So near and yet so far, but is it any good to watch? Interview
Wednesday, 2nd Aug 2017 09:08 by Clive Whittingham
Three Reading fans for us this season as Simeon Pickup and Dave Harris from The Tilehurst End blog and Jamie Butler who we got off the Twitter look back on last season’s near miss and Jaap Stam’s attritional style.
So near yet so far, assess last season for us?
SP: The third place finish came as a complete surprise to pretty much every Reading fan. With the appointment of Jaap Stam, and the implementation of an Ajax style of play, we were largely expecting a boring mid-table finish as the squad adapted. However, results came in consistently, particularly at home where Reading were able to regularly grind out wins by a one goal margin. On the road, the defence was often exposed, sometimes brutally - as seen in the horror displays at Fulham (5-0), Norwich (7-1) and elsewhere.
Nonetheless, we managed to get into the top six and stay there, thanks to a very pragmatic approach to winning games that sacrificed attractive football for points. That approach was on full display in the Play Offs, where two excellent, dogged displays against Fulham saw us get to Wembley. Similar tactics meant we avoided defeat to Huddersfield Town in 90 minutes, but luck just wasn't on our side that day.
An interesting side point: we were the only team in last season's Play-Offs to have won a game in the Play-Offs in 90 minutes.
JB: Went into the season with modest expectations - the two previous seasons had been our poorest since promotion to this level in 2002 and even the season before that, we choked our spot on the play-offs in the final 10 minutes of the season (thanks Nigel Adkins). We'd appointed Jaap Stam as manager, to be honest he wasn't the choice that perhaps I or a lot of my friends would've wanted - we were hopeful of our ex-captain Phil Parkinson getting the job. Nonetheless, Stam was appointed and after a mixed start, we really hit form in October/November, winning four on the spin without conceding a goal. From then on, expectation levels raised and come January time there was even talk of automatic promotion being within our sights. Felt like we more than deserved our spot in the play offs, although as a Reading fan, it was an all too familiar end to the season.
DH: Finishing third was well above most supporter's pre-season expectations. We expected and anticipated the now proverbial transitional season with a midtable finish as Jaap Stam implemented his very Dutch style of play, and while it sometimes seemed unconvincing over the course of the season it can't be knocked as it achieved 85 points. Having said that, despite winning a respectable ten away games, form away from the Madejski was consistently a worry as there appeared to be little change in set up away when compared to home, with the wide-open spaces there to be counter-attacked at will by the home side. All too often we conceded on the break (for a perfect example of this see the highlights of our televised match at Brighton in February) having given the ball away with up to eight men ahead of the ball in the opposition final third, and we ended up shipping goals at an alarming rate (only Rotherham conceded more). In contrast, at home we were virtually impregnable, losing just twice all season (yeah, we know your lot were one of them!!). It remains to be seen if that changes this season, Stam has shown that he can learn from his mistakes but we know what can sometimes happen when the honeymoon period ends. This season is make or break for the Stam style, and will give a clear indication as to whether it can stand the test of time.
Summer ins and outs and what have you made of the transfer activity so far?
SP: Arrivals have been slow coming in, and Jaap Stam has gone on public record saying how frustrated he is at the prices quoted to Reading by Championship rivals. That said, I'm pretty happy with what's happened so far. Pelle Clement from Ajax's reserves is a bright young attacking talent, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson from Wolves relieves the pressure on Yann Kermorgant up front, and Vito Mannone is an experienced, proven 'keeper to replace the highly thought-of Ali Al-Habsi.
On the flipside, the departures of Ali Al-Habsi and Danny Williams are two big hits to the first team. They were both regular starters, and arguably two of our best players in 2016/17. Plus, at the time of writing, Williams hasn't been replaced, leaving Reading without a box-to-box terrier to help out the more technically astute midfielders. Besides them, deadwood in the forms of Jack Stacey, Niall Keown (his dad's famous, y'know?), Dominic Samuel and Paolo Hurtado has been moved on.
JB: Some will point to the losses of Danny Williams and Ali Al-Habsi but to be honest, I don't expect us to miss either of them this season. Williams was signed as a USA international in 2013 with the goal of getting us back into the PL and he's never really delivered, for me. His best games for us were in the play-offs, when he knew he was playing for a contract elsewhere....central midfield is one of the strongest areas of the squad and Williams going will actually allow us to play with a better rhythm. Despite Al-Habsi being our player of the season for the last two seasons, I actually think replacing him with Vito Mannone is an upgrade. Like most other Reading fans, I don't know much about the young Dutch lad Pelle Clement coming in....and the jury is most definitely out on signing Bodvarsson from Wolves: three goals in 2016/17, two of them coming in August - doesn't exactly get the blood rushing.
DH: Ins - just the three in so far, Vito Mannone in goal after the surprise departure of Ali Al-Habsi, Jon-Dadi Bodvarsson from Wolves for the central presence with Kermorgant retiring at the end of this season, and the versatile Pelle Clement to beef up the creative midfield space.
Any more to come/go?
SP: We're expecting a striker, and Reading have been heavily linked with Huddersfield Town's Nahki Wells - although Reading have been rumoured to be signing every striker under the sun this summer. Bringing in a new frontman - particularly someone as mobile as Wells - would be a big boost to a side that needs to score more goals. Plus, with Yann Kermorgant and Joseph Mendes temporarily injured, more options are a must. Elsewhere, another central midfielder, particularly someone who'll get stuck into a few challenges, wouldn't go amiss. In the defence, another left back to give Jordan Obita some competition would help out.
JB: Famous last words, but I can't see many more going. One of the real strengths about us is we're a team, with few stand out individuals to attract big interest from the vultures of the Premier League. There's been some paper talk linking us with various strikers - "the Reading way" though means that we'll be linked to Oliveira, Wells, Aluko or even Sylla.....and probably end up getting Tony Rougier out of retirement to sign for us. Of those strikers we've been linked with, I'd personally love to see Nelson Oliveira at the club. In Steve Clarke's penultimate match in charge for us in 2015, he absolutely ran us ragged at Forest. He also notched for Norwich in both games against us last season.
DH: We're in desperate need of forward-line strengthening and have been linked to a number of targets, for example Nelson Oliveira and Nahki Wells. We could also do with an energetic destructive midfielder to replace Williams, and maybe a central defender to provide cover for an increasingly injury-prone Paul McShane.
What do you make of the club’s new Chinese owners? (Previously refused permission by the Premier League to buy Hull City)
SP: It's hard to tell, to be honest with you. It took siblings Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li months to finally buy their stake in the club, with the official announcement bizarrely coming mid-way through a Play Off semi-final against Fulham on May 17. That said, they injected money into the club in January in the shape of a £10m loan, so they're clearly dedicated to Reading FC. Since then, they've pledged to invest significantly behind-the-scenes, in things like a new training ground and the appointment of former Chelsea CEO Ron Gourlay, but haven't splashed the cash that much on new players. That's very much in keeping with how things have always been done at Reading, so the fans aren't too unhappy with the frugal approach.
JB: To be 100% honest, ever since Sir John Madejski sold up to Russian investors in 2012, things have changed so much for our football club that I try not to pay too much attention to who our owners are. There's various talk of deals which these Far East investors have tried / are trying to do, with regards to the property surrounding the Madejski Stadium, which is a concern. The one behind the scenes announcement that has impressed me this summer has been the appointment of Ron Gourlay as CEO - he's been in and around the game for a long time and I think he'll help steady the ship "behind the scenes". However, I support Reading FC, not Reading FC Holdings Ltd - so come what may, whether we have owners from China, Canada or Camberley, it doesn't make a difference to me.
DH: So far the vibes from within the club are good. They have spent a hefty whack on infrastructure, for example the pitch has been completely re-laid for the first time in ten years, with new undersoil heating and soil structure which almost certainly wouldn't have happened without their financial input, and work has apparently started in earnest on the new training ground at Bearwood Lakes. There was no way we'd have signed Tiago Ilori in January without their financial input either, and we now appear to have a bit of money for Stam and Brian Tevreden to use to strengthen where they see fit. We're not being held to ransom however.
Jaap Stam has extended his contract, how has that been received by fans?
SP: It's been received with universal joy. Stam had previously been linked with moves to West Ham, Southampton, Leeds United and Ajax, so to see him commit future was terrific news. Much of Reading's success last season has been directly attributed to Stam, who's got impressive tactical acumen and man-management skills. Losing him would have been a huge blow to the club, and probably enough to derail Reading's hopes of promotion this season coming up.
JB: Great news, there was a bit of uncertainty earlier this year with some comments he made as to whether he'd stick around or not. Actually, straight after you lot beat us 1-0 in that dire Thursday night game in January - he spoke to local press about his need to spend money in the transfer window and have stability...a few days later we signed Thiago Ilori from Liverpool, who was injured a fair bit last season. I think he'll be a massive player for us this season.
DH: Very positively. Stam has his faults, particularly when we play the ball around the back line which induces the obvious moans and groans. We have a very British fanbase brought up on a diet of 4-4-2, all-action midfielders and out-and-out wingers so the culture change was a bit of a shock. The transition was similar to that of Brendan Rodgers in 2009, but unlike Rodgers, Stam has produced the results so fans have given him the leeway for that. Stam is clearly an intelligent man, rarely does he get his post-match script wrong, he learnt what the Championship was all about last season, quickly understanding that sometimes a more direct approach is required, and if he keeps on improving and learning at the rate he is then he'll only get better. Hopefully that shows itself on the pitch with a less "loose" set-up, particularly away.
Although you got to the play-off final last year, would it be fair to say the style of play wasn’t particularly fun/entertaining to watch? What’s the general consensus among the fans?
SP: The style of play wasn't particularly fun to watch at all last season. Although Reading did boss the possession stats on a regular basis, that was done more to squeeze the life out of games rather than create an abundance of attacking opportunities and score a lot of goals. In fact, it took Reading until the last day of the season to score four goals in the same game. Jaap Stam never really let his players off the leash and allow them to have fun, even at home against lesser opposition. The priority was always getting points on the board, and it worked - particularly in the Play Off semi-finals when Reading had to put up a dogged rearguard action to see off an easy-on-the-eye Fulham side. The fans were satisfied with that 'points first, fun later' approach, and few would argue that 2016/17 was a particularly entertaining season. In fact, in a poll we ran at the Tilehurst End in June, 56% of fans agreed that the campaign wasn't that exciting.
JB: Very mixed opinions. Early on in the season, it was clear the players weren't used to the system and style of play, there were many games where we were all blue in the face at the lack of urgency or rhythm. I think people tend to remember the end of the season more than the beginning or middle - people I speak with always bring up that 7-1 defeat at Norwich for instance. That match really affected us, after that we were a lot more cautious and I think there was a bit of a hangover from that game even in the play-off final 6/7 weeks later, which goes someway to explaining why we froze at Wembley.
DH: See above - at times it was perceived to be very pragmatic, one-paced. Personally, I take a keen interest in Dutch football, and watched Feyenoord a lot before Sky got their greasy mits over the Eredivisie, so knew pretty much what to expect and have supported patiently as a result, but as I allude to above many of our supporters are happy to watch a ground-based variety of football provided they're entertained. At times, it must be said, the football was frustrating viewing mainly due to the lack of intensity or creativity to the play, particularly when sides sit in and pack the edge of their box. I think with a more dynamic playing staff and a less rigid structure we could begin to introduce more excitement, and Stam has indicated in pre-season that we are working on methods to counteract sides that do that, but we need players that are capable of playing that way effectively. That is no slur on any of the players who were key elements of the squad last season as they are certainly capable and talented players, but at times it was evident that they didn't quite have the required nous to penetrate a packed defence. It's also a pity we don't still have Shane Long who would be absolutely perfect for the line-leading role ***reflects whimsically of good times past***
Was that style simply Stam working with what he had (and therefore likely to change as he makes more signings) or is that how he likes to play?
SP: I'd say it's a halfway house between the two. Long-term, Jaap Stam wants Reading to knock the ball about like Ajax, but he'll recognise as well as everyone else does that Rome wasn't built in a day. He inherited a weak squad that needed not only rebuilding, but also to be taught how to play possession football. With that in mind, I'd argue he introduced a diluted version of his philosophy so it takes root better: a style that's possession-focussed, but isn't that easy on the eye. This season, the style should evolve further into something less pragmatic, more pure and attractive.
JB: That's definitely not Stam working with what he had! I've been watching Reading since 1995 and our best sides have been about effective, direct football. I'm not talking about Wimbledon style long balls, it's been about playing the ball into dangerous areas/channels as quickly as possible. 00-03 under Pardew we had Nicky Forster who would do so much for the team and allow us to play that style. In 05-07 we had an amazingly fine-tuned team who dominated the opposition and played football where it would hurt the opposition. 2010-12 under McDermott, we had Shane Long and the likes of McAnuff, Kebe & Sigurdsson who were all about action and effectiveness. The only time we'd tried to play "possession based football" was during Brendan Rodgers’ disastrous reign in 2009. So, the foundations for Stam's style have never been laid here and he's brought in his style of play, imposed it and recruited well / promoted within - Liam Kelly was a breakthrough star for us last season who's a real ball playing midfielder.
DH: Our transfer market activity a year ago actually reflected the need to bring in personnel who Stam felt could adapt and play within the system, but of course the majority of those players learnt their craft in UK academies and so still required a period of adaptation. I think initially we saw a slightly naive approach from Stam, which blended into a period of learning on the job for the players, which then itself blended into a period of opposition sides knowing what to do to counteract our threats. As I said before, this year will be make or break because he should have learnt how to make us a more cohesive and convincing unit, and the players should have learnt what they need to do to play more effectively.
Low expectations last year that were surpassed, presumably there’s a lot more optimism around how this season will go?
SP: Reading fans are going into a season expecting to be competing at the top end of the table for the first time in quite a while. A year ago, there was little knowledge of just how good this team could be, but we're now much more aware of its potential. Jaap Stam took to senior management much quicker than expected, the new signings settled in very well, and the existing team took to the new philosophy excellently. With all of that in mind, expectations and optimism are high. That said, not too many are predicting automatic promotion - Reading's inability to compete financially with the division's big-hitters is well-documented, and puts a reality check on expectations.
JB: Well the last two times we've lost a play-off final, we've been promoted the next season - so let's see what happens. Thankfully, we've got an easy start to the season with three points guaranteed and I can't wait for a weeks' time when I can tweet "QPRahahahaha" to all my mates who support QPR on Twitter :).
DH: From most people, yes, personally though I'm a tad pessimistic. Just a glance at the division this year suggests there are at least a dozen clubs that would harbour realistic ambitions of winning the division, and you can increase that to probably the whole division who should have realistic expectations of challenging for the playoffs. Once again it will be a long, hard slog. Cliché alert - consistency will be the key. Unpredictable sides will suffer (see Norwich last season), while those sides that maintain a high level of performance and fluency will reap the rewards (see Brighton last season). I personally don't anticipate a playoff challenge at this stage, but then again who knows with us?!
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