Friday, February 16, 2007

Little Steps in the Reading Revolution

Little Steps in the Reading Revolution.
Today Manchester United face Reading in the FA Cup in a clash between the Premier League leaders and the Football League champions.

The 2006/07 Premiership season in England looks tiresomely familiar with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal occupying the top four positions.

The Red Devils’ fine form has cleverly defused the fan dissatisfaction over Malcolm Glazer's takeover, as the team has moved into pole position for the title, leaving Chelsea's billionaire franchise licking the wounds of the personality clash between Coach Jose Mourinho and owner Roman Abramovich.

If there really is a story worth cheering it surely must be Reading's remarkable ascent to sixth spot in the Premiership by February.

The Royals have turned back the clock to the days when clubs rising from the old League Division Two were expected to provide a challenge in the top flight. Nottingham Forest won the old Division One in 1977-'78 in their first season there, a feat that seems as good as impossible twenty years later.

Reading steamrollered the opposition in the Coca-Cola Championship last season, smashing records as they went – the earliest clinching of a title (25th March), the longest unbeaten run in the second tier (33 games) and the highest points tally in any English professional division (106).

Despite their success, Reading are still one of the smallest and poorest clubs in the Premier League. Even in the Championship, their wage bill was only average for the division and their squad has no obvious stars, their internationals representing countries such as Iceland, South Korea and the USA.

What Reading have in abundance is a playing system that works wonders, backed by a shrewd coach in Steve Coppell, who has fostered an indomitable team spirit and camaraderie. When Reading play, no individual stands out but the team works and thinks as one instead.

The Royals in the blue and white hoops might remain unsung heroes but with the prospect of European football beckoning for the Berkshire side, the more the football world will have to sit up and take notice.

One such unsung hero is right winger Glen Little, a South Londoner whose previous career encompassed spells with Glentoran, Burnley and Crystal Palace.

Little’s right-wing raids have provided several assists for Reading's strikers over the previous two seasons, but despite his team’s and his career’s current golden age, the 31-year old remains modest and wary about predicting great things for Reading this season.

"This is where we want to be and we are enjoying the season," Little told Soccerphile, "but we know there are going to be ups and downs. We knew we would win some matches and lose others but the main aim was to stay in this division and at the moment you can't really complain about that."

Thus far his club has won 13, drawn four and lost 10 of their 27 Premier League games. They have not beaten any of the top four teams, but have tied the Champions 2-2 at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United 1-1 at home and lost narrowly (2-3) to them at Old Trafford.

"It was disappointing when we had back to back defeats against Chelsea and Arsenal," Little recalls, "but that's when you know you’re in the Premiership when you play those types of teams. Sometimes you see a bit of a gulf but you don’t judge our season by the Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea games. We know the teams we can beat and take points off."

Reading's lofty position sits in marked contrast to fellow promoted club Watford, who are rock bottom of the table with a dozen games remaining.

"You only have to look at the other teams who have come up with us – Sheffield United and Watford are struggling, and so are West Ham and Charlton too."

Talk of UEFA competition at the Madejski however, is a bridge too far for him right now.

"I am not too sure about that," said Little, "although our aim was to stay up by Christmas and then think about pushing on like West Ham and Wigan did last year. Whether Europe is possible - let us wait and see."

If there is a secret to Reading's success, Little feels sure it is because they have their feet, as well as the ball, firmly on the ground.

"We're quite a laid back down to earth club anyway where no one gets carried away so we are just enjoying the season – these are the sorts of teams we want to play against even though we have been hurt a few times.

You only have to look at the record of how many teams come up and go straight back down to know you would rather be here getting beat 4-0 by Arsenal than playing the likes of QPR in the Championship," he chuckles.

"You do have to enjoy every moment because you never know how long it will last and you just have to look forward to each game and give it your best shot."

© Sean O’Conor & Soccerphile

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