Countdown to the Premiership: Royal, loyal and raring to go...

After nine years at Reading, captain Graeme Murty has seen it all and, he tells Phil Shaw, is convinced that his team can hold their own in their first season in the top flight
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The Independent Online

Memo to whoever is writing the scripts for Graeme Murty's career. By the admission of the Reading captain, Scotland defender and Radio Berkshire broadcaster, who leads his club into their first-ever Premiership fixture next Saturday, they are "very cheesy".

Cheesy, that is, as in implausible; as in almost too good to be true. Take last season's final Championship fixture, when Reading needed to beat Queen's Park Rangers to post a Football League record of 106 points. Murty had not scored for five years, so when Steve Coppell's side were awarded a late penalty he unashamedly grabbed the ball.

Waiting for the "handbags" to subside, he smiled and pondered how the crowd might react if he scored. "For ages they had been yelling 'Shooooot!' whenever I got possession, even down by our corner flag," Murty says. "It sounded like booing. My dad and visiting players asked me why they were giving me stick."

The spot-kick was dispatched and Reading's place in history was assured. Then Murty's story got stranger still. "The mascot, a guy dressed as a big furry lion, had been winding me up all year, saying I'd never score. When I did, the photos showed me pointing at him. He tried to leg it but I chased him and nailed him. All the lads piled in on top."

If the 31-year-old full-back displays an uncommon zeal to exploit his time as a Premiership player and international, it is because once the plot lines were not so much cheesy as hard cheese. At 15 he was released by his home-town club, Middlesbrough - Reading's opening day visitors at the Madejski Stadium - and might have been lost to football had a friend not recommended him to York City.

The boyhood Liverpool fan learnt a lesson at York that he will take into his brushes with Robbie Fowler ("God to me"), Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney et al. It came against Manchester United in the League Cup. The first leg was at Old Trafford, where he faced "this young kid called Beckham". York, then in the fourth tier of the English game, won 3-0.

"Our manager, Alan Little, told us: 'Let this game pass you by and you'll regret it the rest of your lives. Enjoy yourselves and embrace the occasion.' He reminded us that we'd only enjoy ourselves if we played good football. So we did, and we absolutely banjoed United."

Failing to seize the moment is tantamount to a crime under Coppell. Murty has been a Royal for nine years, playing a leading role in the rise bankrolled by John Madejski from what is now League One. Not only has he survived the departures of Tommy Burns and Alan Pardew, he has also cemented his position. To suggest he has confidence in the current manager's modus operandi would be an understatement.

The former England winger has elevated Reading to the highest level for the first time in their 135 years. Yet it was Burns, now No 2 to Walter Smith with Scotland, who started the revolution. "He stood me in the centre circle as the stadium was being built and asked if I wanted to play there," says Murty.

"He told me we had a very ambitious chairman; that the ultimate goal was the Premier League. I phoned my old man and told him Reading wanted to buy me for £700,000. He's Glaswegian and a Celtic fan. He said: 'You'll be fine. Tommy Burns will take good care of you.'"

Injury meant Murty played only nine times for him. "I felt guilty when Tommy was sacked, but he just said: 'Do me a favour: every session, every match, prove how good you can be.' He wasn't bitter or petty like some people in football. That taught me about how to conduct myself."

This sad tale has a lighter postscript. "When I first made the Scotland squad, we did an exercise with Tommy. As I ran in, he called out: 'Here he comes, the bloke who got me the sack at Reading!"

Pardew's defection to West Ham looked set to stall the club, and Coppell's arrival from Brighton three years ago was not universally welcomed. In the event he coaxed Reading out what Murty describes as "a comfort zone". "We were a nice team who'd got their promotion, playing in a nice ground with polite, non-intimidating fans. This time last year we all said: 'Stuff that, it's not good enough.'

"You have to fail in order to learn. There was a lot of hurt when we missed the play-offs in 2005, but we said: 'These are the lessons we must absorb. If we make the same mistakes next time, we want smacking.'

"The gaffer took a long, hard look at himself, his staff and players. He said we needed to do better on every level: preparation, diet, fitness, technique. A good season by Reading's standards wasn't good enough for Steve Coppell. He set higher standards and challenged us to meet them. We smashed every one he set."

They also shredded records, going 33 Championship games unbeaten and achieving the earliest post-war promotion. "We began to feel invincible, in a quietly confident rather than arrogant way. Even in training, no one wanted to lose. This lot would kick the board over if they lost at Monopoly. That's the mentality we developed."

According to the man who is his voice on the pitch - not to mention a weekly local radio phone-in - Coppell's low profile belies lofty aspirations. Neither a ranter nor a cup-chucker, he prefers to identify problems and devise solutions. "It's hard for players to be honest about themselves," says Murty. "You need someone to tell you what to do better. He's a perfectionist.

"But he doesn't spend much time talking; just makes his point concisely. If he has to tell you again, you're liable to get a boot up the backside. If he has to explain things a third time, he might get someone else in.

"Talking to him can be like getting blood from a stone. If he has nothing to say, he keeps his mouth shut. The team reflect his personality. We don't shout about ourselves from the rooftops, or throw wobblies if someone misplaces a pass. This squad is not about ego.

"Some people think that means we have no superstars. That's rubbish. We do - Steve Sidwell, Bobby Convey and James Harper wouldn't have attracted interest from other Premiership clubs otherwise - but they're more concerned with the unit than themselves. If Reading do well, everyone gets his reward."

Coppell appears content to let his champions prove themselves in the Premiership, only Seol Hi Kyeon (from Wolves for £1.5m) and Sam Sodje (Brentford, £350,000) having been added. Murty maintains that Madejski likes to "build gradually" and was never likely to splash silly money, yet feels they are eminently capable of emulating Wigan's achievements.

"Some promoted sides are afraid to play their own brand of football. If you try to play Arsenal at their own game, you'll get thrashed because they're the best at that style. And there's no point going to Chelsea thinking, 'There's Michael Ballack on a 130 grand a week'. We'll respect him as a world-class player but won't be lining up for his autograph. What we're good at is being robust, getting about teams."

Can Reading seize the moment and become one of the big cheeses? "Go into this league with the idea of trying to survive and you'll get caught out," argues Murty, fresh from a 2-1 defeat of Feyenoord in their final warm-up fixture. "I guarantee it won't be enough for our chairman and manager. Fourth-bottom would be seen as sub-standard.

"The gaffer expects us to thrive on the challenge. One of his bugbears is people who think 'doing enough' is OK. You can't cruise here. He'll notice."

A battering to a Kirin win: Murty's unusual international career

Humiliated by Wales. Booed off by the Tartan Army. Graeme Murty could be forgiven for wanting to forget his Scotland debut. Not a bit of it. "If you can enjoy a 4-0 battering, I did," he insists.

Murty made his bow as a substitute at the nadir of Berti Vogts' ill-starred reign. "The fans had just reached verse two of 'Flower of Scotland' when Robert Earnshaw scored. But I returned to Reading a better player than when I left."

Walter Smith ensured that Murty did not become a one-cap wonder, playing him in the 5-1 rout of Bulgaria and the draw with the tournament hosts Japan that gave the Scots the Kirin Cup.

"My international goal difference is back to zero. And we won one more trophy than England this summer."

World Cup finalists France and Italy bar the way to Euro 2008. "People say, 'You must be worried'. Why? It's a fantastic challenge. Maybe one day I'll be saying, 'I played against them and we gave 'em a hiding'. But I've got to get in the side first."

Murty's men: Reading's stars in the ranks

Kevin Doyle

The 22-year-old Irishman scored 18 goals in 45 games since moving to Reading in 2005. A converted winger, the Championship Fans' Player of the Year could surprise Premiership defences with his nimble feet.

Nick Shorey

Voted into Royals fans' All Time XI, left-back Shorey will extend his five-year stay with the club after recently signing a new contract - pleasing news for his fellow players, who consider him their best footballer.

Steve Sidwell

A member of the PFA's Championship Team of the Year for two years, the midfielder has refused a new deal, with Everton, Charlton and Manchester City reportedly interested.