By Matthew Williams
What a year to move up north! Being a Royals fan for 12 years may not be a mean feat for some, but since 1994 I’ve seen my fair share of relegations, play off final heartbreak and Paul Brayson, and so imagine how gutted I feel that the year I adhere to the calls of alcohol, sleeping and more alcohol that is university life, is the same year that Reading Football Club decide to play total football.
But who am I to complain? At first I thought I may only get to see my team on holidays and specially arranged trips home, but the way the Royals are playing, I gladly make the costly and time consuming trips home every weekend, making the trip to watch the Royals is a bargain, wherever in the land you are coming from! The offer of a half season ticket was too good to refuse, and I’m sure even though regular fans are disgruntled by all the ‘newbies’ turning up, give many half season ticket holders the benefit of the doubt. Many like myself are loyal fans who for some reason or another weren’t able to buy a season ticket at the beginning of the season, and now feel that they can’t miss out on what looks like being a historic season for Reading FC.
But like many others this half season ticket was not bought purely to guarantee a seat for the Premiership next season. Next year we may all be looking forward to seeing Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard at the Madejski Stadium, but seeing Bobby Convey, Glen Little and Kevin Doyle this year is just as exciting. Watching this Royals team is a joy to behold, an excitement that hasn’t been matched by any of the previous Reading sides I have seen either at the Madejski or at Elm Park. Throughout the team there is excellence, it will certainly be a difficult task picking the player of the season come April.
In goal Marcus Hahnemann is awesome. He not only plays a big part in getting the crowd behind the team, but without him you can almost certainly deduct the valuable point won at Selhurst Park recently, as well as the 3 points won against Coventry the week before. When a keeper has very little to do it is easy to get complacent and lose concentration, Marcus certainly hasn’t done that this season.
The back four has been immense. A goals against column of just 16 speaks volumes. Graeme Murty plays with the passion of Parky, and really is earning his tag of ‘Captain Marvel’. Nicky Shorey keeps going from strength to strength; he gets forward with great vengeance and has the most dangerous left foot in the league. Ivar Ingimarrson is still ‘Mr Reliable’, his experience has been vital in reading the opposition strikers, and barring the few odd mistakes he’s made, most forwards this season have been kept well and truly in his pocket. Now what can we say about Ibrahima Sonko? Calling him Superman is an understatement! Sonko has improved massively from the raw ‘get the ball away as far from me as possible’ player we saw last season. His tackling is now inch-perfect, his strength and aggression enough to tame even the hardest of forwards, and his heading as accurate and as powerful as anyone in the Championship. He’s even popped up with a goal or two this season, including an explosive last minute header to win the game of the season so far at home to Crystal Palace.
The midfield seems to be the biggest improvement from last season. Watching Glenn Little and Bobby Convey destroy full backs all over the country this season has been a joy to watch, and it’s no coincidence that so many goals have come from crosses. Little is as accurate as you like and Convey whips the ball in at such a wicked pace, any defender would find it almost impossible to defend against. These wingers abilities to counter-attack has also provided another important source of goals for the team, with Bobby’s pace and ability to cut inside a massive threat, and I still believe Cardiff’s left back Chris Barker is still un-tangling himself after facing the twists and spins of Glen Little. Somewhat surprisingly after last seasons goal drought, these two have also bagged a hatful of goals already, with Little’s deft chip away at Plymouth up there as one of the goals of the season so far. Going into the centre of midfield, and Coppell has the brilliant problem of trying to select two from Gunnarsson, Harper and Sidwell. Little over a year ago it was the case of picking ‘the only two we had’, even when they were off form, now it’s the choice of picking two, even though any combination can do a fantastic job. All have popped up with vital goals this season, and each player’s inch-perfect passing and ability to win the midfield battles allow the wingers to get forward and weave their magic, creating chance after chance.
It’s not as if these chances have gone to waste either. Similarly with the midfield, last season it was ‘pick the best of a poor selection of strikers we have in the squad to partner Kitson.’ This season even Kitson’s place is not guaranteed. £70k is the bargain of the century for Kevin Doyle, a player who has impressed anyone who has seen him play, from players and pundits alike. His close control means he can run with the ball at his feet with unrivalled ease, his strength allows him to easily shake of the most menacing of defenders and his eye for goal is shown by the fact that he has scored this season both from distance (a marvellous goal at home to Palace springs to mind), and from just a yard out (I’ve never seen so much joy in a players face after scoring a tap-in as Doyle’s at home to Burnley in August!) Then of course, there is the million pound man, Leroy Lita. Signing for a record fee you would have thought would guarantee you a starting place for the whole season, but Lita can’t have too many complaints, when the players keeping you out of the side are Kitson and Doyle. Lita has already showed just why Coppell paid so much for his talent, with a selection of fantastic goals. Again I refer to the Palace game and his stunning scissor kick, but a hat-trick against West Brom and those two well-taken goals at Deepdale shows that his acrobatics against the Eagles wasn’t just a one-off. With Shane Long coming through as one to watch, and players like Oster, Hunt and Makin on the bench, most of whom would walk into most Championship first teams, the squad is strong and exciting one.
Nothing should be taken away from the manager though, who has used his experience and shrewd ability in the transfer market to get us where we are today. Coppell has been in this position before, and knows exactly how to keep on the up. Confidence oozes through the squad, something that is pretty easy to come by when you’re winning games, but it’s a much harder task keeping those confidence levels high. Coppell’s firm yet laidback style suits the players, and keeps their feet firmly on the ground. I’m the first to admit that I’m a very excitable fan, yet he has even got me believing it is ‘not over till it’s over’. I have people around me telling me we’re up, and in the back of my mind I really want to be dreaming of Manchester United at the Madejski, and a trip to Anfield, (I’ve already mentioned Wayne Rooney once more than I wanted to), but my brain says ‘no’, there is still a long way to go yet! Yet confidence to win each match is there. I firmly believe that we will beat Birmingham on Saturday, even without a full-strength side. Not because of the magic of the FA Cup, and not because of the fact their side contains Emile Heskey, but because my confidence in the team is sky high, I believe we literally cannot lose at the moment, and the players seem the same way. The squad has the perfect attitude to get out of this division, installed by Coppell and the management team, they all play for each other, and this works. It’s been said in the media that the reason for our success is our attitude and the fact ‘we have no stars’. Whilst the first comment is correct, the second is false, we have stars in our squad – they are all stars!
So where do we go from here? Remember, no matter how much your friends and colleagues tell you, we are far from promoted. At the time of writing we are a week away from the close of the transfer window. Do we splash the cash now, go for a quality player tempted by our Premiership prospects? Do we look for a few more high-standard squad players, there in case one of the first teamers get injured? We have seen this already with the signing of John Halls from Stoke, and all signs point to maybe another central defender on the way. As for buying big, Coppell is shrewd enough not to splash the cash unless the player is worth it, and in today’s market there aren’t too many worth taking. In fact the only player that has really impressed me this season in the Championship is Jerome of Cardiff, and even he would struggle to get a starting place. What this says about our team speaks volumes, we’ve made players who have been raved about in the media look very ordinary indeed. We already have proved our squad can match anyone in this division, so why risk breaking up a squad that already works perfectly well as a unit? For me, the best signings we have made this January is the contract extensions signed by Hahnemann, Harper and Doyle; signatures much more valuable than any new recruitments.
So the general consensus is that we should wait until the summer to really get the chequebook out and contemplate major signings. The fact that we will/may (we did throw away a 2-0 lead at Wembley remember!?) be in the Premiership next season will most likely mean we will be breaking our transfer record again, and see the most exciting signings this club has ever made join the Royal revolution.
But ultimately as this season draws to a very exciting and hopefully very successful close, my message is this: trust Coppell. Trust him in the transfer market, trust him in picking the right team and choosing the right tactics, and trust him in keeping the players attitudes in order. I’m the first to admit that when he signed Doyle I wasn’t exactly excited. I’ll admit that even though I still might have been full of Christmas turkey, I didn’t raise the roof when we secured Dave Kitson’s signature. Why would I get excited spending £250k on Kitson when Cardiff have quite clearly signalled their ambition by splashing the cash on £2million Alan Lee? I wasn’t even that impressed when we signed Ibrahima Sonko. “Oh God, not ANOTHER one from Brentford!” I also hated the fact that we got rid of Nicky Forster and replaced him with some small Bristol City striker who is unproven at Championship level. Adie Williams leaving was a big mistake in my book; Sonko could never fill his boots! Harper should have been shown the door after an awful season last year, Convey was £800k down the drain after a first season on the bench and if he ever thought that Stephen Hunt would be pushing for a first team place he must be having a laugh! I’m the first to admit I was wrong about all of these and am extremely happy to do so. Forster is now either injured or offside at mid-table Ipswich, Williams is struggling to get into a Coventry side not exactly blessed with top-class defenders anyway, and that Harper who should have been shown the door in the summer is now in the form of his life. The only reason Stephen Hunt is not in the first team is because not even Ryan Giggs could dislodge Bobby Convey at the moment!
The squad that Coppell built is a breath of fresh air showing that individuals don’t get you top of the league, squads do. This squad is the most exciting ever to wear the blue and white hoops of Reading, and it is an honour to be a fan at this moment in the clubs history. We started this year hosting Cardiff and that £2 million Alan Lee, lets hope we end it hosting Manchester United and that £25 million Wayne Rooney.
This future’s bright, the future’s blue and white.