Nick Townsend: Culpable Reading pair prove nice guys finish last

Coppell's inertia in the transfer market and Madejski's decision to stand still have led to a right Royal cock-up

Earlier in the season, there they rested, as contentedly as a cat snoozing out of harm's way. They had seemingly made themselves at home in the Premier League. Second-season security. For weeks on end they occupied 13th place. Occasionally 12th.

On Match of the Day, someone – it was probably Gary Lineker – made an impish joke of it. It was around the same time the pundits were con-stantly declaring that Reading were in no danger. They win or lose matches, said Mark Lawrenson. They don't draw. They've an astute manager. They'll survive on their home record. And they've got decent strikers.

But that was then, back in the winter, when Kevin Doyle was being linked with Chelsea and Dave Kitson, erroneously as it transpired, with an England call-up. The reality is Reading have managed seven goals in 17 games since the turn of the year. Gordon Brown was ahead in the polls when Doyle last scored.

Which is how we arrive at this day of plaintive "if onlys". This morning, Reading followers, preparing for the worst, will be asking such questions as: just how do you manage to discard 12 points to Bolton and Fulham? To put it more starkly, if only they had garnered a solitary point from those four games, against similarly beleaguered teams, it would have virtually assured their survival. Except they will know in their hearts that it has been evident for many weeks that they are the worst team after Derby, whatever today's results tell us.

Yes, their team may escape the abattoir as the bolt is loaded at the expense of Birmingham and Fulham if, at Derby, they fare better than the Fulham manager Roy Hodgson's men away to Portsmouth and at least replicate what Alex McLeish's team achieve at home to Blackburn Rovers. And, of course, there is no divine right to retaining Premier League status. Three clubs must go, all with £24 million parachute payments over two years, which gives them an unfair chance (some contend) of an instant return. But the Royals' plight has been predictable. For that, their chairman, John Madejski, and his management team stand accused and, in this judgement, found guilty, of squandering a rare opportunity.

As it is, the Royals' 24,000-seater stadium is filled to an average of more than 95 per cent capacity and, in a wealthy catchment area barely more than half-an-hour's drive from London, some fixtures would attract many more; hence Madejski's bold plans to increase the Mad Stad, as it is called locally, to 38,000. The club benefit not only from television income, but from Madejski's own largesse. And in fairness to the man who has invested more than £50m in his hometown club, who first saved them when the bailiffs were at the door and provided the means to relocate them to the eponymous stadium and raise them from League One, he is rightly revered in the Berkshire town and beyond.

At the end of their first Premier League season, in which Reading finished eighth and narrowly failed to qualify for the Uefa Cup, Madejski was talking of selling. You could understand that. He had never been a football obsessive, and despite his business fortune, which includes proceeds of the £174m sale of Auto Trader, he has made it apparent over the years that he was unhappy attempting to co-exist with "the big boys shelling out obscene sums of money".

He said any potential buyer "must be filthy rich, this is not a business for the faint-hearted". As this year's promoted clubs will swiftly learn, the Premier League is not for the half-heartedeither; you go kicking and screaming to save yourself from the drowning pool. Reading have succumbed, if that is their fate, with barely a splash of protest.

And yet, in the match programme for the home game with Sunderland just before Christmas, Madejski made this curious declaration: "We are now aiming to establish ourselves as a serious power within English football." That may well have been a fanciful ideal, but it was simply not supported by facts. Tellingly, in that match, Steve Coppell's men scraped a victory against a poor Sunderland with a controversial Stephen Hunt winner. It propelled them to 12th.

However, it was no surprise that it was 1 March before Reading won again. And they have done so only twice since then as Coppell has responded to the threat of impending doom with this irritating phrase of mitigation: "We are what we are." Words that scarcely juxtapose happily with Madejski's earlier pronouncement.

Most significantly, though, other clubs were adapting to their circumstances. It hurts to say this, as an observer who has watched with admiration his hometown club ascend from the old Third Division, but Madejski, the man who saved Reading, and Coppell, the man who led them to the promised land, have both proved culpable. They have failed to adapt to terrain which contains more predators than the banks of the Amazon.

Coppell's limited, modest purchases (the most expensive being £2.5m for Emerse Fae from Nantes, who was suspended for refusing to turn out for the reserves after a dismal season) never looked sufficient.

One imagines that Madejski deluded himself that you simplydelegate to your management team and success inevitably flows, as it had done for many years. He is a decent, principled man, and yet, in a sense, that makes him not cut out for the self-interest demanded for survival in the Premier League, a forbidding place where the words of his sometime companion Cilla Black are never heard: "Step inside love – and stay."

Fulham, whose two new managers in just over a year hired players with the desperation of children forcing coins into a slot machine, are the marginal favourites to prevail. They are one of seven clubs among the current bottom 10 who have changed managers (one change, at Birmingham, was enforced, following the departure of Steve Bruce to Wigan). Madejski is horrified by suggestions that he should have metamorphosed into the stereotypical intervening chairman, and no one suggests he should have ousted Coppell, whose management style is in many ways exemplary.

Coppell does not verbally beat up referees. He accepts defeat on that stoical chin. And he has remained faithful to players whom he nurtured from the lower leagues, or in the case of Doyle and Shane Long, bought for a pint of Guinness (slightly more, actually) in Ireland. But he made a fundamental error, over which he now accepts mea culpa: his inertia in the transfer market. For a season, momentum sustained his team. But then the defensive frailties of players who have failed to deliver to last season's standards, a dearth of midfield vision and forwards who are not quite the supreme executioners they thought they were have cost Reading dear. Continuity is admirable, as Sir Alex Ferguson has demon-strated, but even the great football knight reinforces from a position of strength. At the Madejski, no fewer than 15 of the squad who won the Championship with a record 106 points two years ago remain in the first-team shake-up. That is a remarkable statistic, in many ways admirable, but is likely to ultimately prove fatal.

It was evident as long ago as last summer that a significant bolstering of the squad was required. The instincts of Madejski should have warned him that in this business you must speculate to survive. You simply cannot stand still. That is what Reading have attempted to do; marooned in a timewarp of self-admiration for the previous two years' achievements. Which is why, for the man who started out as a salesman at the old Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory, it will be an uncomfortable day. Probably culminating with him seeking out crumbs of comfort from the bottom of the Premier League barrel, in the knowledge that it could have been avoided.

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