(Photo: Action Images via Reuters)
By Robert Haggis
As Christopher Schindler stroked home the winning penalty in the Championship playoff final back in May, it is unlikely that Reading were happy to see history repeat itself. Having lost 4-2 to Swansea at the same stage in 2011, in one of the best finals in living memory, the next season the Royals were predicted to endure mid-table mediocrity.
However, they defied expectations, and in a stunning late season burst, won 14 games in a row to seal the 2011/12 Championship title. 5 years later and the chances of history repeating itself are increasingly slim, with Jaap Stam facing a striking crisis before the season has even begun.
It was surprising that the Royals’ striking options lasted so long last season, with 35-year-old ex-Bournemouth striker Jan Kermogant tasked with leading the line, with little in reserve. With Kermogant having undergone surgery on his hip and his groin and back-up striker Dominic Samuel sold to Blackburn, Jaap Stam is now desperately scrabbling around to find a short-term replacement.
His task is not easy; he has to find a striker good enough to plug the gap whilst Kermogant recovers, but will then be willing to step aside once the Frenchman returns. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, who played for Iceland at Euro 2016, has signed on a three-year deal from Wolves, although his striking record in the Black Country was far from impressive, scoring 3 goals in 48 appearances.
Stam may in fact look towards Reading’s youth set-up, which has been churning out top quality youngsters for the past few years. The next model to roll off the production line is Danny Loader, a 17-year-old prodigy who has impressed so far in pre-season. He scored 5 goals in 15 games for the Royals’ Under-18 side before graduating to the Under-23 side last season, where he played 10 games in Premier League 2, before spending his summer with England Under-17s, who finished second behind Spain at the Euro Under-17 Championships.
Kermogant’s injury may turn out to be a blessing in disguise if Loader gets a chance to shine. With raw pace and an eye for goal, Loader continued his rapid ascent with 4 goals in a pre-season friendly against QPR a few weeks ago, and his impressive form could see him handed a start on the first day of the season against the same opposition. Whilst his rise from promising Under-18 academy player to first team squad regular has been remarkable, Stam will be careful not to introduce Loader too early.
If Stam is to repeat the feats of McDermott et al from 2011, his striking woes are not the only source of worry heading in to the new season. The Madjeski Stadium was a fortress, with their home form in the main carrying them in to the playoffs. A dreadful away record, backed up by one of the leakiest defences in the league, was the main reason why they didn’t challenge Brighton and Newcastle for automatic promotion, with the 6-0 away loss to Norwich a real nadir in an otherwise successful season.
Little has been done to address these problems in the transfer market, with ex-Sunderland ‘keeper Vito Mannone replacing the recently departed Ali Al-Habsi, in the only defensive reshuffling of the window so far. Perhaps with an amount of time in pre-season spent on the training ground with the defence, Stam has been able to impart some words of wisdom and his coaching will be enough to plug any of the holes that were on show last season.
With new talents like Loader providing fresh momentum to the team and temporarily plugging the hole left by Kermogant, and Stam’s coaching shoring up the defence, there is no reason why the Royals cannot overcome the heartbreak of Wembley and see history repeat itself once again.