It has been a season of two halves for Reading, split into the Brendan Rodgers era and the Brian McDermott reign.
It was all change over the summer following the departure of long-standing manager Steve Coppell. The Royals legend stood down immediately after the play-off semi-final exit to Burnley, a year after he had originally planned to leave before his mind was changed by supporter demonstrations pleading for him to stay. With the club having contested their first season back in the Championship geared financially for securing an immediate return to the Premier League, there was always going to be wholesale costcutting at the Madejski Stadium once that goal was not achieved. Marcus Hahnemann, Graeme Murty and Michael Duberry were all released, with the experienced trio joined by fellow high-earner Leroy Lita in seeking new employment. Fans’ favourite Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt and Andre Bikey were sold to cover the deficit in the accounts. A more modest sum of money was spent on Doncaster defender Matt Mills, as well as Watford pair Jobi McAnuff and Grzegorz Rasiak who joined their former boss and new Reading manager Rodgers in Berkshire.
Rodgers had history at the club, having been in charge of the youth academy before being poached by Chelsea on the instructions of Jose Mourinho. The Ulsterman’s return was heralded as a Reading man coming home, and much optimism was placed in the new man being able to bring through some of his old youth team charges in to the first team setup. Pre-season looked very promising, with the John Terry-esque Alex Pearce and Scott Davies particularly impressing. Ryan Bertrand arrived from Rodgers’ old Chelsea youth team on loan and was made the first-choice left-back in place of last season’s Player of the Season, the injured Chris Armstrong. Unfortunately, things did not go to plan when it really mattered, with two goalless draws sandwiching a limp defeat at Newcastle in the opening games. A home defeat to Sheffield United, despite Mills claiming the team’s first goal of the league season, followed, before two games inside a week against Barnsley brought a Carling Cup exit at home and a first league win of the season away. A disappointing August closed with a flurry of transfer deadline day activity which saw James Harper and Liam Rosenior leave and the arrival of Brian Howard, Shaun Cummings and short-term loanee Darren O’Dea.
Just four more victories followed under the stewardship of Rodgers before he was shown the door in mid-December. Rodgers had arrived boasting about the “world class model” that he was bringing with him, but his bravado was never qualified by results on the pitch. Performances were mixed, with some attractive football played in spells during games but little end product produced. There was a worry that the new man had made changes for change’s sake, an unnecessary move considering the success of Coppell’s time in charge. A home draw with Scunthorpe, just days after a home defeat to Crystal Palace, was the final straw and the intrinsically patient Sir John Madejski swung the axe for the first time in a decade.
Backroom staff member McDermott, a long-time employee as reserve team manager and chief scout, was appointed as caretaker but took a few games to bed in. It was in the most unlikely manner that things clicked in to place, a home FA Cup tie with Liverpool looking a complete mismatch for a team barely outside the relegation zone. Mills, who had barely been used since his summer move, was inserted in the defence in place of the struggling Pearce, and a sterling display saw the Royals earn an Anfield replay. Staggeringly, Reading went one better at the famous venue, Shane Long netting an extra-time winner to send the giants crashing out of the Cup. The game was also memorable for Gylfi Sigurdsson firmly announcing his arrival on the scene, his injury-time penalty tucked away with the coolness of a much more experienced man.
Whilst a few more league games were required before results picked up, the Liverpool ties heralded a turnaround in performances, and it was not until the quarter-finals that the Royals were knocked out of the Cup after a thrilling tie against Aston Villa. Before long, league results improved and McDermott was appointed on a permanent basis, and a tremendous run of nine wins in 11 matches saw the team shoot up the table. Suddenly, the play-offs were an outside possibility and a relegation fight was no longer on the agenda. Sigurdsson was the big star, netting 16 league goals and 20 in all competitions, a remarkable tally for a midfielder in his first season at this level. The young Icelander was backed up by Jimmy Kebe, the winger having frustrated regularly for two years before exploding into life under McDermott. The defence was strengthened with the loan arrivals of Andy Griffin and Zurab Khizanishvili, whilst Long and Simon Church between them found the form in front of goal that had been lacking up front under Rodgers. The play-offs proved a step too far, with the form of the teams above Reading holding firm, but a ninth-place finish was a fantastic achievement considering the team were still in the relegation zone in mid-February.
Where the Royals go from here depends largely on how much impact financial cutbacks have on the playing squad this summer. Reports suggest that the club need to cut a further £4m from their budget, and plenty of clubs would be delighted to take advantage of any need to offload big stars like Sigurdsson and Adam Federici. If McDermott is allowed to keep the majority of his current first XI together, in particular the freescoring Sigurdsson, then a push for promotion is on the agenda. Should Sigurdsson move on, McDermott will have to hope that further youth products can step up to the plate as it is unlikely there will be much money to spend. McDermott would rather hold on to what he has got than sell key players to fund purchases, so any enforced significant departures will have to be replaced from within. With permanent deals for Bertrand, Griffin and Khizanishvili unlikely, it will be in defence that most of the rebuilding will be focussed, with the attack looking unstoppable at times. The projected return from injury of Noel Hunt will provide a natural goalscorer to compete with Long and Church up front, and Kebe and McAnuff are some of the best wingers in the Championship. McDermott has made a massive difference, and will surely start the next campaign in much better form than Rodgers managed this time around. With a better start, Reading would have been promotion contenders this season, and if they can hold on to their key players, there is no reason why they will not be up there in a year’s time.