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In the eye of the beholder - Opposition Profile
Wednesday, 2nd Aug 2017 10:51 by Clive Whittingham

You wouldn’t have gone in your back garden to watch Reading’s class of 2016/17 but it came within a penalty shoot-out of promotion – can Dutchman Jaap Stam take them one step further this year?

Keep lulling

As the 2016/17 Championship trundled along and the cold Tuesday nights in Barnsley of the winter became the cold Tuesday nights in Barnsley of the spring the picture across the division started to take shape.

Newcastle and Brighton would be going up automatically, Rotherham would be going down and likely taking Blackburn with them. Sheffield Wednesday added Sam Winnall and Jordan Rhodes to a squad already sporting Fernando Forestieri and Steven Fletcher, Fulham started to motor with Tom Cairney pulling the strings, Garry Monk continued to look like the man to finally awaken the Champions of Europe and Huddersfield went through the gears impressively. They would almost certainly be the play-off four, it was just a matter of waiting for Reading to fall away.

Six months later the division was still waiting as the Royals walked out at Wembley for the play-off final. Fulham, perhaps not too surprisingly for a team that, for all its attacking flair, still had its fortunes closely wedded to the form of the ever-expanding Chris Martin, came up short. Leeds rewarded Monk for his resurrection by pissing around with his contract option – predictably as speculation over his future went one way their form went the other to the point where a late season defeat at lowly Burton took them out of the play-off picture altogether. Sheff Wed couldn’t get their myriad of attacking options in the team and functioning together effectively – Rhodes was benched and Winnall didn’t even make the squad when they scraped an Easter win at QPR. Huddersfield remained brilliant and will play Premier League football this season as a result but they only got there by virtue of a penalty shoot-out win in the final, against Reading, at Wembley.

In the end, it wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for Reading to be taking their seat at the top table again in 2017/18. The logic around their anticipated demise was sound, but it never came to pass.

They had by far the weakest attacking options of the promotion chasers – relying almost exclusively on lone striker Yann Kermorgant who, at 35, was coming off the back of a 2015/16 season in which he’d scored just four times and is still best remembered for chipping a crucial Leicester City play-off semi-final penalty straight into the keeper’s bread basket. Other than the veteran Frenchman Reading’s next three top scorers finished with nine, eight and six.

More importantly than that, anybody who had the misfortune to watch Reading for any length of time last season could well be forgiven for thinking they were a bit shit. I mean, QPR were a lot shit last season and they took four points off the Royals no problem at all – including a 1-0 win at the Madejski Stadium where they completely outplayed the home team from start to finish. An impressive run of results through the first half of the season would surely subside if they kept playing the same way.

And finally, there was the theory that they’d been figured out. Clubs had been caught cold at first by Jaap Stam’s odd preferred style of play which seemed to be based around a group of defenders knocking the ball around between themselves in their own half until time ran down and a draw was called, or taking advantage of any opponent bored into a stupefied coma by this monotonous drudgery by quickly moving it forwards for Kermorgant to score while they were asleep/not looking/thinking about other things. QPR outplayed them and won 1-0 (a first home defeat of the season), Norwich beat them 7-1, Fulham beat them 5-0, Brentford and Newcastle helped themselves to a 4-1 each. This couldn’t last. They’d been found out.

But no. As others fell away, so Reading came even stronger still. Liam Kelly became a key man in midfield. They won seven of their last nine, including successes to nil against rivals Sheff Wed and Leeds. They won 3-1 at Villa and then dumped Fulham out in the semi-finals of the play-offs. Kermorgant scored more goals (18) in a single season than he’d ever managed before in English football. They were the outcome of a penalty shoot-out away from a promotion nobody, but nobody, had even thought to mention as a slight possibility the previous summer.

Reading had looked a club in the doldrums after exiting the Premier League with QPR in 2012/13. While the club has a superb youth set up, there’d been a talent drain at senior level. Parachute payments had come to an end. The club had drifted through a period of dodgy foreign ownership after years of stability under John Madejski. Crowds were down at one of English football’s least visitable venues and the team was kicking around the lower, middle bit of a distinctly mediocre Championship. You could get 20s and 30s on Reading winning the league – even as a former Premier League club. For Jaap Stam, in his first full managerial job, to get them as far and as close as he did is worthy of high praise.

Effective attractiveness

But here’s the thing. Would you have wanted to watch them all last season? Me neither.

The style of play was unpalatable even for a minority of Reading fans despite the success. In the play-off semi-final at Fulham they set their stall out nice and early – they were going to use the lack of an away goals rule to try and kill the first leg off completely as a 0-0. The time wasting began in the first minute and players were being warned about taking up to a minute to get every single free kick, goal kick and corner away by halfway through the first half. It was, as a spectacle, second only to the final itself, which went through 120 scoreless minutes at Wembley which I’d frankly rather fight an aggressive form of rectal cancer than have to sit through again.

We’ll find out this season whether that was Stam simply working with what he had very effectively, or if that’s how he envisages his team playing in an ideal scenario. Reading are now owned by Chinese business brother and sister Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li so perhaps there’ll be money to spend, perhaps a better attack will be acquired, perhaps some of the excellent young boys from the academy will step up, perhaps the shackles will come off, perhaps I’ll stop putting old episodes of Air Crash Investigation on whenever their games are televised. Incidentally, the first in this season’s series of ‘Are the Football League Deliberately and Dangerously Incompetent or Just Accidently Fucking Useless’, saw the Reading owners waved through the wholly inadequate “fit and proper owner” test by Shaun Harvey and his merry band of clueless fucktards just eight months after the Premier League (even the Premier League for goodness sake) had blocked their attempt to buy Hull City because they are, paraphrasing, “well dodge”.

Their success opened up a philosophical footballing debate on the LFW message board about where exactly style of play and entertainment value figure in your list of priorities as a paying punter. Would you rather lose a thriller 4-3 or win a stinker 1-0 seems like a daft question. But when you consider just what a damp, expensive, soul-destroying squib the engorged, smug, self-important Premier League can be for little clubs like ours winning promotion, asking whether you’d rather play boring football all season, finish third, grind your way through three hideous play-off matches and then lose the final on penalties , or throw a bit of caution to the wind and come up short in seventh after a fun, entertaining season full of goals and incident is a reasonable debate to have.

QPR’s own version of this is skewed slightly by the glorious experience of winning a Wembley final with a goal in the last minute while playing with ten men. The best day of many of our lives, one not to be swapped for anything in the world. But QPR, like Reading, were horrific to watch throughout the 2013/14 season. They crawled over the line through a dire second half of the season, they too deliberately killed the first leg of the play-off at Wigan, and all while nursing the biggest wage bill the division had ever seen. Back in the Premier League they spunked all the cash (again) and embarrassed themselves (again) in a season that ended in relegation (again). Zamora goal not withstanding, you couldn’t help but wonder whether freezing our way through that 0-0 at Watford where we played with four defenders, six midfielders and no strikers was really worth it after all.

But then who says football has to be played one way? Who says effective football has to be unattractive, or attractive football ineffective? Who defines what is attractive or not anyway? It’s in the eye of the beholder surely?

When Brendan Rodgers (fresh from failing as Reading boss coincidentally) went to Swansea City and got them promoted playing a style that would regularly see them complete 30-40 passes at a time the media couldn’t get enough of them. They called them Swansea-lona. The smugness of Rodgers, the holier than thou attitude of the commentators, the pointing and laughing at Wolves on the day when Swansea knocked the ball around on the halfway line 33 times until Steven Ward couldn’t stand it any more and came charging forwards enabling them to knock one ball into the space he’d left and then another into the area for the opening goal was unbearable. Frankly, I found them about as interesting to watch as a three-day insurance seminar in Newcastle-Under-Lyme.

Then there was Leicester winning the Premier League by conceding possession altogether, adopting deep lying positions and springing unashamedly direct, lightning fast counter attacks. I found them exhilarating, and not just because of the narrative that was growing up around an unprecedented league title upset, actually thrilling to watch. I couldn’t watch a Sam Allardyce team, but then I did used to quite enjoy watching the old Wimbledon team rough up the bigger clubs.

I doubt any of us would want to pay £500-600 a season to watch a Tony Pulis side. But would we take a situation like Stoke where Pulis got us promoted, kept us up, consolidated us and built a solid platform from which the club could move forward into a better style of football with more ambitious signings? QPR skipped straight to the Mark Hughes bit of course, bringing in their own versions of Bojan and Afellay in the archetypal run-before-you-can-walk scenario. A doomed approach best summed up by Hughes picking a dreamy two-man central midfield of Ale Faurlin and Esteban Granero for a home game against West Ham where Allardyce sent a central three of Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble and Mo Diame out as a sort of human steamroller.

There are 11 teams ahead of Reading in the pre-season title odds this season – I struggle to recall a losing play-off finalist from the season before being ranked so low. In theory they should slot in just behind the three relegated sides in the pricing and yet Birmingham, Norwich and Wolves are among the shorter priced teams. While we wait to see if they’ve been hideously underestimated once more, and if Stam (ink fresh on a two year contract) intends to run his footballing equivalent of the speaking clock for another season, you can join in the (ultimately pointless) theorising on effective v attractive in the message board thread linked above, or the comments section below.

Well, it surely beats work. Or watching Reading.

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