Jobi McAnuff: The Reading captain with more than enough to shine
Reading captain says they can copy Swansea and Norwich by showing continuity is key in top flight. He talks to Jack Pitt-Brooke
After leading Reading into the Premier League, Jobi McAnuff would rather like the opportunity to play there. His team have done remarkably well, galloping past West Ham and South-ampton since Christmas to win the Championship. But with the prospect of new money, in the form of Anton Zingarevich's eventual takeover, there might be a temptation to replace the promotion squad with new players.
McAnuff is keen that Reading should not do so. As he makes clear, at their Hogwood Park training ground, this is not just out of personal ambition – although he is not without that – but an analysis of how best to stay in the Premier League, of how Swansea and Norwich provide an example and Queen's Park Rangers might not. Of course, Reading have one more Championship game left, at Birmingham on Saturday, but their thoughts are turning towards a first top-flight season since 2008.
It will be McAnuff's first turn at the top. He has spent almost his whole career in the Championship; with Wimbledon, West Ham, Cardiff, Crystal Palace and Watford before Reading. After starting 39 league games this season, he is adamant that he has earned the right to Premier League football.
"I personally do, 100 per cent," McAnuff told The Independent. "I read something the gaffer [Brian McDermott] wrote about being a manager and earning the right and doing his time. He's done that and I certainly think I've done that in my career, and a lot of the other boys also. As a group also, we've been together for a while and once you've had one, two, three cracks at it you feel your time's coming, and we feel as if we've earned it."
Like any good captain, McAnuff is a fierce defender of his players. But this is about something more. Having watched the last set of teams promoted to the Premier League, the examples of what to do and what not to do are clear. Swansea and Norwich have kept the same managers, approaches and – for the most part – players that delivered them to the top flight. They are thriving. QPR, since Tony Fernandes' takeover, have changed managers and players and are fighting to stay up.
"At any level, at any club, it's difficult to have eight, nine, 10 players come in over a summer and expect to get results straight away, because it takes time," McAnuff said, hoping that McDermott will recognise this in the summer. "It does take a while to learn how people play and for them to buy into that ethos of the club. I think that will very much be in the mind of the gaffer and the staff that are recruiting the players, that they're going to fit into that group. That's been a big base of our success, the fact that everyone is so close and it's such a tight-knit unit."
Regarding the problems caused by just throwing players together, events at Loftus Road provide a warning. "Obviously you look [at] QPR a little bit, chopping and changing," McAnuff said. "If you look at Leicester in our league, everyone thought they'd walk it because they've gone and bought eight, nine, 10, 11 good, good players, but that doesn't make a team. I think that's probably shown with them."
Norwich and Swansea show how it should have been done. "That's the blueprint, really," he said. "Of course Swansea added Danny Graham and Gylfi Sigurdsson, little bits and bobs to strengthen the group, and that's what we're going to have to do. But it's not wholesale changes."
And while QPR prioritised Premier League experience last summer, signing Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Anton Ferdinand and more, Paul Lambert did precisely the opposite, supplementing his Norwich squad with Steve Morison and Bradley Johnson from the Championship and Elliott Bennett and Anthony Pilkington from League One.
McAnuff said: "I think that hunger of lads that are coming up that haven't played there, sometimes can outweigh that reputation that a player might have had for, you know, doing OK in the Premier League for a few years. You look at those lads at Norwich in particular, or Swansea, and that's pretty much the squad that got them up. That hunger and desire, that willingness to want to go and prove yourself counts for a lot. They've both had great seasons and we'll be looking to emulate them."
McAnuff is confident that his manager will do the right thing. "We know that there's going to be a few additions to the squad," he said. "But probably at the same time the gaffer's been on record, and the chairman, saying that it's not going to be wholesale changes and a whole new squad."
The process seems to be starting with veteran left-back Ian Harte signing a new deal. However, there is much more to Reading than an aim to copy their predecessors. "We're also very keen to put across the way we do things, and what has been successful for us," McAnuff said.
Reading have character of their own, mainly in the form of a remarkable team ethic that owes much to the thoughtful and imaginative McDermott.
"I think the key to our success this year has been that team spirit and togetherness, and something that the gaffer created with how he is and how he treats people," McAnuff said. "There's a huge level of respect that goes throughout the whole club, really, from top to bottom. We take that out on to the pitch with us and everyone works for each other."
The trust and warmth at Reading is striking, and McAnuff believes that is why they recovered from last year's play-off final defeat to Swansea to take the title this year. "[McDermott] treats everyone the same, down to the chef, the masseur and anyone at the club. We're all on an equal footing, and for me that's the best way to do it. That definitely comes from him and is something that's spread throughout the whole club.
"In any walk of life, if you know that the person that you're working for and the person you work with has got 100 per cent faith in you, you'll go out and do your best. And I think that's one of the keys to why we've been successful."
Reading play with a striking sense of calm. "He radiates that with how he is," McAnuff said of McDermott. "He's got a very calm way of dealing with us, and that goes out on the pitch with us."
McDermott has effectively instituted flexitime at training, and McAnuff clearly enjoys the atmosphere. "Every day you come in, whether you've won or lost, it's just a great place to come and work. Everyone likes coming in here, people who have got days off will still be coming in and working."
Zingarevich has come in to training, and even had lunch with the players. He cannot have left with an impression that the group needs too many changes.
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