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THE SUMMER SO FAR……….

Well, a new season of ‘Reading Football Club’ has started on a seemingly positive note so in time honoured tradition, here is that segment that nearly always pops up, and for which I shall adopt a husky voice………

‘PREVIOUSLY, ON READING FOOTBALL CLUB – THE SERIES…..’

I thought I would look at what I think are three key things that have developed since last season.

The season ended on pretty much a flat note, in keeping with what had gone on in the weeks (and months?) immediately prior to it. A team that seemed to be drifting, with neither drive nor direction, a seeming inability to keep a lead, or a clean sheet for that matter. Still there was the in-fighting among the fans, was Brian the right man for the job? Should he be given more time, and money to create his own team? For the record, I have never bought into that argument. A GOOD manager should be able to work, motivate and develop any squad he has. We went nowhere. (Don’t believe me? Check out Colin’s effect on Rotherham, as much as I don’t like him!!!). I guess the only surprise was, when the axe did fall, it was a few weeks into the summer. And so we jumped on the managerial merry-go-round once again. One of the notable changes had happened before the end of the season with Director of Football Nick Hammond off to pastures new (although don’t scout midfielders Nick, Tony doesn’t have much use for them!) The largely unknown Brian Tevreden moving into the hot seat, with a very sharp intake of breath from the Royals faithful.

Where were we? Ah yes, on the merry-go-round. Now we have all been down this road before, some of us will remember as far back as the Bernd Schuster talk, some even further than that. We all sit there and play the waiting game, growing ever more anxious as the teams around us (with managers!) make signings while it appears that we are just treading water. Rumours were already swirling around the club in the days/hours leading up to the sacking that the club had been talking to Jaap Stam. I am guessing many of us were wearing the same expression that Wolves fans now have about Walter Zenga. (Come on, admit it, we knew who he was but who had he managed??). It actually took a while to get there, but eventually Jaap was appointed. Who can forget that press conference, eh?? SJM picking completely the wrong moment to outline his feelings (apparently Paloma Faith shares Jaap’s angst). So now we have a new manager and already we have seen a number of signings coming in, quite a few of whom have raised eyebrows, which leads me on to my next point.

We can never know how a transfer that looks good on paper is going to pan out (Matej Vydra anyone??), but the summer has borne fruition with the influx of a number of potentially good players, and we are led to believe there are still more to come. However, there are three transfers that stand out for me, and I have to say (dons flak jacket) that at least two of them I am not sure would have happened under BMc. Roy Beerens. I remember seeing a tweet going ‘I thought we weren’t going to sign another Dutchman!’, well, I think it is nice to see that we shot in and got, what seems, a really good player as an out of the blue opportunity. Whilst Stuttgart are in Bundesliga 2, they have been a consistent Bundesliga 1 side, so it was a bit of a coup to get him once his transfer there collapsed. The two that really spring to mind though are John Swift and Yakou Meite. These are both extremely highly rated young players who both chose the fields of Berkshire over potentially more lucrative opportunities (especially in Meite’s case). Can you really, in your heart, see Brian enticing players like this to our club? Really? Stam has brought his own thoughts on management to the club, but he has also brought his name, a name that may at least get his call to a player’s agent answered. I just couldn’t always see that happening with Brian. Sorry!

The final point is probably the most important. Ownership. We have all seen over the last few seasons that there have been certain question marks over the Thai owners; who is in charge? How long does it take to make a decision? Why is Jacob Smith Klein in Lady Sasima’s music video? There was also the loud silence emanating from them over the second half of the season (see I did an oxymoron there!). Much of the running of the club seemed to fall to Pairoj Piemsongsant, but during the close season there seems to have been a shift with Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth taking a much more hands on role with the club (seriously, how cool is it having an owner called ‘Tiger’?? Hull City so missed a trick there…..). Even though he is not supposedly the majority shareholder (source: Get Reading 9 May 2016 lists Narin Niruttinanon as that) he has been the face of the club over the summer, overseeing the managerial appointment and sanctioning the transfers. I say this is the most important change, because I do wonder if the other two things would have occurred without this; is finally having some clarity of ownership going to provide drive, focus and impetus going forward?

These are just my ramblings, let me know yours………

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2016/17 Season preview 

We start the 2016/17 season with an air of enthusiasm and energy that Stam has brought with his appointment. Contrast this with the mood that surrounded the club at the end of last season and it’s easy to see why some people are already hailing our new manager as our saviour. Hopefully this will be the case, but I think it’s going to be an extremely difficult first job for him. 

 
For the last 3 years we have struggled to score goals and to stop conceding soft ones. This is something Jaap will want to improve immediately, but selling Aaron Tshibola will not have helped him. I don’t think we’ve realised the full impact of him leaving us for Villa. I can’t see any of the players we’ve signed being able to replace his calm and composed head in midfield. Joey Van Der Berg looks like a decent player but totally different to Tshibola. And from his past disciplinary record it’s not unfair to assume he might miss a few games this season. 

 
On a positive note we’ve signed some decent creative midfielders, something we’ve lacked for a few years. Beerens has the potential to be a key player this season. Two footed and understands the formation that we will be using. Swift has the added advantage of one full season of Championship experience with Brentford. 7 goals in 28 games isn’t a bad return. His goal against Bournemouth in the recent friendly showed he could be a midfielder who arrives late in the box. Yet another area where we’ve looked weak for years. Yakou Meite will need to be handled with care, definite potential but let’s not build him up too much. He’s still very inexperienced and needs time to develop into the adult game. I would put Liam Kelly in the same bracket, but I hope we persist as he’s technically very good and could solve our set piece issues. So I think we have improved our midfield in an attacking sense. 

 
Towards the end of last season Rakels and Kermorgrant showed some promising signs of linking up nicely. But it’s very surprising we haven’t signed any strikers apart from Joseph Mendes. Even he is a converted winger who only really hit any form for Le Havre in the last part of the 2016 season. Unfortunately he’s also now injured. Samuel has joined him in the Physio’s room after a relatively successful loan spell at Gillingham. Going into a season with two fit strikers is very risky, even playing 4-3-3. This is an area that urgently needs reinforcements if we want to improve on last year.

 
I can’t be very positive about our defence either. At the time of writing this article we have signed one defender, Danzell Gravenberch, from a second division Dutch team. With no experienced players to cover for any injuries, suspensions or lack of form, it’s an area of major concern. Gunter, Obita and Cooper all had a poor season last year. The fact Joey Van Der Berg was tried at centre half instead of Jake shows us that Jaap isn’t sure on him this season. Personally I rate Cooper but he needs to show that he has learnt from his basic mistakes. So I’m very concerned about our lack of defensive signings. This isn’t helped by the fact that our No.1 goalie is far from ‘Safe Hands’ despite last years deserved Player of The Season award. The new back up, Jaakkola, is an unknown quantity, so we will have to wait and see if the South African league is the new hotbed of keepers. 

 
I’m a bit worried that some of the fans will struggle to adapt to Stam’s new style if we don’t get a half decent start. I wouldn’t expect to see much of the conventional crossing the ball. Instead I expect far more intricate moving of the ball, waiting for lapses from the opposition. Stay patient with the team and manager. He’s learning like the team will be. 

 
I think we can slightly improve on last season if we are lucky with injuries and have a decent last few weeks in the window. As long as I see a clear plan and some improvement I will be content. I’m saying we will finish 13th but hope I’m wrong and we trounce the league. 

Paul Mann 

Let us know if you if agree or disagree with my thoughts or prediction via the comments section below or via @ElmParkRoyals

Mental Fragility 

2015/16 came with much promise and hope, yet was punctured by instability, in-fighting and inglorious failure. When you look back, it’s a wonder we managed to stay afloat at all, such was the turmoil – a raft of new (loan) players, a manager rolling the dice and finding himself out of work, the return of a false prophet – far too many metaphors to chuck at the whole shooting match!

Now we get down to business once more, but the more things change the more they stay the same. Jaap’s work on the team will not only be devoted to the ball and the feet. What is probably just as important, possibly more, is the belief that has been eroded from the club, not just last season but for a few seasons hence. All of which he knows nothing of and would only have been informed of briefly.

We saw and felt the unit thrive and fall under Clarke, under who we played undoubtedly our best football of many a year, but for it all to fall apart after the Fulham away fixture where a two goal lead was squandered. Subsequently we went off the rails in dramatic style. Players visibly lost all confidence, simple passes wandered off the pitch, crossing drifted into woeful areas, penalties and simple chances were unable to be finished. A doughnut of a midfield with a defence made of jelly. It was as awful as that awful food combo sounds.

The new coaching team will have one hell of a task not only to deploy a 4-3-3 system that has rarely been successful here, but to instil into the players that they can be winners, that they have the ability to succeed and banish the previous failures away. Equate it to ‘normal life’ where you don’t feel at your best, you’re downtrodden and low; someone telling you you’re great, the best, wonderful, isn’t enough. You’ve got to earn that feeling that can’t be handed to you. The management will have to ‘manage’ all the battered egos, the young who have much to learn, the new signings who need to be made comfortable and to feel at home.  All in all, it’s a very tough ask for a manager cutting his teeth in one of the most demanding leagues in Europe. A task we need to be very mindful of during the formative weeks and months – I can almost guarantee we won’t hit the ground running. Even if we do, it may only take a result like the one at Craven Cottage to bring us back down to earth with a resounding crash. Leaders within the team need to be found. Partnerships are required all over the pitch. Bonds, like we have seen in the past with Gunter and McCleary, are required to grow. A group willing to die for each other, figuratively speaking, of course.

If we look at the opposite end of the spectrum, a team like Leicester winning the whole shebang was not won purely on the field. Their mental strength week after week was proven. Claudio Ranieri batted every win away, saying it was not a foregone conclusion, but internally, he praised his players so highly that they couldn’t help but ride the wave all the way to the title. Take another example in Wales (excuse my nationalistic pride for a minute!) A couple of star players aside, their obvious togetherness and spirit drove them to a semi-final. In modern parlance, both those examples were “totally on it”. They had the will to win embroidered into the fabric of their teams. And that’s what we’re missing – a team, in the proper sense of the word. We had individuals masquerading as a unit last season. Togetherness was alluded to – “a great set of lads” that enjoyed each others company, yet we had the instance of Williams and McShane squaring up in a game we were not even losing at the time.

Hark back to the revered 106 team, their spirit shone through in a system that was simple yet impossible to stop. The opposition had lost before even venturing onto the field. Fast forward to our team ten years later – disjointed,imbalanced, staccato, rudderless. The fans felt the players’ own frustrations as time after time simple goals were conceded; fingers were duly pointed. As soon as we went a goal down, that was pretty much game over. We didn’t have the capacity as a group to turn it around.

Less than a week away before the season kicks off again, our level of excitement is peaking with new kits being released and rumours of stellar signings, but consider this a word of warning -Jaap, the staff and the new team is one that is still forming and one whose final XI is very much a work in progress, not just with the ball at their feet but the grey in between. The ghosts of previous failures need to be exorcised. We need time, patience and of course, our support.

 
Neill Rees 

Let us know what you thought of this article via the comments section below or @ElmParkRoyals