Monday, 12 May 2008

To The Championship

Amidst the heat and sultry humidity of the weekend, there was a serious undertone: the last round of matches in the Premier League season.

Crucial for two reasons: the potential crowning of Manchester United as champions, and the potential relegation of Reading - my main team - to the Championship. Sadly, they both came true. It's not as if I can celebrate United winning the league when I know that Reading won't be taking part next season.

They needed to go to Derby, who were already relegated, and win on the last day to have a chance of survival. They did, 4-0, but it wasn't enough. Fulham won too, and they did. So down we go.

It didn't really sink in until this morning. In the car on the way to the train station, the normally idiotic BBC Radio Berkshire presenter, Andrew Peach, couldn't even be that upbeat about it - and he's normally upbeat about an outbreak of MRSA at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. He was talking about how he'd been chatting to some of the Reading players the night before - and was struck, especially, when goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann said he was distraught that he couldn't call himself a 'Premier League player any more'. It's so true, sad, and struck me as well.

There's also a groundswell of support for manager Steve Coppell. John Madejski, the Chairman, has assured him that his job is safe - and so it should be, as he's the best manager we've had for decades. It's up to Coppell now, though, if he stays or walks. Dozens of people were phoning the radio station to implore him to stay, and they delivered him a CD of messages from the fans this morning.

Also impressive was the captain, Graeme Murty. He comes onto Radio Berkshire every Monday morning to talk about the previous weekend's match and general issues at the club, and no-one would have been surprised if he'd taken some time off the day after being relegated. And yet, fantastically, him and his wife, Karen, arrived. They talked about the club, the players, the future, and were incredibly candid. It's a very brave thing to do when you've just taken a huge demotion at work in the most public of arenas.

It's true that we've been lacking in some areas this year. The relentless energy, urgency and committment that defined Reading in their first Premier League season hasn't always been present this time around, and it's cost us dearly. Other teams knew about us this year, and not enough changed tactically - or with the personnel - to make a difference. Sidwell left, and Emerse Fae was bought to replace him. He's not been good enough, and was constantly rotated throughout the year with Brynjar Gunnarsson, a decent midfielder - although no Sidwell - and Khalifa Cisse, who's really a centre-back. Jimmy Kebe looks a good signing, too.

Marek Matejovsky has looked superb. He's a winger who can also play in the centre of the pitch but his future, like others, is now uncertain. He's a Czech international and may not be happy with plying his trade in the Championship in case it jeapordises his place in the national team, and could well look to leave. Defensive rock Ibrahima Sonko, possibly the most popular player at Reading, will probably leave after a much-publicised row with Coppell a couple of weeks ago. Nicky Shorey, Stephen Hunt and Leroy Lita could all be poached by Premiership clubs, the lure of the big time too big to resist after they've had a relatively brief taste of top-flight football.

There's bound to be changes in the summer, then. Our squad is much the same as the one that got us promoted, and plenty will change in the coming months. It'll certainly be interesting but, unless some money is spent and quality players attracted to the traditionally un-glamourous surroundings of Reading, I can't see us bouncing straight back - which is the question asked of every team, bar Derby, that are relegated. Time will tell.

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