Stiff upper lip Royals inching way back
SOME clubs wear their troubles on their sleeve. Sparsely populated team sheets. 8-0 home hidings. Media bans and supporter protests. Their pain is played out in public, their strife aired like a scrapping family on Jeremy Kyle.
So give Reading credit for suffering with dignity. The Royals – who this week replaced Nigel Adkins with Steve Clarke – are the Championship’s quiet strugglers.
Crippled by the false promises of former owner Anton Zingarevich, they evaded administration only by a whisker in the summer. But for the shotgun sale of Adam Le Fondre to Cardiff, the coffers truly would have run dry.
And whilst the Berkshire club now have new Thai owners and an element of stability, the legacy of Zingarevich and his plastic empire continues to cast a shadow.
Supposedly a billionaire, the 29-year-old Russian was nothing more than a rich man’s son dependent on handouts. His old man wasted little time in recognising football as a loss-making exercise and swiftly pulled the plug.
At best, Zingarevich jnr was naïve; a young man who believed a ruthless Russian oligarch would put relatives before roubles. At worst, he was brazen chancer who put the cart before the horse.
Either way, his only legacy was a £21m debt mountain and a handful of monster Premier League contracts that the club could never afford.
Striker Pavel Pogrebnyak is Reading’s own Nikola Zigic, a one-man drain on resources whose £30,000-a-week salary accounts for a hefty percentage of the annual wage bill. Dutch winger/loose cannon Royston Drenthe – currently out on loan at Sheffield Wednesday – isn’t far behind. He even told the local paper that Reading could “afford four new players” were he wiped off the roster.
Those who could be released this summer were hastened out of the door. A transfer embargo has been avoided this season, but with parachute payments dwindling and Financial Fair Play limiting losses to £6m next year, things could get worse before they get better.
Negotiations have not been opened with players out of contract in the summer. Nick Hammond, the Royals’ director of football, has warned fans to expect a “quiet January”. He also spoke of focussing on youth and a period of “flushing through” existing deals. This is austerity, Championship style.
Financially, it is a model course of action. Too many clubs drop out of the Premier League and gamble the family silver on bouncing back, usually succeeding only in piling debt upon debt.
Reading and their new owners – though worryingly silent – have moved to head any financial problems off at the pass, and that must be applauded.
But for supporters who just three years ago celebrated promotion and dreamed of being the next Man City, it is gut-wrenchingly disappointing.
For Clarke, too, it will be hard work. The pathologically positive Adkins tried his best to put a brave face on things, but last week’s 6-1 drubbing at Birmingham showed even his perma-grin couldn’t overcome an inherent lack of quality.
Clarke, for all his bullish talk of being good enough to go up, will also know that the coming months represent the biggest test of his fledgling managerial career. He is renowned as a coach and will need everything in his armoury to get the best out of a thin and demoralised squad.
But we should wish him and Reading luck. It may take a long time. But having been shafted to the point of extinction by Zingarevich, they are at least inching their way back.