At this time of the year, there are a lot of us trying to quantify the unquantifiable. The start of the new football season sees a frantic dash to predict and analyse, but precious few seek to factor in the variables that generate so much of the games appeal in the first place. It’s understandable, of course. Who, for example, might have predicted the knots in which Liverpool found themselves tied up in this time last year? Who would have stuck their neck on the line and taken a punt that Manchester United would score eight against Arsenal but concede six against Manchester City at Old Trafford, and who would have even have guessed the extent to which the latter of these results would turn out to be the one upon which the entire season would pivot?
It’s all part of the show, of course, and nowhere is this more apparent than in form. It frequently feels as if good form can come from out of nowhere, and there can be so many factors which affect it that it can be difficult to assess which it was that was responsible. Two seasons ago, Reading FC were defeated in the Championship play-off final by Swansea City having finished in fifth place in the end of season table. As 2011 melted into 2012, though, this team pushed into a run of form that saw them race to the top of the table at an almost frightening speed, leaving the rest of the division standing. Between the end of January and the end of April, they lost just once in eighteen games on a run that included wins against, amongst others, West Ham United, Southampton, Brighton & Hove Albion and Blackpool, saw manager Brian McDermott win two consecutive Manager of the Month awards and ended with the club promoted back to the Premier League as the winners of the Championship. It was, by any measure, a considerable achievement.
To what extent, though, can this sort of form be carried over into the altogether less forgiving world of the Premier League? Well, seasoned Premier League watchers should be well aware by now that to write off newly-promoted clubs as nothing more than relegation certainties can be misguided, and the arrival of Anton Zingarevich as a major shareholder at the end of May can only be seen as positive for the club. Zingarevich is wealthy but is also a supporter of the club, and he has thus far been cautious with his money. Readings most notable arrivals during the summer so far have been Pavel Pogrebnyak, whose six goals in twelve matches on loan at Fulham last season indicate that he is capable of causing difficulties for Premier League defences, and Chris Gunter, whose £2.3m signing from Nottingham Forest has been their major financial statement of the summer so far, a little something up front and a little extra ballast at the back, but it feels rather as if Readings mixture of old pros – Ian Harte returns to the Premier League at the age of thirty-five, for example – and players who accomplished so much last season in the Championship but have yet to prove themselves in the Premier League might have an uphill battle if they are to cling onto the place in the top division.
So financially speaking, Reading are secure, but what of the manager? Brian McDermott has had a curious managerial career – possibly the most unusual of all of the managers in the Premier League. He started out in non-league football, spending two years at Slough Town and two years at Woking before going to Reading in 2000, where he worked as chief scout, under-19s and reserve team manager, before taking over as caretaker first-team manager at the end of 2009. Perhaps McDermott has learned a broader perspective about management as a result of not himself having been in the pressure cooker of the managers hot seat at a club for such a long time. He resisted the temptation thrown his way by Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier this season and got his reward at the end of the season when the two clubs switched positions. As a manager, however, the coming season is something of a leap into the unknown, but there has been little in his time with Reading so far to indicate that he isn’t the safest pair of hands for this job and it is to be hoped that, having been with the club for so long, the owners don’t get an itchy trigger finger should this season prove to be as difficult as many believe it may be.
With the squad not having been massively overhauled (the aforementioned and a handful of free signings is just about it at the moment), much may come down to this intangible matter of form. With a strong start to the season Reading have every chance of avoiding the drop, but avoiding relegation will become considerably tougher should they not get that initial launchpad. Expectations around the club, however, seem realistic and it seems unlikely that there will be too many pitchfork wielding mobs turning up at The Madjeski Stadium should relegation look start to resemble a likelihood. As such, seventeenth place in the Premier League by the end of this season doesn’t seem like an unreasonable or unachievable target for the season, but it may be hard work to get that far and it wouldn’t, if things weren’t going their way in the league come the new year, be that surprising to see Zingarevich become a little looser with his purse-strings in Januarys transfer window. If they can hit the ground running over the next few weeks, though, relegation doesn’t have to be as inevitable as some might think it is.
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