By Adam Franc
Historically us loyal Royals have not had much fun watching Reading play Portsmouth, particularly away at Fratton Park where we haven’t won since 1997. But the fixture always seems to throw up some interesting matches: both sets of fans will never forget Pompey’s extraordinary 7-4 win during our last season in the top-flight, albeit for very different reasons.
Last season though we finally got the upper hand (slightly anyway), with a point on the road during our slow start to the campaign and then three more at home, as part of our eight match winning run which catapulted us into the playoffs.
Having beaten league favourites Leicester on their home turf at the weekend in our first away game of the new season, some fans will be expecting another three points, but I’ve got a feeling that it won’t be that easy.
Last season ended in disappointment for the Royals faithful, after losing to Swansea in the playoff final at Wembley. The day though was still tinged with pride, as having gone 3-0 down in the first half, the team showed some fight and got back to 3-2, and were the width of a post and Gary Monk’s toe away from completing the comeback, and possibly returning to the top flight.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, but the result did little to detract from what had been a brilliant campaign for Reading, especially as few people had tipped us to achieve anything but mid-table mediocrity at the beginning of the year.
Heading into this season then, most fans were just hoping that Brian McDermott could ward off the vultures and keep the side together, and thus avoid the hangover that so often goes with being beaten playoff finalists. So far the team has remained largely intact but there have been two key departures that many fear could scupper our push for promotion.
Shane Long’s move to West Brom was not unexpected, as he showed last season that he was a Premiership quality striker, and his 25 goals were a huge factor in our run to the playoffs and the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. He had been hotly tracked during the January transfer window and as the final whistle blew at Wembley back in May, you could tell by the look on his face that he would not be able to stay with the club should a top flight outfit come knocking.
Slightly more surprising was the departure of our rock at the back and skipper Matt Mills, who left for Championship rivals Leicester City. Again there had been rumours flying around for months but with several Premier League sides showing an interest, many expected him to move upwards not sideways, even though it is his home town club.
Both players have left holes in key positions which the club have yet to fully fill, and once again the critics are writing us off. Yet we have lost key players every year since our relegation in 2008, and yet every year someone has stepped up and we have still been competitive and pushed for promotion.
It will undoubtedly be tough again this year, with the Championship certainly not getting any easier, but with a strong manager in Brian McDermott who knows how to get the best out of the players he has, most Royals fans are optimistic that we will once again be challenging at the top end of the league.
Whether we can take that challenge to the next level will depend on how much money McDermott gets to strengthen the squad. There should be plenty in the bank, with Mills and Long fetching over £12million between them, yet the generally frugal policy of the club and chairman John Madejski could mean that we once again come up short.
Bongani KHUMALO – Reading’s only addition so far this summer has been the South African international centre back, who joins the club on a season-long loan from Spurs. The 24-year-old has yet to play a competitive match for his parent club since signing for £1.7million back in January, yet he has come to England with a big reputation following strong performances for his country at last summer’s World Cup. Mills’ shoes will be tough ones to fill but Khumalo has looked solid so far and the partnership he forms with young Alex Pearce will be crucial.
Jimmy KEBE – The mercurial Malian winger is capable of the ridiculous and the sublime in equal measure, yet when he’s up for it he is capable of unlocking defences and tearing teams apart singlehandedly. Reading looked a weaker side when he spent time on the sidelines last term, and McDermott will be hoping he stays fit so that his quick feet can terrorise teams all season long. Watch out for him down both flanks as he and newly appointed skipper Jobi McAnuff love nothing more than to switch sides in order to confuse their markers.
Noel HUNT – The departure of Long means that the task of leading the Royals’ front line now falls on ‘the other Hunt brother’, and Noel has shown in spurts that he is capable of doing so. He bagged some important goals for us last season, including in the playoff final, yet fitness has always been the issue with him. If he stays healthy he will get plenty of service from our creative midfield, if not we may be short of firepower. He could well be aided though by the emergence of Mathieu Manset aka ‘the Beast’ who signed from Hereford back in January. There could be plenty of goals in the little and large combination.
For 85 minutes of the opening weekend of the season, it looked like Reading would get off to yet another slow start: 2-0 down at home to a feisty Millwall side and with nothing going our way. But one thing that can never be underestimated is the Royals’ fighting spirit, which was evident on numerous occasions last year. All it needed was one spark, which duly came in the form of a ferocious strike from ‘the Beast’. Minutes later Manset bagged his second with a powerful header and just like that we had snatched a point and the whole atmosphere changed.
You could visibly see the confidence flow back into the side and that confidence carried over into our trip to Leicester. Sven’s big spenders are champions elect according to many pundits (not so sure myself) so to go to the King Power stadium and comfortably win 2-0 was a huge result. A goal for Hunt, a beautiful late strike from Hal Rosbon-Kanu and an impressive clean sheet against a promotion rival will hopefully set us up nicely for the rest of the season.
Nevertheless a trip to Fratton Park is always tough and I don’t see this being any exception. Pompey may not have had the greatest start but I expect a reaction from the defeat to Brighton. As much as I’d love to say we’ll take three points, I can see it being a point a piece. 1-1 I’m going for…URZZZZZZZ!