After the huge anti-climax of last season, Tommy Burns simply has to succeed this season in taking Reading back up to Division One - or he could quickly find himself out of a job. With John Madejski back in the country following his long tax-exile in Malaysia, the pressure will be greater than ever. Madejski is not a man to say what he doesn't mean and he's said plenty which will give Burns obvious signals that Reading must start the season in the way they mean to go on. It's an old cliche, but Burns has until Christmas to show he is worthy of the managers job.
It wasn't all bad news last season. Tommy was set on playing the game he thought best - slow patient passing stuff. All very pretty (well sometimes), but too often passed in the wrong direction. Potentially spot-on for Division One. But first of all we need to battle to get ourselves out of this Division. At times last season we were dull. Others tedious. The serious lack of entertainment was not acceptable. So a new season - time to put all of that in the past.
Tommy Burns has all he could reasonably ask for as manager of a Second Division side. The one big problem last season was up front. After Skittles got injured early on we never had a replacement. Brayson never justified himself and McIntyre simply wasn't a goal scorer. We were all crying out for the big centre forward, and when he eventually appeared on transfer deadline day in the shape of Keith Scott from Wycombe it was a huge dissapointment. But now we have that man. The 650,000 quid signing of Forster from Birmingham City from right under the noses of Division Two rivals was a major signing. City fans rated him highly, North End fans were so pissed off they're still apparantly sending him hate mail today for not joining them. A quality player.
With the departure of big boys Manchester City and Fulham to Division One, Reading are perhaps the "biggest" club in the Division. The transfer of Forster highlights this. Reading were by far the biggest spenders in the pre-season break inside the Division - even though it was all on the single missing link up front. Other "big spenders" spent less than half of Reading - Millwall splashing out 300,000 quid with Wigan next spending 250,000 quid. Add together the remaining teams in the division and their expenditure is still well below Readings. Crazy really then that some people will still be complaining that Madejski hasn't put his hand in his pocket enough to take Reading up. Even crazier that Tommy Burns hints he still hasn't got the right squad despite spending near a whopping 3 Million quid so far.
The squad has been trimmed a bit over the summer, although perhaps not as much as Mr. Mad would have hoped. Out went old timer Ray Houghton, out went Tony Barras as we made the money up we'd paid in the second half of last season. The biggest shock was the sudden departure of Byron Glasgow after hitting the back page of every national newspaper for failing a drugs test. We're still overloaded with goalkeepers, but the rest of the squad has more than enough depth without being too over crowded.
In goal we're spoilt for choice with Howie, Mautone, and Hammond possibly all above average for this Division. Gray and Murty will be the first choice full backs. No complaints there, especially as Gray just gets better and better after looking a bit shit in the first half of last season. With international Barry Hunter back in the middle we're laughing. We'll be completely cracking up when thinking he'll be playing alongside talent in the shape of Primus and Polston. Caskey is pure class, as shown with his pre-season friendly free kicks. Parkinson, who recently signed a one year extension to his contract to keep him at the Mad House until 2001, is that essential Division Two battler in the middle of the park. McLaren could be the winger we're after to supply Williams and Forster with plenty of the ball in the middle up front. We're possibly a bit weak still down the wings, but not a cause for concern yet. And we haven't even mentioned the virtual unknown super-star qualities of expensive last season signing Evers. On paper one of the best line-ups in the Division?
Yet we still know there's plenty of potential for it to all go wrong. Injuries once again. This can't be used as an excuse, but what a way to start the season with so many players doubtful. It's tempting to question what happens behind the scenes when so many players take so long to recover from minor injuries. We're still waiting for the re-appearance of Murty - although news is good he'll miss the first game of the season against Bristol City at least. Also out will be Phil Parkinson after he was stretchered off against Southampton in the 0-3 pre-season defeat at the weekend. Parky could be out for weeks. Shit. Forster remains doubtful, as does Crawford, Primus, Casper, and McIntyre. A stupidly big list before the season even starts.
The pre-season friendlies were a mixed bag - but overall edging towards the shit side of average. A huge crowd of nearly 17,000 witnessed a 2-2 draw against Newcastle which was the best moment. Reading were great for the first 45 minutes. Play like that this season and we should be on the up. However a 0-0 draw at Barnet, and defeats by Woking and Southampton don't inspire confidence.
So what's the verdict. I've got a tenner on Reading as champions. We were 16-1 when I put that on and 8th favourites. Suddenly the signing of Forster made us 8-1 and 3rd favourites which made sense. But what if Forster gets injured then? I don't trust my tenner. Last season we were all way over confident. There's a huge danger that's going to happen again. However, I'm going to opt for a play-off spot - simply because we have to achieve it and certain chairmen will blow a fuse if we don't.
The Division is even more wide open that last season - there is no clear favourite. There's no Fulham or Man City and so Wigan are favourites for the Division. Not much to make us quake. Wigan had a blinding last half of last season, but then sacked their manager. Bizarre. Can't see it myself. Bristol City having just come down are also a promotion potential side - but again they're not that great and has there really been that much pre-season activity.
It seems impossible to predict - so here's a nice vague Hob Nob Anyone? verdict:
Six (in no particular order):
Reading, Stoke City, Bristol Rovers, Bristol City, Wigan, Preston.
Four (in no particular order):
Oxford, Wycombe, Luton Town, Scunthorpe.