Wheat, Chaff and Trevor
By Matt Rowson
How do you tell, that's what I want to know. Is there a book? An evening class you can take?
I mean, sometimes it's obvious, a banker. Anyone who remembers Kevin Phillips in a pretty unspectacular Watford team in the mid nineties will know what I mean... a class player, even a player with massive but unrealised potential, can stand out from the dross. With Phillips, you knew that if he played for a team that actually created any chances he'd score hundreds.
But in general, there seem to be no hard and fast rules, no spotter's guide to successful-lower-division-strikers-wot-might-do-good-further-up. Looking back ten seasons at the leading scorers in the then Division Two now League One actually Division Three reveals a right old mishmash of those were to "make it" (Marcus Stewart, then at Bristol Rovers, Shaun Goater, then at Rotherham), those that were to give it a go but never quite progress (Kyle Lightbourne, Walsall, was to move twice for half a million to Coventry and then to Stoke without ever really convincing; Karl Connolly's mardy light was extinguished when he left Wrexham for QPR). There are also a whole host of names who never got anywhere near progressing beyond Division Three... why did nobody take a chance on Gary Martindale, who hit twenty six in all competitions for Notts County and Peterborough but was playing for Telford by the time he was thirty? Miguel de Souza, twenty goals for Wycombe, also playing non league well before his thirtieth birthday?
You might answer that the fact that these guys drifted to non-league proves that they weren't any good, that the upper echelons were right to reject them. But that logic inherently makes the assumption that the current system is flawless, which we know to our cost not to be the case. Trevor Senior, anyone? Bought from then second division (old money) Reading in 1987 largely on the strength of a prolific goalscoring record in Division Three? And yes I know that this was nearly twenty years ago, but more recent history is also littered with strikers who've not quite (or not remotely, as in Senior's case) made it higher up the tree despite prolific records lower down... Lloyd Owusu, Carl Asaba, Chris Greenacre.
The Premiership (not Premier, not a Ship) has long since progressed beyond gambling on players from divisions three and four of course; given Heidar's efforts over the last two seasons, particularly against top opposition, it's notable how long it took for a top flight club to actually come in for him.
But that doesn't mean that the quality isn't there to be found, as Reading's impressive-looking forward line testifies. It's still early days for Leroy Lita, still time for him to be a flash in the pan, but the steward at Ashton Gate was gushing about him before our League Cup defeat two years ago when he hadn't even started a game for the Robins, he was hardly a secret. Nor, too, was Dave Kitson, who spent a couple of years at Cambridge before Reading gambled £150k on him - money well spent, but did they know he'd work out? They can't have done, because if it was evident enough what he could do, some other bugger would have bid £200k. So what's the secret? Or is picking up lower division strikers always going to be a bit of a gamble?
If Lita's early season form does hold firm and he and Kitson can stay fit, you kinda fancy Reading to push a little more forcefully and convincingly for promotion than they have over the last couple of seasons. There are still areas where the cover in the squad is thin, particularly at the back, but you do suspect that Coppell comes out of the summer wheeling and dealing feeling quite pleased with himself.
Reading have kept a settled side in their league games thus far, the last three of which have seen them score ten without reply (albeit the 5-0 win over Millwall on Saturday has to be judged in the context of Millwall's goal being kept by assorted defenders for over an hour).
Marcus Hahnemann will keep goal, having not missed a League game for, ooh, ages. Graham Stack, on loan from Arsenal, will be on the bench - he spent a similar loan spell at Millwall last season.
At the back, Graeme Murty is still solid enough although a rib injury may have contributed to some relatively so-so performances at right back thus far. Nicky Shorey will play on the left with the much travelled Chris Makin able to fill in on either side. In the centre, Ibrahima Sonko and Ivar Ingimarsson, both known by Coppell at previous clubs, are likely to start; whilst the Royals haven't shipped many goals thus far there is a suspicion of susceptibility in the air, where Sonko is strong but occasionally loses his man, and Ingimarsson hasn't been convincing. With youngster Curtis Osama injured, cover in the centre of defence is a little thin on the ground.
In midfield, Glen Little should play on the right with American international Bobby Convey beginning to shine after a low-key first season in England on the left. Steve Sidwell and James Harper should form a familiar pairing in the centre, although ex-Hornet Boris Gunnarsson was due to feature for the first time in Reading's League Cup trip to Swansea on Tuesday evening and looks a fair bet for a place on the bench, as does flaky tart John Oster, perhaps the oddest of Reading's summer signings. The left sided Stephen Hunt, another Coppell favourite from Brentford, may also feature.
Up front, cover for Lita and Kitson is provided by Kevin Doyle and Shane Long, both signed from Cork City over the summer with Doyle enjoying the greater involvement so far than the younger Long so far.
It goes without saying that this is our biggest test so far, but just as it's dangerous to read too much into our fourth place position at this early stage, Reading's current topping of the table shouldn't be too ominous either. As Betty has intimated, at our best thus far we'll be a handful for anyone.
Perhaps inevitably, this interesting looking encounter falls over the August Bank Holiday and thus I'll be abroad celebrating our fourth (!!!) wedding anniversary.
I wonder if they'll sell that striker-spotter's book at Stansted airport?