The season is nearly back upon us, how on earth did that happen?
It only seems like yesterday that Sergio Aguero hammered home the last second winner against QPR, that Didier Drogba sauntered up to sweep home the winning penalty in Munich, and that Gary Neville penguin-walked home to change his underwear after a certain goal at the Nou Camp. Since May, we’ve had the predictably Spanish-dominated Euros and predictably Brazilian-dominated Olympics grace our screens in a summer that would make 2011 turn green with envy. Yet whilst the tiki-taka has been enjoyable, nothing beats the good ol’ Premiership and Stoke away on rainy Tuesday night.
And that’s where Reading FC begin their campaign back in the top flight, except it’s on a Saturday afternoon in Berkshire, so really it’ll just be a rainy game versus the Potters. Sure, it might not be the most prestigious of openers, but the fact that Reading are even Premiership status is in itself an achievement.
The moment that Noel Hunt flung his hands to his head as Gary Monk blocked his goalbound shot on May 30th 2011 will resonate and remain with Reading fans for a long time. The comeback of all comebacks against Swansea in the Playoff Final was in full swing, and had Hunt scored to equal things up at 3-3, fans and pundits alike are joined in their belief that the Royals would have gone on to win. As such, we succumbed to a 4-2 defeat, and things looked bleak. 16th in the table on November 1st, the media talk was of hangovers and consolidation, but did Brian listen? Did he bollocks.
A 1-0 defeat of Birmingham spelled the beginning of a wondrous 8 wins in 11, leaving us sixth by mid January. An announcement was then made by the club that Sir John Madejski had agreed a deal to sell 51% of his ownership to Thames Sport Investment company, fronted by Anton Zingarevich. The billionaire was educated in the Berkshire area, and was a keen follower of football. His influence allowed for the purchase of Jason Roberts, Matt Connolly and Tomasz Cwyka and the impetus to push on, but not even he could have imagined the immediacy of that rise. 49 points from an available 57 were taken in the second half of the season, and promotion was clinched with a 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, with champion status coming the following weekend as Southampton failed to defeat Middlesborough. It was a season of complete surprise, and one which will surely go down in Royals history as one of the greatest.
And with June came the most exciting summer in most Reading fans’ memories. The last four had seen the likes of Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt, Shane Long, Matt Mills and one Gylfi Sigurdsson head for the exits as part of Madejski’s attempts to plug the black hole. This year was different, however, with McDermott himself admitting that not having the pressure to sell was foreign to him.
In came six new faces: Pavel Pogrebnyak, Danny Guthrie, Reading old boy Nicky Shorey, Adrian Mariappa, and Nottingham Forest duo Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary.
Under the guidance of Reading’s Director of Football and negotiating extraordinaire Nick Hammond, Zingarevich’s roubles didn’t alter the club’s prudent approach to the transfer market, instead excelling their position within it. Four of this summer’s additions were free transfers, and the extra investment allowed for Brian McDermott to dip his toes into the Premiership hot-tub, instead of the League Two and Irish League puddles (NB: This is a joke, our three most recent number 9s have come from these diamond mines).
Brian, Nick, Anton and Sir John were keen to keep the club running in the same vein, as well as making sure each new face fit the ‘Reading mould’, something Sky Sports reporters will get used to hearing in the post-match chinwag.
Gunter, Mariappa and McCleary are young, hungry additions to the squad, looking to make a successful step up from England’s second tier. Garath McCleary was the first to join the Russian revolution after his contract expired at Forest. An impressive player in a largely mediocre team, McCleary can slot in on either wing or as an acting striker and will ease the reliance on Jobi McAnuff and Jimmy Kebe. His clubmate Chris Gunter, one of the hottest right-backs (no homo) outside of the Premiership is a signing that’s sure to get the blood pumping (no homo) for the fans, especially with the current occupant Shaun Cummings questionable at the best of times. His signature came on the same day that Watford’s Player of the Season Adrian Mariappa also put pen to paper at the Mad Stad. Mariappa, who was subject to several bids by Newcastle in January, adds some much needed cover to the Royals’ backline. His pace, bulk, and strength give McDermott another option to the effective, if not slow, pairing of Kaspars Gorkss and Alex Pearce. For a combined fee of around £5m, Gunter and Mariappa surely make two excellent bargains.
Speaking of bargains, the club’s other three new faces all arrive with previous Premiership experience. Ex-Royal Nicky Shorey may not have covered himself in glory after the manner of his exit in 2008 but after failing to do anything whatsoever with his career in four years, returns to bolster the left-back position currently held by the aging Ian Harte. Danny Guthrie brings an excellent reputation down with him from Tyneside and with Jem Karacan suffering a broken ankle at the hands (and feet) of Leeds-thug Michael Brown in April, Guthrie could be in line for a starting berth on the 18th. Having someone of his quality in the team can only help the Royals in their survival hopes.
And finally, we come to the highest profile and arguably most defining signing of the Berkshire summer. If Guthrie was seen as a coup, Pogrebnyak must be a revelation. Undoubtedly, ‘The Pog’ proves a new era has arrived at the Mad Stad, and the Russian giant is said to have turned down many offers from around England and Europe to join the Royals after his contract at Stuttgart expired. I’m not as convinced as the hoardes of fanboys splashing £55 on a shirt with his ten lettered name on the back are. Pogrebnyak has had what you could call a less-than-prolific career, scoring just 15 goals in his three years in Germany. Hardly the bees knees, if you will. That having been said, not one Match of the Day watcher could fault his impact when he joined Fulham on loan in January of last season, and his 50% goal ratio is tough to scoff at. I will remain a sceptic, however, until the proof is on the pitch. There are rumours he’s on £65k a week, and only time will tell if lives up to that price.
As for the other guys in the squad, Adam Le Fondre has made the prolific rise from League Two to Premiership in under a year, scoring 12 goals last season. He could be the main provider in an otherwise goal-lacking group. Noel Hunt and Simon Church both have question marks over their ability to make the grade, while Jason Roberts hopes to mark his return to the top flight with some more gametime than he got at Blackburn. Captain McAnuff, Mikele Leigertwood and Kaspars Gorkss remain the most experienced in the squad, leading to several doubts about Reading’s ability to succeed in the best and most competitive league in the world.
The ability to pull results out of the bag (see v West Ham, March 2012) will help in Reading’s favour, as will the recent FA Cup runs of 2010 and 2011, both times reaching the quarterfinals and knocking out the likes of Premiership clubs Liverpool, Everton and West Brom in the process. The club can also take heart from the fact that they put seven goals past their fellow promotees West Ham in their clashes last season, and drew with Southampton before hammering them 3-1 in the reverse fixture.
Finishing 8th and one point off a European position like they did in 2006/07 is surely too big an ask this time round, but Brian and co will look to the examples set by Norwich and Swansea for inspiration on how to take the Premiership, pundits and punters by surprise.
If I was asked to make a prediction as to the whereabouts of the Royals come May, I’d have to say 16th. For me, so long as they avoid a QPR-esque panic in the winter window, and buy sensibly if it’s truly necessary, they should be able to avoid the jaws of relegation, but only just. My money’s on Wigan (surely this is their year), QPR, and one of Swansea or Stoke.
Speaking of Stoke, we come to a full circle. Three points on Saturday boys, and we’ll be laughing.
Up the Royals.