Shirty Reading face cash gap

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The Independent Football

Last Saturday, Steve Sidwell, a £250,000 signing from Arsenal in January, scored Reading's winning goal against Watford. It put them sixth in the First Division. Just over 24 hours later, Chelsea's Joe Cole was upended for a penalty that was converted by Frank Lampard, a goal that "cost" the Londoners £17.6m (£6.6m for Cole and a cool £11m for Lampard), but as recompense saw them beat Manchester United and go top of the Premiership.

Tonight. Reading host Chelsea in the Carling Cup, a game which on those figures is a match in just one sense of the word - a mismatch. Since Roman Abramovich took the Blues under his well feathered wing in July, the Russian has spent £110m on new players, as well as wiping out the club's debts. With the Londoners also into the last 16 of the Champions' League, he is already seeing some return on his investment. Compare that to Reading's somewhat more sparing approach and the clubs that are barely 50 miles apart down the M4 might as well be on different planets.

At the weekend, the Royals' goalkeeper, Marcus Hahnemann, said he likes to throw his shirts into the crowd. However, the man who has kept only seven clean sheets this season - take note, Hernan Crespo - has to pay for the shirts himself. Hahnemann said: "I was told by someone, 'We don't do that at Reading. We haven't got enough jerseys'." Therefore now the American goes into the club shop and buys a job lot so he can keep his habit going.

But the Reading striker and top scorer, Nicky Forster, himself a snip at £650,000 from Birmingham City in 1999, believes that John Madejski's approach works for the Berkshire club.

"As for our chairman spending his money like Mr Abramovich, I'm in no position to ask him to do that," Forster said. "He has done a fantastic job, putting Reading where we are. He has transformed the club, from a team in the First Division with substandard facilities to a team that is now pushing up the table. We're making a step forward each year, I believe, and the infrastructure is there in the stadium as well."

Madejski, who is worth roughly £260m, bought the club in 1990 and estimates he has spent £40m on it since then, £11m of which was to build and develop the roads and the 24,200-capacity stadium that bears his name. It is now an impressive sight, far removed from their former, antiquated stadium at Elm Park Road.

In the transfer market, Chelsea broke their record when they spent £17m on Damien Duff this summer, while Reading's own record remains the £800,000 they paid Brentford for Carl Asaba in 1997. And Madejski's refusal to go overboard on transfer fees and wages became an issue once more last Christmas when Matthew Upson's three-month loan from Arsenal ended. Reading had begun to mount a genuine challenge for second place in the division, thanks in large part to Upson's contribution, but Madejski refused, as he put it, "to push the boat out for one player". Reading later made the play-offs but lost out to Wolves, while Birmingham City paid the Gunners £1m for the man who is now an England international.

Madejski appointed Steve Coppell two months ago after Alan Pardew resigned to take over at West Ham. With the former Crystal Palace and Brighton manager being used to working on tight budgets, the chairman may have thought he had brought in a suitable replacement. But even Coppell is now asking that the club invest in order to push for the Premiership.

"Our investment does not match up to other clubs," Coppell said. "I have yet to speak to the chairman about money but if I found the right player, I'm sure he would be sympathetic."

Since he came in, Coppell has spent £100,000 on Ivar Ingimarsson but will look tonight to the experience of Forster, John Salako and the youthful vigour of Sidwell, an England Under-21 international, to give them any chance of victory.

Coppell has lost the injured Shaun Goater, for whom the club paid a comparatively generous £500,000 this summer, leaving the influential Forster to carry the burden up front on his own against a team that has gone six games without conceding a goal.

Yet despite the daunting task ahead, the former Brentford striker is looking forward to the occasion. "It certainly gives this game a bit of added relish as Chelsea are the top team in the country," he said. "This is my biggest game for Reading and probably the biggest of my career. It's bigger than the Wolves play-off game last May."

On top of the income from a capacity crowd, Reading might even be better off on the kit front after tonight. As Forster says: "I will try and swap shirts with John Terry as I'll be up against him. Then there's Marcel Desailly, a World Cup-winner. It would be lovely to get his shirt as well."