Reading fans have seen precious little silverware in their 145-year history, so their 2005-06 Championship campaign, where they amassed 106 points – a total which, if plans to increase Football League divisions from three to four come to fruition, may never be bettered – has acquired totemic status for supporters. Jon Keen, a founding member of the club’s supporters’ trust, uses that season to survey a crucial chapter in the club’s recent history, running from the 1999 appointment of manager Alan Pardew to his successor Steve Coppell’s departure ten years later, and ponders how an unfashionable provincial team with few stars came to dominate the second flight of English football.
Keen’s book is self-published and partially crowdfunded, which makes his approach of interviewing Reading’s support staff and board members, rather than the marginally more glamorous players and managers, slightly surprising. But it’s one that neatly suits the team ethos of Reading’s achievement, and pays dividends by avoiding well-worn legends from the dressing room.
Pardew’s use of sports scientists and nutritional experts, as well as motivational techniques such as team goals on magnets slapped on the team fridge, jolted a complacent squad into action, and promotion to the second tier was clinched in 2002. Pardew departed the following year for West Ham, which brought Coppell to the club. The latter’s methods were subtle but more sophisticated: players were not given curfews, but trusted to take care of themselves and their team-mates in downtime; opponents were analysed exhaustively, and Coppell selected the players who proved the most reliable cogs for the systems he devised. The experience of watching Reading in their 2005-06 season is like watching 4-4-2 in perpetual motion – as soon as an attack breaks down, an overlapping full-back or gambling midfielder enters the frame to push them on again (they went on to score 99 goals that season).
Thrifty player recruitment, particularly strikers Dave Kitson from Cambridge, and Kevin Doyle and Shane Long from Cork City, helped underpin team spirit, which was further bolstered by chairman John Madejski’s old-fashioned budgetary prudence and, crucially, a lack of serious injuries. But when Reading gained promotion to the Premier League, the team struggled to adjust to their new financial horizons and mediocre signings on high wages unsettled the dressing room, failing to fill in for the 106 season heroes. Reading were relegated on goal difference in 2008.
Keen dedicates much time to management consultants Catalyst, who were brought in to work closely with Reading’s coaching staff and the team in 2005. Insights into their work range from the revelatory (players were encouraged to discuss tactical problems between themselves, so they had a stake in their resolution) to the banal (the team would shout the motivational buzzword “growl” to each other when they needed to try harder).
Reading’s swift rise to success, and their willingness to try unusual man-management approaches, suggests some parallels with Leicester’s recent glories – both are regional clubs with a strong team ethos, abetted by quirky motivational stardust, who rose to success under the management of firstly a tough hothead and then a fatherly overseer. Oddly, neither the title nor the cover of Keen’s book directly mentions either Reading or the 2005-06 season – it’s a strange decision which seems nonetheless typically, self-deprecatingly Reading, and hints at the wider lessons that Keen thoughtfully addresses in the book.