by Neill Rees

What’s the difference between Chris Baird and Simon Cox (pictured above)? C’mon, anyone? Yes, you at the back with your hand up. What’s that? Baird is a utility player and Cox is a striker? It’s good but it’s not right.

The difference is actually measured in days. A massive 314 days between Reading FC signing Chris Baird (and on a very short contract, to boot) and Simon Cox, a youth product  who returned to the Royals from Nottingham Forest for a mere 600k. Between that time, the only transfer activity for Reading FC was outgoing.

The explanation for such transfer paucity is largely blamed on the previous owners of Reading, the Zingarevich family from Russia. Their botched takeover of Reading, purchasing 51% from Sir John Madejski promised (as they all do) to take our little provincial club in Berkshire to the next level.

Reading had gained promotion to the Premier League for the second time (yes, really, we’ve been there twice!) and Anton Zingarevich was hailed as the man who pushed us over the line, bankrolling the talismanic Jason Roberts to push Reading on from a torrid start, barely in the top half until February, subsequently crushing all before them to end up as Champions. A feat that some still cannot quite fathom, considering clubs as Southampton and West Ham were present (and beaten) in the Championship at the time. But stuff of dreams often turns into nightmares…

Our fall from the Premiership was no surprise, we expected it, truth be told. The then manager, the tactically limited, Brian McDermott was sacked and replaced with Nigel Adkins, a man who had led Southampton to much success. However, we had signed ‘marquee’ players such as former England left back, Wayne Bridge, Russian international, Pavel Pogrebnyak and the enfant terrible and former  sort of ‘galactico’ Royston Drenthe, whilst under their stewardship. (The latter being the definition of an ‘owners signing’.)

Anton Zingarevich and model wife Katsia.

It soon became abundantly clear that we were up a body of water without a method of propulsion. The club was haemorrhaging money massively, saddled with contracts unsustainable in the Championship. The writing was on the wall when Chris Baird, once of Fulham, was signed on a mere six month contract, an almost unheard of contract considering Baird was a free agent. Bridge spent more with his member of The Saturday’s than performing on Saturday. Mercurial Drenthe mis-fired massively. “The Pog” barely lived up to his international status also. Adkins wished to remould the team in his own vision, but the rug of transfer activity had been pulled from beneath him.

It was a wonder that throughout the 2013/14 season Reading were always there or thereabouts in the Play-Off mix. The turmoil off the field filtered onto the field as performances became dull and turgid. Players didn’t receive knocks, but months on the sidelines at a time. By the time the season was dusted, we had deployed no less than TEN central midfield combinations. A bucket load of black cats, that is.

Miracles did still occur though; the annihilation of Bolton 7-1 and subsequent beating of Blackpool 5-1, masked a horrific set of performances. Failing to beat the likes of Barnsley and Yeovil (the latter with 8 men) were a bit more de rigeur. As fate would have it, despite a rare spirited performance on the day, Burnley put pay to our play-off dream (or nightmare, depending on your view!) with a minute to go.

After the denouement of the season, the truth will out. The Russians were nowhere to be seen after failing to buy the remaining 49% of the club, owned by Sir John Madejski, remained ‘unsold’. New buyers were sought, further floundered and failed to materialise. Reading released a number of senior professionals to cut the wage bill. We thought that would be the end of it…oh no.

Top scorer, Adam Le Fondre had to be sold to Championship rivals, Cardiff City, to fulfil a yellow card, flirting with a red from HMRC. Madejski often cited that Reading were a club that ‘cut their cloth’ accordingly. Now, we barely had a stitch to our name.

Sir John cut a sad, sad figure, betrayed by the Russians, he no longer had the means to drive Reading on after losing much of his wealth in the recession. He always reminded us that people with deep, deep pockets do not grow on trees and other such similes. But finally, he found one, well, four. A consortium of four Thai business people, brokered by the same chap who sold Manchester City to Sheikh Mansour, no less.

Finally, came that fateful day, a whole 314 long days since Chris Baird, when Simon Cox returned to his spiritual home, replete with the new shiny home kit, We had forgotten what that tingle of excitement of a tangible rumour, let alone a new (old) signing. Imagine that!

Reading are still reminded of the damage done by the Zingarevich mess, with the likes of the flop Drenthe whom we cannot get shot of for love, nor, actual money. We still may have to re-align our costs and further sales are mooted. Sights have been lowered, and we are no longer favourites for even the play-offs.

Reading started this season with a midfield of a left back, a youthful central defender, an academy product and a midfielder with less confidence than Stuart Downing on a good day, such is our lengthy injury list. Mid-table mediocrity will be an odd kind of progression in many a way. It’s not all rosy in the garden, but the weeds have been rooted out and new seeds sown…and other horticultural allegories. 314 days is indeed a very, very long time in football.