How Brian McDermott turned Reading play-off trauma into promotion triumph
Pain of last season's play-off defeat spurred manager to guide team back to Premier League
Reading found solace on Tuesday night. Less than one year on from their Wembley final defeat to Swansea City, they completed their task of returning to the Premier League; and this time without the pain of the play-offs.
The whole season has been one long reaction to that trauma. Reading started slowly, following their first two league games with four straight defeats. But since then it has been pure progress, ascending relentlessly to the top.
Maybe Reading just got their blip out of the way early, while West Ham United and Southampton were hit at more fragile moments.
Since Reading overcame the memories of Wembley, they have been impressive. "I thought it would take up to 10 games to get it out of our system, but it only took six," their manager Brian McDermott said in the aftermath of the 4-2 win at West Ham last month.
McDermott's steady game-by-game approach has served Reading well. Only ever focusing on what was in front of them, they have gone step by step to the summit. Since that early stumble, they have maintained a pace far beyond that of their opponents. If those first six games, when the play-off defeat was still being cleansed from the system, were deleted from the Championship table, Reading would be 14 points clear of next-placed Southampton – and another three ahead of West Ham.
After the recent victory over Southampton, McDermott said that "everything that was good about football" was to be found in his dressing-room. Jason Roberts, whose arrival in January followed news of the imminent investment by Anton Zingarevich, has been vital. He has been the perfect reference point for Reading's attacks, with the quality of a man who has that much Premier League experience.
While Roberts might well have been Reading's most influential player, he was quick to point out the importance of the group. "What a great occasion, a great achievement by these players," he said on Tuesday night. "I'm 34 and I may have not have another opportunity to play with people like this again. It's been a pleasure. It's a team of proper people. Some players have not played Premier League and you can see the desire and I hope they get the opportunity to show how good they are now."
As good as Roberts has been, Reading's most impressive feature this year has been defence. They are the only side to concede an average of less than one goal per game. They probably have the division's best goalkeeper in Adam Federici, as well as the experienced Kaspars Gorkss and Ian Harte.
With a solid base, Reading are able to sit back, keep games alive and then hit opponents on the break. Two defining moments this season were that 4-2 victory at Upton Park at the end of March and a 3-1 win at Southampton 13 days later. (There was also a 1-0 win at Brighton & Hove Albion in between the two.) They were all object lessons in how to play away from home.
It takes real character and spirit to play like that on the road, but Reading have shown it all season. McDermott, who was promoted to manager from chief scout, knows the club intimately and has a touch which clearly brings the best from his players.
When asked recently about his relationship with his squad, McDermott was very positive. "I'm definitely friends," he said. "I would say that they're friends of mine. The staff are friends, the players are my friends. I love them, I really genuinely do."
McDermott, after a recent visit to Google headquarters to see how the company was run, has gone as far as to introduce a form of flexi-time for the Reading players in terms of training hours. Such is the mutual respect it has worked for the club.
Sir John Madejski, who is in the process of selling to Zingarevich, is predictably proud of the man that he gave the job to. "Brian McDermott has done it," he said. "He's been here 12 years – it feels like 100 – and knows the squad, he's been a stalwart and he's been a first-class gentleman. He's handled the team in just the right way and that is why we are where we are."
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