It’s been a tough couple of years if you’re a Reading fan. Finishing 19th and 17th in the last two seasons, a failed takeover by Russian billionaire Anton Zingarevich, near administration and the miserable tenures of Nigel Adkins, Steve Clarke and Brian McDermott left Royals supporters with pretty bleak expectations for the season ahead.
The summer sacking of Brian McDermott came as a shock to many around the Madejski Stadium, and even more so the appointment of an untried, albeit well-known, manager in Jaap Stam. Many were sceptical of the Dutchman’s “total football” philosophy, especially given the disastrous reigns of Brendan Rodgers and, to a lesser extent, Nigel Adkins, both of whom had tried and failed to implement a more possession-based style of play. Add to that 11 new signings, and the departures of two key central midfielders in Oli Norwood and Aaron Tshibola, and pundits and fans alike had Reading down for a relegation scrap.
Fast forward six months, and the Royals are going great guns in the Championship, sitting in fourth place, nine points clear of seventh-placed Norwich with a game in hand. The Madejski Stadium, where Reading won just eight games last term, has become a fortress this season, with 11 wins from 17, and just two losses. Quite the turnaround, certainly. So where has it all come from?
Jaap Stam's football at its finest!
— Talk Reading (@TalkReading) February 14, 2017
Well, firstly, Stam’s got members of last year’s team fit and firing, in particular Garath McCleary. The Jamaican winger has been on fire this season, having contributed just five goals and assists in 2014/5, and four last campaign. Compare that to his 15 goals and assists this season, and the Royals are certainly reaping the rewards of his best ever campaign.
Another key man has been George Evans, who was on the fringes of the team last season after a January move from Manchester City, making just six appearances. His quality on the ball has seen him become a regular member of the starting 11, with 27 appearances so far this campaign, scoring twice, both crucial, late goals, an equaliser against Derby, and a winner away at Blackburn.
Stam’s signings must also be given huge credit. The arrivals of Roy Beerens, John Swift and Liam Moore have been absolutely paramount to Reading’s success this season, with Swift in particular an absolute steal, having signed on a free transfer from Chelsea. The England u21 international has scored eight times this season, and has provided the Royals with a creative spark they have been missing, arguably since the departure of Gylfi Sigurdsson in 2010. Moore, on the other hand, has formed a formidable partnership with skipper Paul McShane at centre-half, conceding just 13 at home.
Tactically, Stam has introduced huge changes at Reading too. The Royals keep possession better than any other Championship outfit, except Fulham, and average 58.3% possession this season, compared with just 52.2% in 2015/6. While this possession-based style has attracted criticism from some quarters (particularly Leeds fans), it has undoubtedly played a huge role in Reading’s upturn in fortunes.
— Dirty Leeds Scum (@DirtyLeedsFC) December 13, 2016
But perhaps the most impressive aspect about Reading this year has been the newfound mental toughness that Stam has instilled in his side. Reading have comeback from deficits numerous times this season, gaining 10 points from losing positions, most memorably coming back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 away to Bristol City. Without those points, the Royals would be down in eighth, and Stam deserves huge credit for the job he’s done at the Madejski Stadium.
However, as is the case with most high-flying Championship managers, Stam has been linked with a move to the Premier League, and was reported to be on Swansea’s radar after the sacking of Bob Bradley. The ex-Man United centre-half’s stock continues to rise, but could the Dutchman ever take over the hotseat at Old Trafford?
It would be a romantic reunion, and there is a feeling that Stam has unfinished business with United, as well as huge affection from the Old Trafford faithful. It is impossible to predict with certainty what the future will hold, but on a footballing level, Stam doesn’t suit United. His patient, possession-based style is at odds with the expectations of United fans, who will forever hold up the glorious attacking football of Ferguson’s teams. It would tarnish the legacy of a man who won it all with United, in the incredible Treble-winning side of 1999. A great story it would be, but one that should never become a reality.
Stam is clearly someone who doesn’t mind upsetting the applecart, with just one Manchester United player making the Dutchman’s dream XI!