Reading ready to face whatever future brings

PLAY-OFF FINALS: Premiership beckons for club with no reserve or youth team. Clive White reports
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The Independent Online
It was hardly the kind of remark one expected from someone who had sighted the Promised Land. "I can see the monster looming," John Madejski, the Reading chairman, said this week with the sort of trepidation Dr Frankenstein must have felt when it was similarly all too late.

Like it or not, come the end of Monday afternoon should the small Berkshire club repeat last month's victory over Bolton in the First Division play- off final at Wembley it will find itself "swallowed up" by the Premiership. Most chairmen could think of worse fates, but then most clubs, at least most First Division clubs, would be better equipped for such a calling.

These particular Royals are the great have-nots: they haven't a readily recognisable player in the entire club save for the joint player-manager, Jimmy Quinn, and he is not currently in the side; they haven't a reserve or youth team because they cannot afford them; they haven't a training ground any more after being ejected from a converted polo pitch; and, some would say, they haven't even a ground unless you can call ramshackle 99-year-old Elm Park (capacity 14,000 with more than three-quarters standing) a stadium in the post-Taylor Report sense of the word.

What they do have, paradoxically, is a chairman/saviour who is ranked the joint-80th richest man in Britain with a personal fortune estimated at pounds 150m. The trouble is, from Reading's point of view, is that he intends to remain so. "I can't afford to invest lots of money into it [although he has injected over pounds 3m] because I'm still working," he explained. "I haven't sold my businesses like some other chairmen."

Besides, he does not agree with financial commitment on the scale of Blackburn's Jack Walker, which he regards as "grotesque". For him, helping Reading is an act of charity, a service to his local community: an unexpectedly philanthropic outlook for someone who made his mint in the second-hand car business. Madejski is a founder of the Auto Trader magazine.

"My standpoint is that I believe the local football club is part of a town, it's something which should promote the feelgood factor, the esprit de corps. Reading is where I'm from. I know what it's like to find a newspaper in a far-flung place and see the football results. Just to see the name of Reading in print, it's a reminder, it's like a suck of the thumb.

"But when you get people who are cash rich throwing vast sums at it, it can be a disrupting force and the inflationary effect of all that is there to be seen. I don't blame the players, they're just doing the best for themselves."

As it is, this 53-year-old stepson of a Polish-born restaurateur thinks he is devoting too much time to the club. This week has been "almost unbearable" with aspirations, according to Madejski, running at "fever pitch" as Reading supporters have come out of the woodwork as they did seven years ago for the Simod Cup final, besieging the club with ticket requests for Monday's denouement. A total of 36,500 "Royalists" are expected to converge on Wembley.

It was not supposed to go this well when their much coveted young manager, Mark McGhee, after considerable toing and froing, decided to leave them - in limbo - for Leicester in mid-season. But if Madejski's appointment of the untried Scot had been inspired it was no less so when he handed over the reins to Quinn and his Reading team-mate, Mick Gooding. "I believe in people power," Madejski said. "The support they got from the players and our supporters convinced us that this was the right decision."

Quinn and Gooding actually improved on Reading's season-long top-seven place , eventually ending as runners-up after a finishing burst of four successive wins. Madejski is in no doubt that the club would never have done so had he brought in a new broom. McGhee, described somewhat niggardly by Madejski as "certainly a good front man", has magnanimously suggested that Reading are a better side now.

Quinn has acknowledged the groundwork laid by McGhee and his assistant, Colin Lee, but added: "Mark wanted a total passing game but we've changed one or two things to make sure that we don't take too many risks."

They were pretty negligible as it was, with the 6ft 6in Player of the Year Shaka Hislop in goal and he in turn protected by the here, there and everywhere Welsh international Adrian Williams, who has achieved the rare distinction of filling every position including goalkeeper. To Madejski's credit lucrative offers for the better players, who include a Polish international, Darius Wdowczyk, have been resisted.

Instead they have added to their number, albeit modestly. The prudent purchase of Lee Nogan for pounds 250,000 from Watford has worked out so well - seven games, seven goals -- that Quinn can no longer command a place in the team. No one knows players better than players and somehow one is inclined to believe Quinn when he says that if they were to be given pounds 2-3m to spend on new ones "I can assure you we would put it to good use." Nudge, nudge.

Madejski is not about to be drawn on that, but for all his insistence that "I'm not Father Christmas and don't intend to be", one senses Reading's benefactor is warming to the challenge.

By his own admission the key to Reading's long-term prosperity lies in a move to a new pounds 30m stadium at a designated site south-west of the town in two years' time. But by then wouldn't Reading be back whence they had come? "That's what they said last year when we got promoted," Madejski replied. "If we go up we'll tame the monster."