10th February 2009 #1
Reading show theres life after relegation
Reading boss Steve Coppell never really sounds particularly happy or upset about anything - and his emotional equalibrium was intact as he sat before the press following his team's goalless draw against Preston on Saturday.
Not many smiles and nothing really resembling a frown, although he did become slightly animated as he laid into the concept of the transfer window and demonstrated a wit drier than a desert rose.
Asked whether he would go anywhere given his team now don't have a game until 21 February, Coppell replied: "Croydon."
I laughed, it was a cracking reply, but in all seriousness it probably isn't a bad time for the Royals to take some time off as they prepare for the big push for an instant return to the Premier League.
They might be second in the Championship table but they haven't scored in four games (their victory over Wolves came courtesy of an own goal) and struggled to break down a Preston side that arrived at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday and promptly parked a bus in front of goal.
You've got to hand it to Reading, though, they are not making a bad fist of attempting to bounce straight back to the land of untold riches (or gluttony, depending on your perspective).
The Championship - especially the lower reaches - are littered with 'big' clubs who have dropped out of the Premier League and failed to reappear.
But within days of Reading's relegation - the Royals only went down on goal difference at the end of their second season in the top flight - director of football Nick Hammond was discussing the path back with his chairman John Majedski.
Pivotal to their plans was retaining the services of Coppell, which wasn't necessarily going to be easy.
"Relegation is failure so there had to be a very quick period of reflection," said Hammond, a former Reading goalkeeper who started as an apprentice at Arsenal.
"But I sat down with the chairman and we decided Steve was the most qualified and the best candidate to get us back in the Premier League, although he had been fairly clear that if we got relegated he would walk away."
How refreshing and unusual that a club should want their manager to remain following relegation, rather than dispense with his services, as is often the case. The board went to work - as did the club's fans, who played a major part in persuading the 53-year to stay put.
Next on Reading's list of priorities in May of 2008 was the squad.
There are financial structures in place at the club Hammond and Coppell are left alone to buy and sell.
Last summer they looked at who was out of contract - whether to renew or reduce the wage bill - and quickly held discussions with those players under contract that they were desperate to keep.
From studying the experiences of other clubs who had been in a similar position, the Royals understood they would be vulnerable - and they also realised that the loss of four or five key players would have ripped the heart out of their squad.
Hammond had structured the contracts so that they were reduced in the event of relegation. But he had also ensured that the key bankable assets were on long-term deals, thus offering the club a measure of protection. "It put us in a position where, in the instance of Dave Kitson for example, we could negotiate a good transfer fee that allowed us to do things elsewhere," added Hammond of the striker who was sold to Stoke for £5.5m.
The likes of Stephen Hunt, James Harper and Kevin Doyle remained so the club succeeded in keeping the key figures on board.
"I think we lost a dozen professionals last summer but we felt that the core of the squad had remained strong," added Hammond.
A conscious decision was made to retain a Premier League feel in and around the squad even if the loss of their top-flight status necessitated unwanted changes elsewhere.
"In terms of commercial and marketing there is not as much to sell in the Championship but we felt it was important to maintain a Premier League standard for the players that remained and were brought in," said Hammond.
Yet in trying to switch from a relegation to a promotion campaign in a matter of months, the club recognised that other changes had to take place.
"Relegation means a need to freshen things up," said Hammond, who strikes me as a very switched-on individual - so much so it was strongly rumoured that Arsenal wanted him after David Dein left the club.
"One of the words we use more than anything is balance and we had to try to find that, between keeping our best players but freshening the team," he said.
Players such as Noel Hunt and Chris Armstrong have impressed after arriving in the summer while several academy graduates who spent last season out on loan have started to impact on the first team this season.
The impressive Alex Pearce was a solid presence in the centre of defence against Preston and looks a real prospect, while James Henry, Julian Kelly and Jem Karacan have played first-team football this season.
Reading have virtually a whole team of young players on loan and gaining first-team experience at various Football League clubs this season - and it hints at the planning, continuity and foresight that have in part helped to shape their push for promotion this season.
Hammond himself had been at the club for 12 years and Coppell for five. The spine of team that won promotion - Marcus Hahnemann, Ivar Ingimarsson, James Harper and Kevin Doyle - is still there.
So it is no surprise when Hammond says: "Continuity at Reading has been the backbone of success over the last 10-15 years."
I picked up on a genuine sense of pride when Hammond stressed that the Royals are a community-based club, hugely keen to develop a young and growing fanbase. They have a large catchment area and believe that they can continue to grow without spending recklessly on an all-out gamble on promotion. In any event, Madejski has made it clear he wants Reading to be able to stand on its own two feet when he does leave the club and would not sanction desperate forays into the transfer market.
The last time Reading entertained North End it was late Feburary 2006 and there was a feeling of triumphalism around the ground. Promotion was increasingly inevitable - they won the division with a record 106 points - and the atmosphere was rocking, the ground sold out.
There were plenty of spaces on Saturday and everything felt a little flat. Hammond is no fool and is quick to point out that this time around the club have an awful lot of work to do if they are to win promotion.
I cannot blame North End for adopting a defensive strategy - and manager Alan Irvine was well pleased with his team's disciplined display - but the onus is on Reading to respond positively to just such a tactic.
Coppell, himself, was quick to acknowledge that he might have to look at the way his team approaches home games from now on.
But despite their recent goal drought I wouldn't be surprised if the end of the season brought with it an outcome that forced even Coppell to smile.
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