by Bob Lethaby
Many football supporters could be forgiven for thinking that after their last day demise from the Premiership in 2008, little Reading would be lining up against Basingstoke Town in the Conference South this season, however, prudence, frugality and a structured management set up at the Madjeski Stadium has seen an unprecedented return to the big time that has coincided nicely with new investment from Russian owners who on the face of it, seem sensible as opposed to suffering from crazed megalomania.
The Royals suffered a hangover equivalent to eight pints of keg bitter followed by a bottle of cheap red wine after the loss to Swansea in the 2011 Play-Off final and languished desperately in the lower reaches of the Championship before a remarkable recovery sent them surging towards not only promotion, but the Championship trophy, with much of credit (perhaps a bit too much) going towards the inspired signing of veteran striker Jason Roberts from Blackburn Rovers. But now the tickertape has cleared and the champagne has stopped flowing, how will the bookies red hot favourites for the drop fair in the Premier League?
This, It has to be said, is something of a million dollar question as many of the current squad are either untried at this level, or at the very best, tried and failed at this level. Jobi McAnuff, Mikele Leigertwood and Jason Roberts were all key members of the squad last season, but only their closest family would claim they are proven Premiership players, whilst Ian Harte, a one time European Cup Semi-Finalist, is at an age where he appears to be running in hob nail boots with a piano strapped to his back. Having a sweet delivery with his left foot will not be enough at the highest level; no one will convince me otherwise.
There are new signings of course and good ones too, Pavel Pogbryenak will be a handful for anyone and Danny Guthrie from Newcastle has good pedigree. Also joining the Royals are Gareth McLeary and Chris Gunter from Nottingham Forest along with Adrian Marriappa from Watford, all of them are genuine talents who were all sought by other clubs from the lower end of the Premier League. However, the bulk of the squad that served Brian McDermott so well will deservedly remain in place meaning (as is always the case with promoted teams) there are key borderline areas where the difference between success and failure will lie. It doesn’t take a trained rocket scientist (who is now a hedge fund manager) to calculate that the main area for concern will be in defence.
Nicky Shorey (who has flattered to deceive at several clubs) has returned to his first club to compete with Ian Harte at left back so that area looks particularly exposed and whilst Gorkks and Pearce as a centre back pairing had a fine season last term, their lack of pace is a an obvious concern; Mariappa needs to be as good as many predict he will be. Shaun Cummings and Chris Gunter will vie for the right back birth and whilst both offer promise, neither have genuine top flight experience. It is in these areas where McDermott will be banking on players stepping up to the plate, but if they do not adapt quickly, it could get ugly and Adam Federici (a decent if not brilliant keeper) will be spending his season picking the ball out of the net.
It is hoped that in midfield Guthrie can add guile to the industry of the busy yet raw talent of Karacan and the ball winning and square passing of Leigertwood, whilst Kebe, McAnuff and McLeary will all offer genuine pace. To those who do not know Kebe, he can take on the world one week and be as much use as a one legged man in an arse kicking competition the next. McAnuff and Robson-Kanu can be equally as frustrating, but every club has wingers with that affliction, anyone who watches Ashley Young or Theo Wallcott on a regular basis will confirm that.
Up front Pogbreynak may well be a star turn and Jason Roberts will add vital experience whilst Le Fondre could potentially be the Grant Holt of next season; either that or he will fail miserably and get loaned to Bristol City with a view to a permanent deal. Noel Hunt and Simon Church have been loyal hard working players for the Royals but frankly, they (particularly Church) look ill equipped for the Premier League which is probably the cause for continued speculation about bids for Rhodes (Huddersfield) and Zaha (Palace).
There may still be a few comings and going yet, but I feel with momentum and management changes at WBA, Norwich and Swansea along with the ongoing pilfering of talent at Wigan, Reading may, with a decent start, just keep them selves above the abyss.
My heart says 15th, my head says 16th.
Style of Play: 4-4-2 counter attacking, uglier than Swansea, prettier than Stoke
League Position: 16th
Player to watch: Pavel Pogbreynak/Jimmy Kebe
Concourse alcohol: Courage Best Bitter (£3.80 and awful) Fosters Lager (£3.80 and awful) Red or White Wine (£? and Rancid)
Food: Waitrose Chicken Curry pies (£? Of moderate quality but heated on the surface of the sun)
Most inane chant: 106, 106, we’ve got the record, 106 (reference to 2006 Championship points tally)
Most popular taunt by away fans: Premier League, you’re having a laugh
Most spiteful match: Chelsea (remember Stephen Hunt on Peter Cech?)
Most common McDermott cliché: “Listen…these players are an honest group of lads.”
Most common pundit cliché : “Reading are a breath of fresh air to the premier League.”
Predicted game of the season: Southampton (a lot of history from last year)