It’s been a strange couple of months to be a Reading fan. We’ve been used to shoestring budgets, lower league acquisitions and seeing the club’s best players sold off to fill the inevitable ‘black hole’ each summer, but with the impending takeover from Thames Sport Investment due to go ahead in March that could all be about to change.
Led by Russian millionaire Anton Zingarevich, TSI looked to assert their interest in successfully completing the deal for 51% of Reading Football Club by providing the club with funding for January transfers. It was a welcome gesture and regardless of the outcome of the March deal, the money was the club’s to keep and use, TSI won’t send the debt collectors round.
The announcement of the provisional investment deal came just days after Brian McDermott was quoted as saying there would be no activity in the winter window due to a serious lack of funding. I, and I’m sure plenty of other Royals fans, sighed and accepted that this year would be no different to the last two. I probably would have kicked you in the knee if you said the club would have bought two Premiership players to the club. But that’s what has happened, and Reading are reaping the benefits.
The January deals included young striker Karl Sheppard on a free transfer from Shamrock Rovers, Jason Roberts on an 18 month contract from Blackburn, Tomasz Cywka on a free from Derby, and versatile defender Matt Connolly on loan from QPR, as well as tying Jimmy Kebe down to a new contract. Those five deals gave an already strong team with some depth and impetus to really push forward.
Cywka, released from Derby after a bust up with Nigel Clough, represents a young, hungry winger who with an arm around him and some confidence restored, could really make an impact in the Championship. Karl Sheppard has got Europa League experience with Rovers and given the Royals’ track record with Irish strikers, this kid could be one to keep an eye out for. He’s been a little injury ridden since he arrived in Berkshire, but we could well see him before the season’s out.
Jason Roberts is a player who can provide invaluable advice and pointers to some of the less experienced members of the group, as well as rolling back the years with some pace, strength and goalscoring ability. At 33 years of age, he may just be a stop-gap for the likes of Sheppard and Le Fondre, but what a coup nevertheless. Matthew Connolly was the deadline day signing, and provided some much needed depth to the backline. Alex Pearce and Kaspars Gorkss are one of the best defensive pairings in the league, but away from them there wasn’t too much in terms of reinforcements. Connolly and Gorkss were at the centre of QPR’s rise to the Premiership last season, and struck up such a relationship that to now have both of those guys at Reading is unbelievable. He’s slotted in at right-back in the absence of Griffin and Cummings in recent weeks, and looks as comfortable there as he did in the centre.
Of the games since they arrived at the club, Roberts has started all four and scored three, Cywka has made two substitute appearances and won a penalty, and Connolly has played all three having joined after Roberts and Cywka, and has helped keep clean sheets in every match. Since he signed his contract, Jimmy Kebe has played some of his best football I’ve seen, scoring one and creating two assists. They’ve each provided the team with a different type of outlet.
For example, with Shane Long in the team, the ball was knocked forward all the time in the hope that with his pace and jumping abilities, he would be able to charge down the loose ball. After he left and was replaced with Adam Le Fondre, who was more of a goal hanging poacher, that approach wasn’t going to work. Jason Roberts’ tall figure and strength holds the ball up more often now, letting Noel Hunt or either of the wingers run off him. Matt Connolly prefers to sit back rather than maraud up the pitch, which makes the team more defensively stable, and his passing skills are a big plus.
But let’s not forget the team who got Reading to fifth in the Championship before the TSI takeover. When looking back, it’s very hard to pinpoint reasons as to how we got so high, but with such a great bunch of guys it’s not surpring. Jobi McAnuff and Kebe have both had inconsistent seasons. McAnuff was given the armband in the wake of the sale of Matt Mills and has seemed alienated more than once this year. Kebe on the other hand, has done what Kebe does best. Beating his man and not much else. There were concerns over his footballing ability, and some were keen to cash in on him in January.
Since his new contract his crossing in particular has impressed, but whether he’ll sustain it until May remains to be seen. Jem Karacan, one of the standout players from last season needed a dropping to the bench to kickstart his season, and since then he’s been an engine in the midfield, whilst Mikele Leigertwood has quitely been cleaning up for the most part. At the back, Ian Harte and Joe Mills have tussled for the leftback spot and it’s been an even couple of rounds. Ian Harte grabbed himself eleven goals last season and is a great threat from the deadballs, but you only have to look to the playoff final to see his lack of pace undermining his goalscoring ability.
Joseph Mills on the other hand has looked reasonably solid all round. He’s still at a young age and looks more likely to take the number one position. Simon Church, Noel Hunt and Adam Le Fondre have shared the (sparse) amount of goals thus far, but have been missing a true number 9 like Long. However the players have rallied together under the presence of Brian McDermott et al. to once again defy the critics. It was a shaky start in September and it looked like the blackhole had really left the club short, but now with three months to go until the end of the season? It’s so up in the air.
The non-repayable funding from TSI has been reassuring, not only in strengthening the playing squad, but also in showing their commitment to seeing this deal through. If all is successful come March, Zingarevich will be majority shareholder with 51% of the club, with Madejski remaining as chairman and keeping 49%.
With the playoff final still ripe in the players’ minds and fond memories of the record 106 points winning team and the Premiership years slowly disappearing, this could be the time for Reading Football Club. Friday’s win against Burnley propelled them into third place – only to be overtaken by Birmingham later in the week – and to just six points behind the leaders. The club have won eight of their last ten, including four on the bounce, conceding just five in that time.
I don’t like to get my hopes up, especially in this league, but to quote the great Ray Wilkins, “My word…”
Written by Ben Barker, We Are Going Up’s Reading blogger
Ben tweets at @benjambarker