By Matthew Williams
As the clock chimed midnight and 2005 gave way to 2006, Reading fans knew the club were on the verge of something special. We didn’t want to say it, we didn’t even want to think it, but deep down we’ll all admit that we were hoping that 2006 would finally be the year that we graced the big time.
Of course we’d thrown away great positions before, this was Reading football club after all, and fans both young and old knew of the team’s ability to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. We had our manager spending every waking moment telling us not to get ahead of ourselves, that a few injuries could see us plummet faster than the Titanic, yet a 26 game unbeaten record spoke for itself; surely we couldn’t throw this away could we?
We braced ourselves for the unthinkable, expected that first loss to be around the corner, and after that we were sure the floodgates would open and defeat after defeat would beckon. But not this time. Not with a team as good as this, and a manager as calm and assured as Steve Coppell. Together they made it happen, 2006 was even more successful than 2005, in fact it was more successful than any other season in the clubs 135 year history. Indeed, a year that started off with comfortable home wins against Cardiff and Coventry City, ended up with the Royals claiming a draw at Stamford Bridge, and a grand day out at the Theatre of Dreams against Manchester United.
It was a year of extraordinary change for Reading fans. In the early months we were visiting Gresty Road, Turf Moor and Kenilworth Road, and just six months later were instead following the maps to Villa Park, Anfield and St James Park. The grounds were bigger, the opposition players well-known, and the media coverage heavily increased. But there was one thing that certainly did not change; the pride, passion and belief of the Reading fans.
These characteristics were exemplified every Saturday night on BBC Radio 5live. Tune in to 606 after a loss and usually you’d hear the same old thing – ‘our manager must go’, ‘the players are clueless’, ‘I’m going to tear up my season ticket and go and support someone else’. Knee-jerk reactions they might be, but never something you want to hear nonetheless. However this is not something you’d be hearing from Reading callers. It is a mark of just how far we’ve come when I’ve driven away from grounds this year after a defeat and heard Royals fans ringing up to say that despite the defeat ‘we’ve never been so proud of the club.’ Pride and loyalty are characteristics that are sadly on the decline in football. Too often do we see fans in this day and age calling for a manager’s head just because they have lost a couple of games. How often do we see players deserting the club that gave them their big chance purely because another club chairman with a bigger chequebook comes knocking? The Reading players and fans have always kept faith, they’ve all committed to the cause and shown the pride and passion that is needed to succeed, and because of this it is no coincidence that Reading achieved what they did last year.
And why shouldn’t we be proud? We have not forgotten where the club was as little as eight years ago. We were there when we moved into a stadium that was far too big for us. We have certainly made it our own now, but we won’t forget those times when we felt more like guests than owners. We are proud of the fact that this patient ‘brick-by-brick’ approach has worked, we appreciate how the club is being run, that we have a strict wage-structure and will not contradict our ethics for anyone. Collectively as a club we feel like we have earned our position, we are now the team whom others base themselves on, and for that we deserve to be proud.
I admit that it’s not exactly hard to find reasons to be proud when you open 2007 with a 6-0 win over a team who believe that they ‘won the World Cup’, but it does feel even more special when you look at the circumstances, indeed every win feels all the more special when you consider Reading’s approach to football. Firstly we look at money spent. We didn’t beat West Ham with expensive South American prima donnas, and we didn’t do it by paying money-motivated has-beens extortionate amounts in order for them to have one last shot at the big time. No, we did it by identifying lower league talent, finding players who want to play for Reading, are motivated by success not dosh, and whose attitude is geared towards teamwork and spirit, rather than looking for the best way to get themselves on Soccer AM’s ‘showboat’ the following week.
Much is made of the transfer fee we paid Cork City for Kevin Doyle, and rightly so (to be honest Coppell and his management staff should be taken to court for committing daylight robbery) but the capture of Doyle is not a one-off, the bargain buys run throughout the team. Let us not forget that Nicky Shorey, a player who is not far off playing for England, who has taken to Premiership football like a duck to water and who in my opinion is the best player I have ever seen play for Reading, cost the club the grand total of £25,000. That’s right, we paid less for this left back than most Premiership players earn in a week.
It doesn’t stop there either; the Royals regular back-line collectively cost less than Sheffield United recently paid for that prolific striker Jonathan Stead. Ibrahima Sonko, the man mountain whose friendly and warm attitude off the pitch, yet committed attitude on the pitch typifies the defensive unit, has been singled out by opposition fans and pundits this season on many occasions. The Manchester United fans recently sung in reply to the Reading fans ‘superman’ song “we want your superman”. Despite the fact that United’s defensive pairing that day costing £34 million, Sonko was recognised as the star man, that’s right, the man Reading signed on a free from Brentford. This is the Reading way and it works; Sidwell and Harper together cost half a million, Glen Little is scaring top-class defences yet he was snapped up on a free. Bobby Convey was recently our most expensive signing yet he still cost considerably less than a million pounds. Find the players, nurture them into established first team players, keep their attitude right and feet firmly on the ground and you have yourselves a successful team without breaking the bank. You have yourselves a group of players who can hold Chelsea to a draw away from home, despite the Chelsea bench costing fifteen times (this is not an exaggeration) as much as the entire Reading first sixteen that day. Now this really is something to be proud of – it is not as if we are punching above our weight, we have players just as skilfull, just as tactically aware, just as fit and knowledgeable as anyone in the Premiership, Reading are just doing things the clever way, some would say the right way, and although this may sound completely biased, is a breath of fresh air for English football.
I may be making this sound too good to be true, yet the stats don’t lie and it really has been that good watching Reading over the past year or so. However recently we have seen that blip, December was a hard month, and two home games in particular provided a sharp wake up call. Used to having everything our own way, Blackburn and Everton showed just how quickly a Premiership match can change. They showed us that any mistake, no matter how slight, would be punished. The Blackburn game in particular was an interesting one to analyse. As we have seen many times at the Madejski in the recent months, Reading will not let the opposition impose themselves and came out of the blocks flying, playing neat and pacy football. A good first half was wrapped up with a very good move and sweet finish by James Harper. It seemed that we’d witness another game where it all just went right and it was a matter of how many we’d win by rather than whether we’d win. Yet Blackburn capitalised on a lack of concentration in the second half and seized the initiative. There was no way back and a mistake by John Oster, which probably would not have been punished as severly last season in the Championship, gave Blackburn a deserved win. Welcome to Premiership football indeed.
The month started with a fantastic win against a notoriously hard to beat Bolton side, before the travelling Reading fans made the long trip to St James Park, where they witnessed two terrific James Harper strikes, a fantastic stadium, and a hell of a lot of stairs. Much like the aforementioned Blackburn clash, sloppy defensive mistakes were punished, again signalling the difference between Premiership and Championship football. As stupid as it was to give the ball away in the manner we did for Newcastle’s winning goal, it is hard to see a player in the Championship doing what Emre did and finishing an excellent run with a fine finish. Perhaps in the Championship the midfielder who’d have picked up the ball would have come forward and found row z rather than the back of the net, and Reading would have come away with a draw rather than a loss. However as Coppell admitted after the game, we must learn from the defeat, and remember that if we want to establish ourselves in the big league, we must try and eradicate these sloppy mistakes. Yet still Royals fans came away from the game with their heads held high. Just to witness another historic stadium, to be part of one of football’s most enjoyable days out, and to feel like we should have got at least a draw from a team tipped to win the UEFA cup this season does fill you with pride. Mind you, win, lose or draw, I was proud enough as it was – climbing those stairs was an achievement in itself!
Looking at the most disappointing games of the season, we usually come up with one of two answers. Some say Arsenal, because it’s horrible to be so outclassed at home, and others say Portsmouth, where we really didn’t give it much of a go. Yet I would argue that the game following our trip to St James was the first game this season that really disappointed me. Arsenal were just purely the best team I have ever had the joy of watching play, and if anyone comes away from Fratton Park with a win then they’ll certainly have deserved it. Reading have always found Watford a tough nut to crack, the fact that they were the only team we failed to score against in our record-breaking 05/06 season is testament to that. But from the performances this season, and considering our league position, you can’t help but feel disappointed. Sure they stifled our play, but they have tried to do that against most sides this season and failed pretty miserably. Maybe the game just came at the wrong time after that long trip up north, and maybe with Dave Kitson and Graeme Murty in the side things would have worked out differently, but you could not help thinking that a win was there for the taking.
However after three defeats and a disappointing draw, there is never a better way of getting back on track than a draw against our best friends at Chelsea! The whole furore set around the game made the trip a daunting one, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in expecting a battling defeat. But Steve Coppell’s attitude is to take each game as it comes, he knew that this game was just like any other, despite Chelsea’s money and our poor run of form it was still eleven versus eleven, and ultimately this attitude paid off on the pitch with a fantastic draw. Coppell’s attitude has been so vital this season, his management style clearly works for the players, and it is great to see that he is getting the respect and praise he deserves in the press.
It has not been until Coppell took the helm at the Madejski that I realised just how much of a role the manager does play. Maybe I have just played too much Championship Manager in my life, but it’s funny to think just how naïve I was to think that any manager can succeed if he has the right players. No, Coppell gets the best out of everyone at the club, he points everyone in the same direction, will not stand for rebellion or selfishness. He knows the game inside out, and his attitude of taking one day at a time, that nothing is ever over until it is over, is one that has rubbed off not just on the players but on the fans as well, and we would certainly be no where near where we are today if it wasn’t for him. His approach to contracts is typical of his ‘step by step’ policy, but if he ever wanted a longer contract I’d give him one for life!
And you can bet that this step by step attitude will continue throughout the season. Even if we hit 40 points by the middle of February it will still not be time to celebrate. Not even if we hit 50 points by March will champagne corks be popping. Coppell will still work on the attitude that if it is mathematically possible to be relegated, then the job is not done, and so he should. If it is still possible that the third bottom club can get fifty-four points, then we must get fifty-five. There is plenty of time to celebrate staying up if we finish seventeenth or above in May.
If we are going to pick up vital points to set us on our way though, then surely now is the time to do it. It could be argued now that we’ve had our fun, our big days out to Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, we’ve even come back with a vital point from the former, and yes, we’ve had that fantastic romp at the expense of the Hammers. We even picked up a point at Goodison, against the same team that won pretty convincingly at our place just three weeks previously. We’ve shown true spirit and tenacity, and fought well with the boys at the top of the class. Now though, we have some of the strugglers, many at home. It is time to pick up those points, and edge ever closer to survival, and there is no better place to start than at the Madejski against Warnock’s Sheffield United.
I’ll admit that the Blades have surprised me this term, they may only be a couple of losses from the relegation places but they have distanced themselves from the foot of the table far better than I had envisaged. However they are still very weak down the spine of the team, with many Blades fans citing the centre of midfield as a vulnerable area. The team seems to be incapable of stringing more than a few passes together, and if it wasn’t for the impressive Hulse and a back line that isn’t conceding as many goals as expected, than they would really be struggling. Thankfully for Reading fans, as mentioned earlier, Warnock has just gone and spent £1.5 million on Jonathan Stead, quashing all fears that United are looking to settle in the division. The weakness in midfield should be key in Saturday’s game, because we all know that when Harper and Sidwell take the game by the scruff of the neck then the Royals are in control. My favourite moments of last year, barring of course the trip to Leicester and home fixture with Derby, were those sixteen seconds between kick off at Bramall Lane and Doyle putting the ball in the back of the net. In fact that first half I would still probably consider as the best 45 minutes of football I have seen from a Reading side. Let’s hope we can repeat that performance on Saturday, and set us well on our way to survival.
After the reserves get a kickabout in the FA Cup, we have a run of four games that again are very winnable, and a chance to get some revenge. We were pretty poor at Wigan at the start of the season yet still could (and probably should) have come away with a point. At Villa Park we were new to the Premiership and perhaps let the circumstances get the better of us. Coupled with Sonko’s debatable sending off, that was a game we played well enough in to get something out of. These are two home games that we are more than capable of winning, and yes, revenge would be sweet. Add these three home games with two away trips to Manchester City and Middlesbrough respectively, and you have yourself five games where we can secure the points we need. The fun starts all over again in mid March, with trips to the Emirates and White Hart Lane, and the hosting of Liverpool. Let us hope that by then we will have been on a successful run, and will be welcoming Liverpool at Easter time safe in the knowledge that we are in pole position for at least another year of Premiership football.
Yet what we must always remember as Reading fans is that even if we stay up comfortably, even if it seems we have established ourselves, we must never lose that sense of enjoyment, that sense of pride that overwhelms any feelings of frustration or anger at a loss. Whilst it didn’t mean that we weren’t all upset at conceding an equaliser to Everton in the last ten-minutes on Sunday, there was still that over-riding feeling of pride that we had gone to Everton, a team who had played more top flight matches than anyone else, and had showed the spirit and character to get a draw. This certainly doesn’t mean that we should be going into matches expecting to lose, feeling humble and out of place, but it does mean that whatever the score, we wont forget that we are experiencing the greatest times in Reading’s 135 year history. I have chosen to write all this now for a reason, because eight years ago today, a Reading side that included Neil Clement, Elroy Kromheer and Paul Brayson took on Bristol Rovers in the inaugural season of the Madejski Stadium. The stadium still felt uncomfortable, the players seemed to lack passion, and we lost the game 6-0. This game has still not been forgotten by all Reading fans, whether they were witnessing the debacle on that cold January day or not, and rightly so. So when we take to the field on Saturday, and on every Saturday in 2007, just remember where we were as little as eight years ago. We still have the hoops, we still have the fans, but we have a new manager, a new set of players, and a new attitude, an attitude that conveys passion, pride and spirit. That is why we are where we are today.
There really are no words to describe just how honoured I feel to have been a fan of Reading Football Club in 2006. If 2007 – a year that has already started off with a fantastic 6-0 drubbing of West Ham – is just half as successful, then who knows what we are capable of achieving?