Monsieur Salut writes: what’s the betting on Chris Coleman making his home debut as Sunderland manager with a win against Reading (and football accumulator pages may well be the place to find the answer)? After the relief of the win last Saturday – our first league victory since mid-August and only the second of the season – there is pressure to make it two-in-a-row but also a degree of momentum and the confidence winning brings to any team. To Newcastle fans, that translates as thinking beating Burton is roughly the same as winning the World Cup.
Our Reading Who are You? interviewee, Anthony Smith, warmly recommended by Terry Pattinson, a New*as*le supporter who has previously done the honours and may well do so again unless we go up or down), covers Reading for Berkshire newspapers. He’s grown to like the Royals despite roots in South Wales – his club is Swansea – and an inexlicable fondness for Spurs. He overcame a formidable workload to find time to answer our questions. I couldn’t have taken it solely on the word of Terry, a Mag let’s face it, but Anthony comes across as the top bloke he said he was – and he clearly knows his stuff …
Salut! Sunderland: we’re both in a bit of a state, us in the bottom three and you still closer to it than you’d like despite the midweek win. What has gone wrong for the Royals and will they find way of climbing the table?
Anthony Smith: we’ve all heard about a Wembley hangover and there is definitely a bit of that going on. Remember, Reading were 3-1 up on penalties in the Championship play-off final in May, but ended up losing to Huddersfield. It was a huge blow for the club, players and manager.
You will be aware of our goalkeeping crisis. Vito Mannone had many more good days than bad with us (and was a tower of strentgh for Bradley Lowery and his family, albeit less famously than Jermain). How is he doing for Reading and should we ask for him back?
Vito took time to settle in but has been outstanding in recent weeks. It says much about his character that he pulled out of the squad minutes before the 2-2 draw at Bolton last week when his mum, Elisa, suffered a life-threatening stroke.
He flew straight back to Italy then returned to Reading at the end of last week to keep successive clean sheets in a 0-0 draw with Sheffield Wednesday and 3-0 win over Barnsley. That’s incredible professionalism. Sadly, I think he’s happy at Reading for now, so doubt you’ll get him back!
The other link that stands out is Paul McShane, who seems to have served a series of clubs well. How – if he plays – will he handle Lewis Grabban, whose goals represent our one bright spark of a rotten season?
Paul will mark Grabban closely, there’s no question about that. McShane and Liam Moore are forming a tidy partnership in central defence, so responsibility will fall on them both, I guess.
The funny thing is Grabban struggled at Reading on loan last season, scoring just three goals in 16 Championship games, although he started some of those games as a wide midfielder. Seems he’s finding his form for the Black Cats!
You hold a senior sports role with the Newsquest newspaper group. Does that involve covering or overseeing coverage of Reading and is your interest in the club purely professional or are you also a supporter? If not, which is your team?
I’m the sports editor for a group of newspapers all over Berkshire including the Reading Chronicle, and also the main Reading FC writer. I covered the Royals home and away for 14 years until redundancies kicked in. Now I mostly just do home games.
I’m not a fan but having watched Reading since 1998 I obviously have a soft spot, especially as you get to know all the people/staff connected with the club rather well. But I’m a Valleys boy originally and follow Swansea City who were my closest team. I also like a bit of Spurs and always have done.
Who, on their days, are the Reading performers and where is strengthening urgently required?
Centre-back Liam Moore is attracting a lot of Premier League interest and has been an excellent signing by Jaap Stam from Leicester City.
Ex-Chelsea and England U21 midfielder John Swift has also been impressive, though he is injured and won’t play Saturday.
Yann Kermorgant notched 19 league goals last season and is slowly returning to fitness after surgery in the summer. When he’s fit, he’s still a handful at 36. Also worth keeping an eye on Mo Barrow and Sone Aluko, who offer loads of pace and trickery out wide.
We associated the Reading of recent times with Sir John Madejski. He is still co-chairman but the ownership is Chinese. Assess his impact on the club and how the current ownership structure works in practice.
If Sir John Madejski hadn’t stepped in at the 11th hour and bought Reading FC and all its debt back in December 1990 then club may not even exist. Back then Robert Maxwell unveiled a crazy scheme to unite Reading with bitter rivals Oxford United to form the Thames Valley Royals.
Thankfully, Madejski and a few others managed to avert this catastrophe by taking ownership of the club. Then a few years later Madejski recognised Reading had outgrown Elm Park so masterminded the move to the Madejski Stadium in 1998. He was a hands-on chairman with a big presence around the town and he ploughed millions of his own money into the club – without getting much of a return.
These days, you rarely get to meet club owners, many of whom are foreign, and it’s the same with Reading’s Chinese owners. They keep a low profile, whereas Madejski was in the paper every week and always available on the phone etc.
Guess times have changed.
What are your memories of the excellent first season in the Premier League – and the tumble that followed?
That was a brilliant time to be covering Reading, it really was. Steve Coppell was a superb manager and lovely guy and nobody was more chuffed for him and the players than I was.
Reading finished 8th in their first season in the PL. But they failed to invest in the team that summer, sold some of their top players for big money and never replaced them.
So I wasn’t that surprised when things went wrong the following season and they were relegated.
Is Jaap Stam the man to lead the club back to the Premier and will he be given time?
He could be – he was one penalty kick at Wembley away from winning promotion last season, so he certainly has all the traits required. I sincerely hope he is given time – the club say it’s a three-year project and that promotion is not imperative this season anyway.
And realistically, what is the most a club and town of this size can hope for in footballing terms?
The history books will show you Reading have spent the majority of their existence in the bottom two divisions of the football league. So in a way, this past decade has been the most successful in the club’s history by some distance!
If Reading can remain as one of the strongest Championship teams and maybe dip in an out of the Premier League without breaking the bank, then I think most fans will be happy.
Which Reading players have given you most pleasure, in the Premier seasons or at other times?
I could be here all day, so I’ll narrow it down to a few. I was lucky enough to see Michael Gilkes play and he was a wonderful winger. When he raced down the wing at Elm Park the whole South Bank would be roaring him on.
I was also a huge fan of Darren Caskey in the 1990, though there could be a little Spurs bias there.
More recently, I loved watching Kevin Doyle and Dave Kitson play up front and the likes of Steve Sidwell and James Harper dominate the opposition midfielders.
And allowing for any necessary diplomacy, who should have been allowed nowhere near Elm Park/Madejski?
Mark Reilly. Signed from Kilmarnock by Tommy Burns in 1999, played six games, then shipped out of town. Awful. Closely followed by Emerse Fae, once a club-record signing.
Your personal Reading FC highlights as supporter/journalist?
Having too many drinks back the Madejski Stadium after Reading won promotion to the Premier League in 2006. John Madejski was hammered and great entertainment!
Relegation is never sweet. Any other notable lows?
Losing to non-league Aylesbury in the Berks & Bucks Cup final with virtually a full first-team costing millions. Think it was 1999. I can still hear former assistant manager Martin Allen screaming at the players afterward. He was fuming!
Sunderland: your thoughts on the present plight, the club, its fans, Chris Coleman?
The club’s too big to go down – though many have disproved this theory. From the outside it seems changing managers too often and selling your crown jewels has caught up with the Black Cats. Sunderland fans are always superb, but they will only take so much disappointment and they deserve better than what is presently being served up.
But, being Welsh and a Swansea supporter, I’m a big fan of Cookie Coleman and I hope he can turn it around for you.
If not dealt with, did you you see our steep decline coming?
Not really, I doubt many from the outside did, not to this extent anyway.
Hand on heart, where will the two clubs finish this season?
Both around mid-table.
What is your impression of the standard of play and refereeing in the Championship?
I love watching Championship games. The “them and us” culture in the Premier League where it’s the top six and then the rest doesn’t exist in the Championship. Anyone can beat anyone and that keeps it exciting! As for refereeing standards, they can vary from very good to very bad. You see some shocking decisions.
This should perhaps be called the Niasse Question: is his groundbreaking punishment a sign that football is at last getting to grips with cheating, or has he been harshly terated?
Nah, banning players is the only way to stop simulation in my opinion.
Will you be at the match? What will be the score?
I won’t be but a colleague will. I’m going for 1-1.
Anthony Smith on himself:
Interview: Colin Randall