Reading’s path to Monday’s Championship play-off final began in a non-descript portable building at their rural Hampshire training ground.
Brian McDermott gathered his players together early in February and challenged them to rise above ‘mediocrity’. Then he left the room and, with his staff, wrote down a list of changes that had to be made. Meanwhile, back in the ‘media suite’, the players drew up their own list. Then they met again, and compared flip charts. Recalled McDermott, in that same room this week, “the players came up with something quite similar to us: lots of little details, things like having belief, living your life right, doing the right things, concentrating.”
This is modern management. No hairdryer. No hauling players in on their day off. No transfer-listing half the squad. Instead it is about consultation, about enlisting the players and persuading them to buy into your core beliefs.
“We had 17 games to go and I felt we needed to change things a bit,” said McDermott. “Somehow we were close, but we couldn’t quite turn draws into victories. I felt we needed to go on a hell of a run to get into the play-offs. We talked about hard work, not talent. I talked about stuff from Matthew Syed’s book, ‘Bounce’. In it he mentions Enron. When Enron went pear shaped it was really interesting. They bought all the talented guys in but nobody did any hard work.
“I watch Man Utd, and look at Sir Alex Ferguson. He talks about hard work and how they train hard, and he talks about Cantona and how he trained hard and all the greats, Beckham, Giggs, all of them, work every day and they practice every day. And it is practice when nobody is watching. That’s when champions are made.”
Looking back to his playing days, and reflecting on the ‘living your life right’ aspect, McDermott added: “Now you have to look after yourself. When I played it was a complete joke. The Arsenal team I was in we went to Cup finals, but in the League the best I did was third. The way the players lived their lives at the time, going out and drinking, was the norm in those days. It’s rare now, but it was kind of encouraged then. It was the late 70s and it was the culture. Arsene Wenger coming to the country, I would suggest, changed an awful lot of thinking.
“I had my first taste of the different lifestyle when I went to Sweden as a player in 1984. I was on my own and I thought I’d have a great time. But for six months I had no drink. It was unheard of for a Swedish player to even have one during the season. It didn’t happen. If you were in a club, and you had a drink, you’d be in trouble. The equivalent here would be like taking drugs in front of people. I remember learning about warming down, and lads doing stretches in the showers. It was a completely different culture, and I was a better player for it. I would suggest that is what you see over here now.”
Reading’s brain-storming assessment of their season worked. The Royals lost their next game, at Norwich, but then took 35 points from 16 matches to cruise into the play-offs. They then beat Cardiff City and now face Swansea City at Wembley for a place in the top flight.
Swansea are managed by Brendan Rodgers, who was manager of Reading before McDermott, and worked alongside him in the club’s academy system. “We get on brilliant,” said McDermott. “We are good friends. I did the Under 17s and he helped me with that, and the Under 19s. Then he was academy manager for a while, then went to Chelsea and ended at Watford. We used to get to the park at eight in the morning to get ready for youth matches. It’s a long way from there to Wembley.”
Rodgers was fired after six months at Reading but McDermott said: “He’s nothing to prove, he’s proved a hell of a lot at Swansea [this season]. He’s done a fantastic job. It was a good fit for him with the style of play and I’m delighted for him.”
Rodgers’ failure was McDermott’s opportunity. “The chairman [John Madjeski] asked me to be caretaker. I said ‘if you want me to be caretaker I want the job’. I asked him for it. I knew – I didn’t feel it would be right somebody from the outside coming in changing staff and players. I felt I knew what was required, and the rest is history.
“I had five league games as caretaker and didn’t win a game, but in the FA Cup we beat Liverpool and Burnley. When he gave me the job I think the fans were thinking “not sure about this”. My first official game as manager was against Barnsley and for the first time I thought, “we have got to win this”. We were second bottom and four points adrift. We won 1-0 and after that I thought we’d be ok. I was always confident in the players.”
Some managers try to treat play-off finals as just another game in an attempt to reduce the sense of pressure that surrounds a fixture worth £60m to the winner. McDermott is treating it like a cup final, which is probably a shrewd decision given his players’ record in one-off cup matches. “We’ve been to Liverpool and won, been to Everton and won, been to West Brom and won, all cup games. That is the experience we can draw on,” he says.
So tomorrow night Reading will move into a hotel. They will leave early for Wembley and soak up the atmosphere. For McDermott it will bring back bitter-sweet memories. He was part of the Arsenal squad that played in three successive FA Cup finals from 1978-1980, winning in 1979, but never set foot on the Wembley pitch.
“I wasn’t allowed, or invited to. I had a nice suit on, but I was in the stand. I was on the bus. I was 17, 18 and 19. But coming up as a youth team player was not easy at Arsenal then, come the big games it was always the big hitters who played. I was in and around it, but never involved properly.
“So when we were at Cardiff [in the play-off semi-final] I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to put pressure on the players, but I wanted just to get to Wembley from my own point of view. It is an occasion. I’d be kidding myself if I said it was just a normal game. It’s one to look forward to and enjoy. That’s important for me. I remember cup finals with the Arsenal and that bus journey to the ground, seeing the fans outside, I think that is part of it. We want to get the atmosphere and sense of occasion on the bus. I think that’s important. But we do want to go there and win. That is the most important thing.”