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Conversion not creation the problem for Reading FC

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Reading’s 2014/15 season was salvaged by an unlikely run in the FA Cup. They stuttered and stumbled their way to a Wembley semi-final against Arsenal, and as is so often the way of these things, then suddenly looked like a different side able to compete with the very best.

The truth of last season may have been that it is difficult to get yourself motivated for a game against fellow midtable opposition in the Championship – whereas a cup run has its own magic.

As we settle into the rhythms of this season, Reading’s form has been lukewarm. An off-season clearing out the deadwood and rebuilding the squad means many players who find themselves in the first team still need time to bed in.

Reading are creating chances. As of last weekend, they led the Football League with 69 shots attempted, and also led it on shots against, with the Berkshire side’s defence allowing just 21 efforts on goal. That’s a hefty 3.29 shots taken per each allowed.

Worryingly though, this comes in the midst of a run of home games without a goal. Reading have failed to score in six consecutive home games, a run stretching back to 4th April. Worse, with the departure of Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, no one in the current squad has a home goal in the league this calendar year.

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The Royals’ attacking woes were evident for all of last season, with Crystal Palace loan man Glenn Murray finishing the season top scorer with eight goals – despite playing his last game for the club on Boxing Day.

All in all, it makes for bleak viewing at the Madejski Stadium.

When you’ve gone so long without a goal at home, it becomes the first thing on the mind of every supporter as soon as the final whistle has blown – “how many minutes without a goal is it now?”

In the 1978-79 season, Reading goalkeeper Steve Death went 1,074 minutes without conceding – a record that was only beaten 30 years later by Edwin van der Sar in goal for Manchester United. Reading FC’s own goalless streak at home currently stands at 624 minutes. When you’ve come so far, it almost seems a shame not to go for the record…

The aching weight of those minutes, and the burden of the expectation from the crowd, will inevitably be having an effect. Worse still is that the expectation is not a positive one – instead, the Madejski Stadium crowd now audibly anticipates failure. A misplaced pass is typical. Of course he skewed that cross. I knew he’d scuff that shot.

Under that kind of scrutiny, even the hardiest of souls will begin to feel the pressure. Goalkeepers and strikers, more than their comrades elsewhere on the field, cannot allow this to get to them. More so than those comrades the roles at either end of the field are reflexive and instinctual. Thinking is the enemy, you just have to act – if you’re worried about failure, worried about hearing fifteen thousand people tut at you in unison, you dramatically increase the risk of just that occurring.

Royals manager Steve Clarke has made moves to bolster his attacking options during the transfer window, bringing in Portuguese striker Orlando Sa, and making several bids for Rapid Wien frontman Robert Beric.

Unfortunately for Clarke, the market for strikers is especially hot at the moment. With Andre Grey moving between Championship clubs for a hefty £9million, Benik Afobe the subject of £10million bids, and Charlie Austin surrounded by £15million rumours, the days of finding a reliable scorer at a reasonable price seem to be behind us.

Just four years ago, Reading signed Adam le Fondre from Rotherham for a fee of just £350,000. Le Fondre came with more than 100 league goals under his belt, albeit at a lower level. By contrast, Afobe, briefly a Reading loanee himself, has barely 100 senior appearances, and somewhere in the vicinity of 20 goals. Afobe is certainly a talent, and much of his somewhat pricey valuation will stem from the desire of Wolves to retain his services, but this is an especially hot kitchen to be working in.

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Afobe’s former manager Arsene Wenger is of the opinion that the transfer window, rather than encouraging the use of home grown talent, actively discourages it by making it too big a risk to go into half a season taking a gamble on the rapid development of a youth star. It seems that this risk aversion has reached such a level of prevalence that teams are willing to pay significantly inflated sums for an identified talent – rather than risk a step up, or attempt to develop talent.

Norwich City, the club responsible for Afobe’s £10million bid, as well as interest in £8million Dwight Gayle from Crystal Palace, need a goalscorer and cannot afford to take any risks. Newly promoted and correspondingly precarious, a closed window leaves them struggling through the months of September, October, November and December before they are once again able to strengthen. In short, they are desperate to do a deal.

The transfer window is a flawed system, warping the market and dangerously inflating transfer fees. It’s unsustainable and encourages financial overreach.

It’s time it was looked at again.

Featured image: some rights reserved by Crystian Cruz.

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