By Matthew Williams
At the moment I am re-reading Roger Titford's excellent book "Rusting Tin and Shiny Plastic." It's a brilliant look at the clubs cultural transformation as they say goodbye to Elm Park, and hello to the Madejski. For those of you who have read it let me just say one thing. If you thought it was a harrowing, nostalgic and thoughtful tale when the book was first released, then just imagine how it reads now, seven years later.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and reminiscing on all those feelings and emotions that were stirred when waving goodbye to an old friend in Elm Park, and looking nervously forward to a new beginning by the M4, it almost seemed like this move was a little too much for a club like Reading. This was a time when the stadium was less than half full on a regular basis, with the Royals coming face to face with teams of such prowess as Chesterfield, Walsall and Macclesfield. You get a sense from the book that we didn't really want the move to happen, that we didn't want to tolerate years of hearing "nice ground, shame about the team," The book documents those eerie days when you were the only one in your row, when the away fans only took up a small cluster of seats in the back of the South Stand and when the Reading players who took to the field would not have looked out of place playing at Prospect Park, rather than in front of paying customers.
"With the facilities we have now, Premiership football in the foreseeable future is, with any luck, not out of the question" wrote Neil Webb in the books foreword. The tone seemed more hopeful than expectant, and it certainly wasn't deemed to have come in the time and style that it did. It's difficult now to read the book and remember that the events described was only seven or eight years ago, because now this club, who only recently were making that difficult big stadium move, holding pants days, and fielding Keith Scott, are now sitting seventh (joint fourth on points), in the biggest league in the world. A win on Saturday against Chelsea by the odd goal or seven, and four other results going our way and we could be sitting at the top of the league! (I know, thats maybe a bit farfetched, but if I'd have told you just three years ago we would have been promoted to the Premiership with record points then beaten Middlesbrough, Man City and West Ham and drew with Man Utd in our opening seven games you'd never have believed me!)
So now we've stopped pinching ourselves at just how far we've come, let's dwell on a month that will live long in every Reading fans memories. We've been to Bramall Lane and won. We've been to Upton Park and won. We've hosted Manchester City, and won. Oh, and we invited top of the league, eight times Premiership champions Man Utd for a game and still we could not be beaten! It has been an incredible month and credit should go to every player who has pulled on a blue and white hooped jersey this season. But the main reason why we are where we are today? Stand up Mr Steve Coppell. Today (Monday 9th October) marks the 3 year anniversary that the quiet one has been at the club, and what a transformation it has been.
After the win at Upton Park last weekend one of my housemates commented how depressed and sombre Coppell looked in his interview, considering we had just claimed our third win in four games. "That's just Coppell's way" I replied, and it's certainly a way that's worked. For Coppell's forte is his incredible man-management style and his tactical nouse. Sure, he's not too bad in the transfer market, £70,000 for Kevin Doyle tells us that, but his unflappable personality is what keeps the team grounded, and this was shown to be the key this month.
It's worth noting that in the fixture at Upton Park in 2004, 10 of the players included in that match would have been involved last weekend (injury permitting), with Doyle, Seol and Lita being the only players who started the 1-0 win last week who were not with the club two years ago. So what has changed? How is it that six of the players who were involved in that fatal 3-0 home defeat against Wimbledon on Boxing Day 2003 managed to quite comfortably match Manchester United?
The answer is quite simple really, Steve Coppell has got these players playing like a team. I'm sure you were all witnesses to a quite dismal 0-0 draw between England and Macedonia recently. Terry Venables was quoted the day after in the News of the World saying that the tactics were simply wrong. "The 11 Macedonia players don't simply get better than the England players overnight" Venables argued, it is just that the Macedonian manager was clever enough to utilise his players in such ways that it stopped England. This shows just how important a managers role really is - on paper Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand are better than Kevin Doyle and Ivar Ingimarson, but the age old saying goes that football isn't played on paper, and Coppell prepared his team and used his players to better affect than Alex Ferguson. Man Utd found a strong, well-organised Reading side and only a piece of Ronaldo magic could break us down. By then of course we had already got our noses in front, with a typically well-organised Coppell move. Tenacity in midfield to win the ball, fast-paced wingers and over lapping full backs to put in the crosses and voila, a penalty won and a the Royals are ahead.
Coppell also has Reading playing like a team. It worked last year to great effect, the team went forward in unison, (sitting behind the goal is was a real sight to behold), and the team defended together as a unit. This year that idea is more important than ever, and it's been proven to work on more than one occasion. The win against Sheff Utd was about attacking as a team, typified by the team goal finished by Seol. It was a move started on the left, involved forwards holding up the play, midfielders playing that final pass, and a winger cutting inside and finishing with aplomb. Similarly with the win against Manchester City, the defending was solid and well-organised, the midfield hassled and harried as a group, and the strikers linked up to feed on anything that came their way.
And this is why Steve Coppell is September manager of the month. He has got his players playing like a team, and it is teams who win matches. Like it or not the sides to compare us to are the two others who got promoted, and you can see why we are the ones in the top half of the table. Sheffield United still rely far too much on Jagielka - as soon as he produced a bit of magic, the Blades had their first win of the season. But whilst he won them the game against Middlesbrough he has spent six games being rather ineffective, and surprise surprise, they had failed to get a win in any of them. Similarly with Watford, Marlon King and Ashley Young do all they can to help them find those vital 3 points, but even when between them they score three goals like they did against Fulham, the team cannot help but concede 3 at the other end and throw away 3 big points.
So stand up Mr Steve Coppell, we love the fact he is gloomy after a win, we love the fact that whilst us fans are celebrating a historic draw with the Red Devils, he is on the sidelines fuming that we did not hold on for a win. We love this, and the players love this. His ideas may not be ground-breaking, but they are simple, and effective. No Reading players had Premiership experience until this year, but with Coppell steering the ship we go into matches organised and well-drilled, and in the last month has seen us pick up 10 very valuable points, against not-too-shabby opposition. Next up Chelsea and Arsenal? Bring it on!