"Coppell’s team demonstrated the value of application, solid organisation, work rate and a willingness to play on the ball"
Manchester United may have taken the title but in many ways the most impressive performance in the top flight was Reading’s. Finally in the highest division for the first time they carried on where they left off in the Championship and ended in a stunning 8th position.
The Royals had dominated the Championship and came up with a squad that had changed very little. Seol Ki Hyeon of South Korea and Ecuadorean Ulises De La Cruz were virtually the only real additions to Steve Coppell’s team.
By the end of the season though, there was one player capped for England and another signed by Chelsea, such was the quality already at the Madjeski Stadium - many of the squad are internationals for their countries anyway, so this wasn’t a shoestring effort by any means.
Coppell’s team demonstrated the value of application, solid organisation, work rate and a willingness to play on the ball. The Royals competed for everything and defended like professionals should but they also had a spark which meant they had ambition beyond settling for 17th place.
Reading pocketed a win in their first outing- an exciting encounter with Middlesbrough. There was some concern when they lost the next two but wins over Manchester City and Sheffield United put nine points on the board after 5 games.
When the team then forced a highly creditable draw with Manchester United, pundits were already talking about the team easily avoiding the drop, a prediction that proved to be entirely accurate. For some time Steve Sidwell had been spoken of as a Premiership player of the future but many of his colleagues were equally unfazed by the new challenge.
In October there was the controversial game with Chelsea and the fallout from that game seemed to affect the team. This became the only crisis point in their season as they hit a run of four League defeats on the bounce. Happily, Coppell’s men stormed back to beat Spurs 3-1 to begin a run of 5 consecutive wins.
Entering the Christmas period Reading were sitting pretty with target number one- survival- as good as guaranteed. To confirm their standing they forced a draw at Chelsea and went down by just the odd goal in five at Old Trafford, before caning West Ham 6-0 to celebrate New Year.
Kevin Doyle proved a handful for opposing defences and finished with 13 League goals in his first top flight season. Leroy Lita also looked a top prospect and Steven Hunt, Seol and Sidwell all chipped in a few.
At the back the defence was sound, protected by a grafting midfield. Ivar Ingirmirsson played all 38 League games and proved what a great investment the £100,000 Reading paid for him had become; Nicky Shorey had come from Orient and ended the year as an England cap and US keeper Marcus Hahnemann was ever present and always solid.
By the turn of the year, the emphasis had changed from survival to a possible UEFA Cup spot, though boss Coppell was always ambivalent about whether this would be good for the club.
In the event, a understandable strand of inconsistency infected Reading’s game as the spring approached- there were defeats at Middlesbrough, Arsenal and Spurs, plus a home reverse to Liverpool. However, the squad rallied impressively to deliver three wins on the spin.
Just a single point from the final two games scuppered their European ambitions but overall it did little to dampen the celebrations after a stunning first campaign. Ever the realist, Coppell was already trying to bring down expectations for the difficult second season.
Before the campaign ended, Reading were aware that Steve Sidwell would be leaving and some of their other stars have been attracting unwanted attention from other clubs. Given the cash being spent around them, the Royals would probably settle for the same finishing position next year.
Reading’s task now is to avoid the fate of Wigan, who only clung on to a Premiership place at the death after enjoying a brilliant first season. With Coppell in charge no one will be resting on their laurels and 2007/08 should be another enjoyable one for Reading fans.