Winning the Football League Championship, then, didn’t turn out to be enough for the Reading manager Brian McDermott, who left the club yesterday following its home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa at the weekend with the club’s owner Anton Zingarevich stating – and it is starting to feel as if there may be a book of stock phrases that football club owners can turn to at just about any time – that “change was necessary” at a club which has been hanging around the relegation places in the Premier League and is now separated from the bottom of it only by goals scored. It may well feel like scant reward for the manager that took them into the division against many expectations at the end of last season.
Indeed, McDermott may even be wondering if he might have been better off not having taken the club into the Premier League in the first place. Such is the hysteria to stay in the division at the end of this season that impossible burdens of expectations are now placed upon managers in the division. Reading have amongst the lowest wage budgets in the Premier League this season, and as a driver of how well a team will perform over a period of months that would seem to be a more reliable indicator of what sort of final league position it will be able to manage than anything else. The team’s form has been much as many might have expected, and it could, perhaps, even be considered a tribute to the manager that the team isn’t hopelessly adrift at the foot of the table already, staring forlornly up at the rest of the division.
In such times of crisis, the numbers, for the runts of the Premier League litter, don’t add up. There are twenty clubs in the division and three of them have to be relegated at the end of each season. Of that twenty, we could say that there are, perhaps, twelve or so for whom the possibility of relegation will not seriously be considered throughout the course of the season, meaning that three from seven or eight will drop come May. Whilst all supporters hope amongst hope that their clubs will survive such a battle, not everybody can and Reading were always going to be near the top of any list of club’s likely to struggle. To say that is no more or less than to summarise the reality of the club’s position. To suggest otherwise would be delusional.
There are measures that clubs can take in order to shield themselves from such a situation, of course. They can spend decades building up a global fan base which will give them a commercial edge over their rivals. They can invest heavily in their playing staff, though this comes with the inherent risk that should those players not bond the path to financial oblivion can be a quick and painful one. Or they can take their chances. They can make a couple of adjustments to what they already have and hope amongst hopes that they can scrape together enough points to remain above the dotted line. For some clubs, this is somewhere between the sensible option and the only available option, and this is a category into which Reading most likely fall. It is a cliché to suggest that seventeenth place in the table would have been an achievement at the start of the season, and the biggest irony of Brian McDermott’s departure from the club is that Reading are still within touching distance of managing it.
The timing of the decision also raises many questions. The transfer window slammed shut six weeks ago meaning that whoever his replacement turns out to be will – the possibility of a couple of loan signings aside – be stuck with the players that he inherits until the end of this season. What, me might reasonably ask, can the new Reading manager do in order to change things around at the club that will ensure avoiding relegation? A couple of new set piece routines, perhaps? Shout at them differently after they lose? Any new manager coming into the job with know fully well that they will be operating with one arm tied behind their back, and for those with a sense of self preservation this might well suit. Managers seldom take public responsibility for their own shortcomings these days (when was the last time you heard a recently replaced manager admit that they weren’t up to the job they’d just lost?), so a couple of months in the Premier League with Reading may well appeal to those without a job. Fail to keep them up, and the world will presume there was nothing you could have done. Succeed, though, and you might have a reasonable case for demanding that a statue of you is built outside The Majedski Stadium.
This sort of talk, however, is falling into an easy trap of discussing a football related matter as if the game itself exists in some sort of moral vacuum in which all that matters is results and money. No one would seek to suggest that these aren’t important. They have been since the game became professionalised in the 1880s. The overarching importance of results and money to the exclusion of all other considerations has, however, become one the game’s most tiresome traits in recent times. Less than twelve months ago, Brian McDermott was a good enough manager to take Reading FC to a league title. Since then, he hasn’t done anything wrong other than to be unable to beat the odds against his team struggling against relegation. He – and this is true of most dismissed managers – has done little wrong other than to fail to win enough matches. None of this is meant to portray him as some sort of angel (there will be no need to any #prayformcdermott hashtags on Twitter, thank you very much), but when we look at the increasing disconnect between professional football clubs and their supporters, it is precisely this sort of entitled attitude from a club that turns people away from the game. We don’t need to worry about Brian McDermott. He’s a plenty good enough coach to get work elsewhere. But we should be concerned at a culture within the game that throws common sense out of the windows with its win at all costs mentality. It is no longer a sport in anything but name, but to call this sort of behaviour ‘good business practice’ would be a misnomer. Few successful businesses would act so rashly. Perhaps the point is that it is precisely this sort of behaviour which defines football as a badly run business.
Reactive rather than proactive and carried out with a jerk of the knee, one could be tempted to now wish relegation upon Reading were it not for the fact that those who usually suffer the most from such behaviour are supporters rather than those who choose to act in impulse in this way. Reading Football Club is one hundred and fifty two years old this year. It is a proud institution with modest roots, a club that has usually done things the right way having spent more than a lifetime as one of the stalwarts of English football. Over the course of a season, not every club will exceed expectations and not every club will evade the icy kiss of relegation. The sooner Anton Zingarevich learns this lesson, the better, but sacking Brian McDermott at this time can only be held to prove that it’s a lesson that he has yet to learn.
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