Reading have definitely endured a tough couple of years to say the least. From the ill-fated ownership of Anton Zingarevich who sent the club hurtling into debt and needing to sell players just to pay an outstanding tax bill, to an injury crisis at the start of last season. Zingarevich’s reign all started well enough, he talked a good game and his ambition was infectious. Zingarevich oversaw Reading’s return to the Premier League and this is where the real problems began. A number of signings on large wages followed, most notably the reported £50k a week Pavel Pogrebnyak was reeling in on a 4 year deal.
Once Reading were relegated following a tough season where they only recorded 28 points, the spending continued. American international Danny Williams, veteran Wayne Bridge, and the infamous character of Royston Drenthe. By this time, Nigel Adkins was at the helm at the Madejski and oversaw the Royals battle to a 7th place finish leading to an ill-timed pitch invasion broadcasted live to the nation – but we won’t talk about that.
I, for one, think Adkins never had the backing he needed and was given a tough assignment turning an injury-ridden group into a team that matched the expectations of the fans and the board. Sure enough, Adkins was axed around Christmas after a 6-1 drubbing by Birmingham (again, no need to talk about that) and in came Steve Clarke. Clarke brought a huge experience within the game; he was a former assistant to José Mourinho and had also worked at Liverpool, Newcastle, and West Ham. In the same season that Reading were relegated from the Premier League, Clarke guided West Brom to their best ever Premier League finish of 8th and it was safe to say that the two parties couldn’t have seemed further apart.
When Steve Clarke did join the Royals in December 2014, he injected some belief into a group of players that at times looked lost or disinterested during parts of the season. League form overall did not improve with home form particularly suffering with Reading only scoring 6 home league goals in 2015. However, Reading did go on a magical cup run and found themselves at Wembley in a FA Cup Semi-Final for the first time in 88 years. There was something about a small Chilean and a despairing Aussie lunge here, I can’t seem to recall as it happens.
Now, why might Reading be a whole different animal this coming season? Well, for the first time it what feels like an eternity; Reading have that much sought after combination of a manager with experience and know-how and shiny new owners that love energy drinks and signing footballers. The Royals have added the likes of Stephen Quinn, Paul McShane, Orlando Sá, Ali Al-Habsi, and under 21 England international Jonathan Bond with more signatures promised by the management at the club.
If you consider that Reading nearly went a year without a single signing not so long ago, it is tough not to be enthusiastic not only about the amount of signings, but also the calibre of the individuals making their way to the Royal County. Quinn and McShane in particular expressed their excitement after talking to Clarke stating that they had bought into the way Clarke wants to do things and were impressed by his commitment in coming to visit them.
This pre-season has been crucial for Clarke as it is the key time for any manager that wishes to inject their own style and flavour to a club. A great deal of the club’s backroom and playing staff departed including the talismanic fan-favourite Sal Bibbo – this was particularly hard to take as Queensley the Lion somehow managed to avoid Clarke’s cull.
Clarke is a man who carries a certain aura about him. He is quiet, and measured in his words but also very honest in post-match interviews and has no problem telling players if he feels they aren’t pulling their weight. A definite change from the relentless positivity of Nigel Adkins. He is also incredibly knowledgeable about the game and has worked with some the very best. Clarke has sat on the sidelines of management for a very long time, quietly learning and waiting for right moment to take the helm at a club. He was a victim of his own success at West Brom – but now, at Reading, he has a chance to take on a whole different challenge and it is one that many are sure he is up for.
With Clarke, there is definitely something different about Reading this season. The players are more confident, the fans are more enthusiastic, the manager level-headed and determined to fulfill his vision for the club. Reading have an edge that they have lacked for quite a while, they have the skull of a carabao on the home kit for starters. It is hard not to be optimistic if you are a Reading fan this season and with the season just over a week away – it is almost time to see if Clarke’s methods live up to the optimism of the Reading faithful.
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