“Let’s be clear – Reading are in a relegation battle”. The words of Get Reading columnist Clive Baskerville are certainly hard to argue with. Jaap Stam’s side currently find themselves in 18th place, a mere 6 points above the relegation zone, and with a difficult run of games that includes the visit of high-flying Derby County and a daunting trip to Molineux in the upcoming weeks.
The Dutchman’s press-conference on Thursday did little to ease the tension. Indeed, when faced with questions over the side’s woeful home record this season, Stam responded by criticising the Reading fans: “I don’t pay any notice to the fans because even when we were doing well last season they were negative so it’s nothing new”.
Indeed, it has never been the simple love affair one might expect between Stam and large sections of the fan-base. Even during the side’s march to the Play-Off Final last season, Stam’s ‘bland, monotonous’ style of a play came under question by a sizeable portion of Royals fans. This relationship, already on its last legs, may now have been well and truly severed by Stam’s suggestion that “if the players feel more comfortable playing away from home rather than at home then […] it’s the wrong signal [the fans] are giving”.
So where has it all gone wrong for Stam? On the surface, Reading’s summer recruitment looked shrewd business. Stam not only managed to keep all of his key players, but also complimented the squad with a number of new arrivals, including highly sought-after Sone Aluko from Fulham, goalkeeper Vito Mannone from Sunderland, experienced midfielder David Edwards and Icelandic frontman Jón Daði Böðvarsson from Wolves, and Swansea’s Gambian winger Modou Barrow to name but a few.
Reading spent a reported £7.5 million on Sone Aluko in the summer (© readingchronicle.co.uk)
Of the summer acquisitions, Barrow has proved the most effective. The pacey winger has contributed 7 goals and 3 assists this season, however, concerns over his final product that have been prominent amongst his previous employees have re-surfaced. Sone Aluko, whilst showing glimpses of his ability, has had far less success in front of goal, with just 2 goals in 24 appearances, and prior to his brace against Burton Albion, Jón Daði Böðvarsson had contributed a mere 3 goals in 20 appearances.
Meanwhile, Garath McCleary who enjoyed a fruitful, injury-free season last year, has, as has so often been the case throughout his career, been plagued with injuries and managed just 7 starts in the Championship. Yann Kermorgant, who frequently partnered McClearly up-top for Reading last season, and netted an impressive 18 goals in the process, has had a dismal swansong campaign, with just 1 goal to date. Moreover, January acquisition Tommy Elphick lasted a mere 30 minutes during his debut against Millwall, suffering a knee-injury which ultimately required surgery.
However, it is the side’s dismal home-form that has been the major stumbling block for Stam this season. In 15 home games, The Royals have amassed a mere 13 points – only Sunderland (23rd) and Burton Albion (24th) have a weaker home record. Stam’s message is clear – the fans have played their part in Reading’s poor fortunes at home.
Whilst a lack of confidence throughout the side is understandable given their current predicament, too many performances have been bereft of quality or ideas, and this ultimately rests in the hands of Jaap Stam. Whilst a number of Reading’s key players have underperformed this season, Stam’s failure to address the lack of quality in the final third is of great concern. Reading were one of the favourites to push for automatic promotion in the summer (and rightly so), and a number of managers in the league have lost their jobs this season for far less.
Stam will find unwanted company on Saturday in the sense that his opponent in the dugout has also faced a fan-led backlash as of late. Tony Pulis’ appointment hasn’t as of yet had the galvanising effect that the Middlesbrough board would have hoped for when they made the decision to relinquish Garry Monk of his duties in December.
Reading face Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough on Saturday with both sides desperate for 3 points (© rockerreport.co.uk)
The Welshman’s side now sit in 9th, 6 points adrift of the Play-Offs, and with 3 wins in 7 games since his appointment. Ironically, when Monk was dismissed, the club sat just 3 points off the top-six. Perhaps most concerning is the fact that Middlesbrough haven’t found the back of the net in 3 consecutive Championship outings, a statistic that will undoubtedly exacerbate the pre-existing fears of those Boro fans who doubted the Pulis appointment.
As previously noted, Reading will be without Tommy Elphick through injury, but could hand a full-debut to Chris Martin, who joined on-loan from Derby County in January. Meanwhile, Tony Pulis is boosted by the news that Rudy Gestede is available for selection, after the Frenchman won his appeal against a three-match suspension. January acquisitions Mo Bešić, Martin Cranie and Jack Harrison are also available for the hosts, who have won every game in which they’ve gone ahead this season.
Today’s game is undoubtedly the weekend’s crunch tie, and with a 10-day gap before their next fixture, failure to pick up maximum points could see the end of Stam’s tenure as Reading boss, and the love affair that never was.
By Charlie Ibbotson