, I have lived a privileged life in my short 17 or so years following the club. I have been lucky enough to grow up experiencing the most successful years of my club's history, something that many supporters have had to wait many years and decades to witness. So, I can see why many of you may feel I am being slightly dramatic about the sense of disillusionment that I was experiencing with the club.
This sense of despondency didn't just come from faltering performances on the pitch. I've seen us go on terrible runs before. The fact that the day that I truly fell in love with the game was the day we lost to Walsall in the 2001 Division 2 play-off final on a rainy Cardiff afternoon, which makes it clear that I'm not in this game for the glamour.
No, this disenchantment stemmed from this sense that we, the fans, were being left out in the cold. This was something that I had never experienced as a fan before. The pained expression on the face of Sir John Madejski, the man who saved us in our hour of need and near extinction, admitting in the wake of the Zingarevich crisis that he "would not make the same mistake again", was difficult to watch. Hearing that we were having to sell star players, such as Adam Le Fondre, to pay off outstanding tax bills, alongside reports that the club's debt had risen to £65 million without any apparent successful investment on the pitch, was almost impossible to comprehend.
How had a club, that had cheated death both from the Thames Valley Royals affair in 1983 and from financial trouble in 1990, and had since prided itself on its reputation as a well-run family club, come to this? Would we be about to follow the lead of other clubs such as Leeds, Leicester or even Portsmouth, teams driven to financial crisis, consequent relegations and seasons in the footballing wilderness, by their being passed around by numerous investors? It was questions such as these, and most importantly the seeming lack of answers from the club or any sort of transparency which were starting to deeply trouble me.
News of a new Thai consortium coming in to buy the club around the same time of my departure last summer did little to fill me with confidence. The Zingarevich episode has left a deep scar of cynicism in the minds of many Reading fans, who up until that point had been able to blissfully ignore the seemingly seismic shift in the running of English football in recent years, where 'billionaire' owners come and go like buses and the ability to hold a chequebook appears to qualify you as a 'Fit and Proper' owner. There was more noise of a "great partnership" with a club who were of a "strong reputation", which sounded like further talk of businessmen who were interested in Reading solely for financial purposes as opposed to an investment in a cause they were passionate about.
A Royal Crusade
Yet as my time abroad progressed, I started to realise that being so removed from the goings-on of the team began to rekindle my enthusiasm that up until this point had began to wane. I was based for the majority of this year in Spain and as their recent football domination has shown, it is quite simply a nation that is mad for the game. Yet there, Reading were very much an unknown quantity. When explaining my football team to the people of varying nationalities that I met during my time out there, I was met 99% of the time by one of the following two responses: "Oh yeah, Reading? I know them from FIFA" or "oh, like the verb...to read...reading?"
It was this seeming lack of Reading's international presence which made me quickly realise that while the way in which the club was being run had made me feel so disconnected and angry, my love for the club had not diminished. I found that it quickly became my mission to spread the word of the mighty blue and white hoops to anyone who would listen. If promises that were made to me have been kept (no guarantees can be made, my Spanish is hardly 'bueno'), the secondary school in which I was working as an English assistant this year is now arguably home to the highest concentration of Reading supporters outside of the UK. Football training with the other international students became a chance to show off the strip. Although, trying to explain the true enigmatic and legendary nature of the name which emblazoned the back of my shirt, that of Jimmy Kebe, did prove to be somewhat of a bridge too far. However, to describe a man of that footballing prowess is hard enough in English, let alone in a second language.
Positive Thai-mes ahead?
Soon, this rediscovered enthusiasm was being backed up by activity at the club. Once again, Sir John stepped in and saved us, enduring "the most stressful year" of his life, securing new investment and vowing to learn from the errors of the past. Our new Thai owners began to talk and what they were saying seemed to infer a great deal more positivity than to what we had become accustomed during the age of Zingarevich. Investments would be promised, but not until books and been balanced and moves were deemed feasible. Majority shareholder Narin Niruttinanon spoke in March of his aim to first and foremost bring "back stability to the club", something that after our recent perilous financial disarray is music to many of our ears.
So far, I think that many would be hard pressed to disagree that they have delivered on their promises. Big earners such as the aforementioned Guthrie and Pogrebnyak, as well as the likes of Royston Drenthe and Alex Pearce, have left the club. This streamlining of the wage budget has allowed for the promised squad investment; a pledge which has been more than lived up to this summer. Few could have imagined such a turn around, and few can remember a more genuinely exciting off-season for the club.
However, what resonated most from Niruttinanon's interview was his words about his meeting with the Football League prior to the takeover. He stated he "appreciated" the fact he was reminded that as "guardians of the club", Reading did not just belong to them (the consortium), but also to the fans and the whole community. References to their "long-term" ambitions for the club, as well as a much more open and seemingly passionate image had instilled a sense of trust and, dare I say, optimism about the future handling of the club. The idea to pay for a commemorative t-shirt for each fan at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final was an outstanding touch, providing an awe-inspiring sight on the day and helping contribute one of the best Reading atmospheres I can ever remember.
Let's just be honest here as well...you've got to really care about something to write a song. An actual song. I mean sure, it's not Bohemian Rhapsody, but, credit where it's due.
So it is with this new found sense of hope and optimism that I find myself preparing to come back home. Living up north for University means that my trips to the Mad Stad (its current name at time of writing), may still be few and far between. But, like many, I feel both the club and the fan base have been given a new lease of life following the recent developments here. For the first time, in a relatively long time, conversation with the family at home about the club, where once apathy stemming from confusion had started to reign, is now brimming with positivity. As the Twitter eruptions on Deadline Day proved, optimism is now the buzzword surrounding Reading FC. This has been one of the most exciting periods in the club's recent history, and I for one cannot wait to see what happens. As I return from my travels with renewed enthusiasm, it feels as if the last blocking wall of the Zingarevich era has been demolished and the open and harmonious relationship between club and fan has been restored.