x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Steer well clear of Reading, at least until the summer

Better for a potential new manager to take over a Championship club, rather than one sure to be relegated, writes Richard Jolly.

Reading players look dejected at the end of their Premier League defeat to Manchester United. Michael Regan / Getty Images
Reading players look dejected at the end of their Premier League defeat to Manchester United. Michael Regan / Getty Images

Sadly, but understandably, the Premier League does not operate in the same way as the rest of the job market.

If it were to, an advertisement could provide an insight into Anton Zingarevich's thinking and how the Russian owner of the club would lure his ideal candidate to Reading.

His next manager, it may proclaim, would get an opportunity in the richest and most glamorous league in the world.

He would inherit a motivated and determined group of players and have the chance to make himself a hero in Berkshire in the next couple of months.

All of which is palpably true. Yet while there is a rare job vacancy in the Premier League this season - Brian McDermott, dismissed last week, was only the fourth manager to be axed in the campaign - the voices of pragmatism in a precarious profession should send a message: steer clear of Reading.

Not forever, but just until the end of the season. They have suffered six straight defeats, are seven points from safety and have only eight games to go.

Oh, and the first of those is away at Arsenal. Good luck, the note to anyone willing to accept the job now may read, because you will need it.

So those interested may hope the caretaker manager Eamonn Dolan stays in charge for the meantime.

Despite the Premier League's primacy, it would be better to take over at Reading when they are a Championship club. Go there now and a manager could be tainted by a relegation that was not his fault; players, supporters and owner alike may blame him for losses in the last eight games that he was powerless to halt.

Start in the summer and he begins with a clean slate.

The task verges on mission impossible. Yet for Reading, it was always mission improbable.

This was why McDermott's dismissal was so unfair and why Reading have been spared the criticism that has accompanied Queens Park Rangers, who have procured the same number of points. The likelihood is that, when the final figures are announced, Reading will have comfortably the division's smallest wage bill. Of the three promoted clubs, who have a greater need to buy to bridge the gap to the top flight, they were much the smallest spenders.

And, apart from the 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal, they have not been embarrassed. Rather their three matches with Manchester United serve as a microcosm of their season. They have lost each by a one-goal margin, displaying effort and, on the past two occasions, organisation, posing a threat from crosses and letting no one down. It is not a difference in industry, but of quality.

McDermott attempted to construct a siege mentality with his regular reminders that few outside the Madejski Stadium expected Reading to survive. There are reasons why.

With the notable exception of Pavel Pogrebnyak, seemingly a Zingarevich signing and paid rather more than his teammates, theirs is a squad lacking in Premier League pedigree. Should they go down, how many of their players will remain in the top flight?

Perhaps the centre-back Alex Pearce, a reported target for Liverpool. But despite the high-quality service Jobi McAnuff and Jimmy Kebe provide from the flanks, the supersub Adam Le Fondre's ability to sniff out an opening and the saves goalkeepers Alex McCarthy and Adam Federici have made, few others.

In many positions, they have Championship footballers. They also have a style of play best suited to the lower division. Reading's basic game plan has not changed since Steve Coppell's time in charge between 2003-09.

They are at their happiest playing a direct, urgent 4-4-2. They do not believe in passing for passing's sake. The problem is that they struggle to retain the ball.

It is an impediment. Play 4-4-2 and they can be both outnumbered and out-passed in midfield. Withdraw a striker to shore them up in the middle of the park and they lack firepower. It is a Catch-22 situation. Yet it would take radically different personnel and plenty of time implementing a different ethos for Reading to play any other way.

Given their limitations, therefore, they have not underperformed. Indeed, perhaps they have overachieved, making the most of their set-piece skills and spirit. Only three teams have scored more from dead-ball situations. None have struck more often in the final 15 minutes.

Momentum and belief were the key facets of their glorious January, when McDermott and Le Fondre were manager and player of the month, respectively.

Thirty-three days after being honoured, McDermott was told his services were no longer needed, an act of supreme ingratitude.

The results had dried up but the players had not stopped giving their all for him. And much like when Wolverhampton Wanderers got rid of Mick McCarthy, last year, McDermott is precisely the sort of manager they will want come next season, one who builds a rapport with the players and has a track record of winning promotion from the Championship.

Surely, that is Reading's next objective. Relegation is not ratified yet but there is a sense of inevitability about it.

 

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