JAN 5 — If you’re looking for a “second team” to follow in the English Premier League, or wondering who you should support in the battle against relegation, may I point you in the direction of Reading.
Firstly, I should admit personal bias. I spent 11 years working in the communications team at Reading, between 1998 and 2009, and enjoyed some wonderful times. So my arguments in favour of the Royals are naturally somewhat one-sided — but I believe they are also fair.
There is a lot to admire in the way that Reading run their business. By spending their money prudently and focusing on long-term investments rather than short-term fixes, they attempt to manage the balance between ambition and realism in a manner that is increasingly rare in modern professional football.
Their approach sets an example for responsible, sustainable financial management that few other clubs attempt to emulate — if every club acted like Reading, there would be no need for UEFA to introduce their convoluted Financial Fair Play regulations.
The driving force behind Reading’s stable financial approach is the club’s long-serving chairman and former owner John Madejski, who has always been determined to balance the books without sacrificing the ambition of establishing his club amongst the Premier League elite.
Madejski is exactly the kind of club owner that every fan should wish for. He is a local man who was born and grew up in Reading, made his fortune after starting a business in the town (the Auto Trader series of car sales magazines, later encompassing the Malaysian Motor Trader) and has lived in the area practically all his life.
He took over ownership of Reading in 1990 — before the gravy train of the Premier League had even been invented — with the altruistic ambition of rescuing his local club from financial difficulties, building them a new state-of-the-art stadium and setting them up for a sustainable long-term future.
That’s all quite a contrast from the speculative, exploitative and often absent moneymen from overseas who have come to dominate Premier League ownership in the last few years — unlike the Glazers (Manchester United), Roman Abramovich (Chelsea), Sheikh Mansour (Manchester City) and John Henry (Liverpool), the only thing that’s foreign about Madejski is his misleadingly Polish surname.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should descend into narrow-minded parochialism and assume that local equals good and foreign equals bad. Just because Madejski is from Reading doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s an ideal owner for Reading Football Club; but it does mean that he’s far more likely to feel a genuine attachment to his club and its community, and that much has been proven over his many years at the helm.
Reading fans were given cause for concern last year when Madejski sold the club to Russian businessman Anton Zingarevich. Was everything that Madejski, and consequently the club, had stood for about to be thrown out of the window by a new owner?
Fortunately not — not yet, at least. Madejski always insisted that he would only sell his club to the right person, and he seems to have found his man with Zingarevich, who does at least possess some affinity to his new acquisition having spent part of his childhood living in Reading.
Although it’s early days, Zingarevich has so far stayed true to the philosophy of long-term sustainability instilled by Madejski. That has been best illustrated by the faith shown by Zingarevich in the manager who led Reading to promotion last season, Brian McDermott.
As the new man in charge with no personal link to existing club employees, it would have been easy for Zingarevich to panic at the first sign of trouble, fire McDermott and replace him with an appointment of his own.
Admirably, he’s not done that. Despite Reading’s troubling start to the season which has seen them collect just two victories and 13 points from their opening 21 games, Zingarevich has so far stayed loyal to the hard-working, softly spoken McDermott, with barely any suggestion that a managerial change is under consideration.
And that’s quite right because Reading’s problem is not their manager, but their lack of genuine quality throughout the squad. Sad to say it, but the current Reading squad is just not good enough to survive in the Premier League (even though their collective mental attitude and commitment to hard work cannot be faulted).
Tackling that problem, of course, is no straightforward task. Although McDermott and his staff are fully aware of the need to improve the quality of the squad, doing so is a costly business that would leave the club badly exposed in financial terms if they ended up suffering relegation.
Maintaining the cost of a Premier League squad in the Championship does not fit in with Reading’s philosophy, and so they find themselves in a Catch-22 situation: spend a fortune on new players and risk being lumbered with an unsustainably expensive squad in the Championship, or stick with the existing squad which will almost certainly get relegated.
And therein lies the inescapable problem of Reading’s approach. Admirable though it may be to spend within your means, it’s probably unrealistic to expect lasting success under those terms. Modern football does not work like that.
However, we should will them to succeed because it would be nice if more clubs were like Reading. They deserve admiration and they deserve success. Sadly, I’m not sure they’re going to get it.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.