When Reading fans watched on as Huddersfield Town won in the cruelest of ways at Wembley all the way back in May last year, it sparked what many fans thought would be a time of uncertainty at the club. However, as the majority of the core squad remained and many additions were made, it led to a sense of quiet optimism around the Madejski Stadium.
Jaap Stam had played down the Royal’s chances of promotion, the pundits were predicting a far less glamorous season than the last – but this wasn’t enough to dampen spirits too much. Reading fans were used to seeing their club being underestimated and told that they simply weren’t cut out to go to-to-toe with the Championship elite.
However, perhaps even the biggest of skeptics would not have anticipated that the Royals would find themselves in their current league position at such an advanced point of the season.
At the start of the campaign it felt like the additions that Jaap Stam and his director of football, Brian Tevreden, had acquired were garnering a good deal of praise from Reading fans and, with the majority of the core squad intact, there was certainly cause for optimism as the campaign got underway.
The losses of Ali Al-Habsi and Danny Williams have definitely left a mark on Reading, which is now becoming fully apparent. At times Al-Habsi was producing 2-3 world class saves per game and Danny Williams put together a brilliant season from the heart of the club’s midfield. Currently, their replacements have not done enough to fill the void left by the departed duo.
The 2016/17 campaign was an excellent time to be a Reading fan. The club had a clear philosophy and style under Jaap Stam and were agonisingly close to returning to the Premier League after a four year absence. However, there were definitely some fans that were never convinced of the Dutchman and particularly the style of play that the club employed throughout the season.
At times, the Royals struggled to create goal scoring opportunities and certainly had some defensive frailties. No side had conceded more goals entering the play-offs and the Royals also had the second worst goal difference in the top ten.
It was easy to overlook some of the issues with the team last season as the Royals stormed a fantastic third place finish. However, this time around Jaap Stam’s men have massively underperformed.
Winless runs and a poor home record have left the club in a very difficult position that you feel no fans, playing staff, or management could have foreseen the club being in.
At times, Jaap Stam’s men play at walking pace and have little-to-no adventure going forward, seemingly not knowing the next step once they enter the final third. They have been beaten for quality against the top sides in the division and beaten for desire against fellow relegation candidates.
When going behind in a game, there is no ‘Plan B’ for Jaap Stam and the side often loses shape completely as they chase the game. Frustratingly, they have only recovered three points from losing positions.
Reading have flirted with relegation a couple of times since they were relegated back to the Championship in 2013, but this season has a much more toxic feeling considering the expectation for the club to follow up on the heroics of the last campaign.
This toxic feeling has spread amongst large portions of the support and is damaging the relationship between the players, the manager and the fans. This was perhaps epitomised by the events that occurred after Reading’s uninspiring 0-0 with League Two Stevenage in the FA Cup third round at the start of January.
Club captain Paul McShane made a heat of the moment decision in refusing to thank the travelling Reading faithful after the fans made it perfectly clear how they felt the team had performed during the game, as well as in recent weeks.
It was a flashpoint that had threatened to boil over as a result of Reading fans’ growing frustrations. The Royals are winless in eight and have found the net just twice in their previous seven games. Of course, things could change very quickly with a handful of quick wins, but this is certainly a very worrying period for Jaap Stam and his side.
Obviously, there are two options that the Reading board has to choose from – sack Jaap Stam or keep the Dutchman at the helm.
The case for sacking the former Manchester United man is growing. However, with the club allegedly treading the line with Financial Fair Play, you wonder if the club has the leeway to dismiss the Dutchman.
The January transfer window is nearly at the half way point and if the board were looking to bring in a new manager, the time would have been at the start of the month. For someone new to come in now, they would have a tough time learning the squad and acquiring new players in just a two week period.
If Jaap Stam’s men fail to put in a convincing performance in their FA Cup replay against Stevenage on Tuesday, it could spell absolute disaster for Stam.
The club have invested heavily in new signings; breaking the transfer record twice in the last two seasons with the additions of Tiago Ilori and Sone Aluko – neither of whom have justified the substantial price tags that arrived with them as of yet.
Reports are also circulating that Liam Moore’s time at the club could be limited, as interest in the centre half is growing. Given the situation the club currently finds itself in, you can understand why the 24-year-old could be willing to listen to any offers that come his way.
It has become increasingly common in the Championship that clubs can be on the brink of relegation one year and chasing promotion the next; and vice-versa. Jaap Stam may be a victim of his own success and is always quick to say that the club overachieved massively throughout last season.
Lee Johnson and Bristol City are a shining example of why sticking with your manager can sometimes pay dividends, with the club forced to wait until the penultimate game of last season before securing survival – despite having loan striker Tammy Abraham firing in 26 goals.
Johnson’s men are now flying high in the Championship semi finals of the League Cup with several Premier League scalps to their name.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the Reading faithful’s patience for Jaap Stam’s approach and lack of results are wearing thin. The Dutchman desperately needs an upturn in form if he is to fight off more talk of the sack and the first challenge will be getting a convincing win against Stevenage on Tuesday night, albeit, at the second time of asking.