Sunday 20 April ~
"It's going to go all the way," said a doleful Steve Coppell after Reading's 2-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime. This was before Bolton's surprise win at Middlesbrough that lifted them to fifth bottom, one place above Reading. Coppell is not the cheeriest person at the best of times - some may remember his angry tirade at a Sky cameraman who got too close on the touchline on the day that his team clinched the Championship title two years ago. But their involvement in a relegation battle is not the only cause of the gloom that seems to have enveloped Reading. The man who funded the club's rise has been actively looking to bail out for a while.
Club chairman John Madejski who is listed among the top 200 wealthiest people in the UK, is an enigmatic figure. He rescued Reading from receivership in 1990 and provided most of the money for the construction of a new stadium, named after himself, and opened eight years later. "I do it all for the community," he has said of his various philanthropic works although he has also known to have been courting someone with "insufferable amounts of money", for the past couple of years.
The single biggest factor in the club's rise is the manager. Steve Coppell assembled Crystal Palace's best ever team, one that reached the FA Cup Final in 1989-90 and finished third in the League the following season. Fifteen years on, he achieved arguably a greater feat at Reading, who went on a divisional record 33-match unbeaten run in reaching the top level for the first time in 2005-06.
Clubs who have a good first season after coming up often slump in their second, but it is still a surprise that Reading have followed the customary pattern. They played good football in finishing eighth last season, which ended with Coppell being voted Manager of The Year. Nicky Shorey was capped by England and Steve Sidwell might also have become an international squad regular, had he not been lured to the well-paid anonymity of Chelsea reserves.
Towards the end of last season, however, Coppell said that he wasn't interested in the European place that seemed within the club's grasp and he has followed other managers in fielding under-strength teams in the cups. This might seemed like pragmatism to Reading's manager but it was more suggestive of a curious lack of confidence in the squad. This season, amid general fan complaints about the manager's buying policy, the team endured a record eight successive defeats.
Despite their owner's wealth, Reading haven't spent heavily and will not be in financial difficulties if they go down. Some supporters may feel that the occasional tilt at the top level is the best the club can hope for, but others may rightly wonder whether a fundamental lack of ambition has been their undoing.