Who Are We?
The 2005/06 Championship season ended with Steve Coppell’s Reading top of the tree by some margin, if many football fans hadn’t heard of Reading before, they knew who they were now.
Not that they’d let you know it at every away game at the beginning of Reading’s first ever top-flight season in their history. “Who are ya” rang out around the grounds when the Berkshire outfit turned up, fortunately for us fans, Coppell always had an answer.
I have vivid memories of being called into work on the first Saturday of the season, I couldn’t believe my luck. I walked into work with a portable radio hidden inside my jacket and an earpiece taped to my arm and rested in my palm. BBC Radio Berkshire would prove to be my saviour and downfall on the same day, able to maintain a straight face when sneaking in the odd listen, discovering Reading were 2-0 down to Middlesbrough after 20 minutes.
When Dave Kitson pulled one back, I allowed myself a little fist pump, stood at the back of the store by this point. As the seconds began to feel like minutes, I got more and more anxious for an equaliser, all whilst trying to hide the fact I was listening to the game on the job, in full view of customers and staff. Then it happened, Steve Sidwell arriving late in the box and tucking away an Ingimarsson cut-back, barely 60 seconds had passed since Kitson had scored, but it felt like a lifetime. To say I lost my head was an understatement “GET IN THERE, GAME ON” I bellowed, to the absolute bemusement of everyone in the shop at the time.
I was swiftly sent on an impromptu break, by possibly the most understanding manager, to see out the rest of the game. A horrific injury suffered by Kitson at the hands of Chris Riggot did nothing to temper my pounding heart, with the half-time whistle blown just seconds later. Leroy Lita would replace the injured Kitson as the second half resumed, and he made light work of making an impact on the game, just nine minutes after coming on, a goalmouth scramble resulted in Leroy crashing the ball into the roof of the net to give the Royals the lead for the first time, and the Royals claimed their first ever Premier League win.
Can You See Us Now?
That game set a benchmark for the rest of the season, and it would play out in a similar fashion many times over throughout. Back-to-back losses to Aston Villa and Wigan was a prelude to an undefeated September, and Manager of the Month award for Coppell. Four consecutive defeats would follow in October, before three wins in four through November. This wild inconsistency bought both frustration and joy to fans in equal measure, six games without a win over Christmas, made way for five wins in six and another Manager of the Month award for Coppell in January.
Reading finished 8th in their first-ever season in the top flight, just a single point outside of the Europa League places and incredibly just 13 points behind Liverpool in 3rd place. When you look back over those run of games without a win in October, December and April, had Reading converted just six of those games from losses to draws, paired with converting the draws against Watford, Pompey, Charlton and Blackburn, all winnable games for the Royals that year, they’d have finished in the Champions League places.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing and often people can pick the bones out of results of a season, and have relegated teams winning the league, but the margins, in this case, were so slim, it made finishing in the top 4 all that more plausible.
What made Steve Coppell so special was his ability to stay so calm when others were flustered. His press conferences and post-match reactions measured and informative, his decision to sit in the stands for most games, gave him a tactical perspective his counterparts seldom saw mid-match. This calm and measured approach rubbed off on the players and in moments when many would have seen red, the players simply got up dusted themselves down and got on with it.
Coppell’s door is always open policy, kept his players happy and included in the running of the team, he created a family ethos around the dressing room, that many of the players have since said they hadn’t experienced before or since. Every player to a man played for each other and played for the club, the total transfer expenditure in the summer prior to the start of the season reflected that, spending a miserly £1.8m on Sam Sodje from Brentford and Seoul Ki-Hyung from Wolves.
Put that into perspective to what Fulham and Wolves spent this Summer upon promotion to the Premier League, spending £98m and £65m respectively, I’m well aware the market has evolved dramatically in the last decade, but when you compare it to Birmingham for example who spent £12m and Charlton who spent £8m in the same year, it adds context to how little Reading actually spent. It was a display of real faith in the squad that had performed so well the year before, and it paid off in a big way, allowing fans of the club to experience the best-ever season in the history of the club.
Second Season Syndrome
The second season in the Premier League under Coppell did not go as well as the first. A catalyst for the poor form was the loss of Steve Sidwell to Chelsea in the transfer window and a lot of teams had figured out how Reading set-up tactically without him. Expenditure on transfers was once again the lowest in the league, spending approximately £4.5m on six new players.
Khalifa Cisse and Emerse Fae were brought in to plug the gap left by Sidwell and Liam Rosenior would provide some Premier League experience at right-back, it would be a baptism of fire to start the season off.
A double-header against Manchester United and Chelsea is never a good start for any side let alone Reading, they did well to get a point out of United, before losing 2-1 to Chelsea. An 11-goal slobber knocker between the Royals and Pompey would tell you all you needed to know about Reading’s season that year, ultimately losing out 7-4. The game stands as a record in the Premier League for most goals in a game over a decade later, and yet it was almost broken in the same season. Coppell was losing his magic touch, seemingly having no play B, his dour presentation to the media now being portrayed as lacklustre rather than a calming influence.
It all came to a head in December at White Hart Lane, in a ten-goal game, which again would not fall in Reading’s favour, finishing 6-4 and kickstarting a pointless streak of eight games, that pain wouldn’t come to an end until March.
Coppell and his team were fully embroiled in a relegation dogfight, wins against Middlesborough and Manchester City provided light relief, before losing to Liverpool. The beating of Birmingham would be the last time Reading would take all 3 points prior to the final day drubbing of Derby County.
Ultimately, the Royals would be relegated on goal difference after a 90th-minute Danny Murphy winner for Fulham against Portsmouth allowing them to equal Reading’s 36 points for the season.
The Wolf of Broad Street
The sadness of relegation for many fans subsided upon the more concerning news Steve Coppell was to announce his resignation. A call to arms from the supporter’s groups saw many calls for Coppell’s reconsideration, almost anti-protesting at the ground and Hogwood. It was this act by the fans that really opened my eyes to how influential one man had been on the club over the previous five years. Coppell put in place so many best practices at the club, many of which have stood the test of time and remain a decade later, fining players who were late for training, not one of his more popular decision, but one that demanded professionalism from his players.
One tradition Coppell put in place that many clubs have adopted since is the initiation song. New signings would have stand up in front of the whole team of players and staff and sing their favourite song, the idea being it creates camaraderie and a bonding moment for the players.
Steve would kindly oblige by signing a one-year extension on his contract to the delight of fans and in an almost Wolf of Wall Street moment at a press conference shortly after, Coppell exclaimed to the bloodthirsty press, hoping to report on his resignation.
“I’m not leaving, the fans have been brilliant in asking me to stay, and it’s one thing I can never do is say no to the fans.”
Coppell would give it his best shot at bouncing back first time and it looked like it might happen too. A strong start to the season saw the Royals occupy the top three spots in the league for a vast majority of the campaign, but for inconsistent performances and some downright bad luck in the final ten games, Reading and Coppell would have surely been promoted again.
Coppell finally stepped down after losing 3-0 to Burnley in the play-offs, bringing an end to a six-year run from one of football’s most influential Game Changers.