What happened last season?
In short: We were top, briefly. We ended up finishing seventh.
In long: We started very brightly in the August sun as we beat Brighton a bit more comfortably than the scoreline suggested. The trip to West Ham in the week saw a cracking game settled by the Champions League winner that West Ham could throw onto the pitch. There were more wins and a few losses that perhaps we could have won. But that is the Reading way. Why beat teams at the bottom of the league when you can lose 1-0? It is something that has been a problem since we moved to the Madjeski and will probably carry on for a few seasons yet.
We went top in late September. Having gone out of the cup in the week to Watford, we traveled up to Vicarage Road and took home all three points from a Sidwell header. And we stayed top or thereabouts for a few weeks, getting solid points from Ipswich and an actually pretty decent Leeds side as well as decent wins against Stoke and thrashing Crewe.
If the whole season had been like this, we probably would have gone up. So what went wrong?
A small squad really didn't help. Kitson scored 19 goals in 37 games in spite of being injured for large chunks of the season. The replacement players were also either injured or terminally out of form. Never mind, the fans collectively think. There's that new-fangled transfer window coming up. Get a half decent young Premiership striker on loan and that'll more than cover. And while we're there, a defender would help. So who do we sign? Les Ferdinand and Martin Keown. Yes, you could argue that they were alright and yes, they did add experience to the squad, but that was not really what I expected and not at all what I thought was necessary for the side.
And, in my opinion, it showed. Keown only played in five games, starting three, while Ferdinand played in fourteen, but only scored one goal. Some of his substitute appearances did change the course of games, but it was all a bit too little, too late. After a brief Christmas flurry where we looked good, beating a few mediocre, mid-table sides comfortably, we failed to win in the league for nearly three months. It wasn't a freak run of playing the top sides either, the Gillinghams, Crewes and Plymouths of this world stopped us from winning.
Our seasonal big win against West Ham came and went with Kitson back and scoring a hat-trick. Makes you wonder what the management must have done in those months when we were losing so that only the arrival into town of Pardew and 'Is 'Appy 'Ammers could motivate the side? But we followed that up with defeat at Rotherham and a scrappy win at Brighton. After Nicky Forster had been told he was free to go, he was recalled because the squad was too thin and promptly scored. He has gone now, so it didn't really matter.
We beat Sunderland despite playing as bad as anything I've seen all season and set ourselves up for a fairly tough run-in but one that we could win more than once in. But the spine goes again and it is the last away day of the season that sums up everything. A bright start but once Wigan scored, it was over. No attempt to claw back into the game until it was far, far too late.
What's going to happen next season?
We'll finish seventh, missing out on the play-offs by a win instead of a loss.
The core of the side is decent, and if we can keep players like Kitson and 'Best Player Outside of the Premiership' Sidwell, then we'll win more than we lose. Kitson is a class player and will play in the Premiership. We've cut great big chunks out of the squad and these gaps need filling up. It was a small squad that did for us last season and we've made it smaller, with only two Irish kids and the possibility of a player or two that Coppell had managed at Brentford in so far to bolster the first XI. That's one thing that has happened - a large number of Coppell's old players coming in. Some have been pretty decent, others less so and thankfully heading back to where they came. Which appears to be Brentford.
There's a niggling feeling that we're trying to consolidate too much. Yes, that is a very sensible move and means that we have a base on which to build. But we had the chance to really push on last season and chose not to. Coppell is a good manager, but he's still dealing with what is Pardew's side. It shows that the midfielders were better playing in a three-man central midfield and it shows that they were better playing to the previous system. The two January signings were short-termist in the extreme and contributed very little to both performances and results.
Do I trust Coppell to change all this?
I did last year. I respected that he was forced to deal with the previous manager's team. But after eighteen months, this should be his side. The creases should be ironed out by now. He should know what players he needs, what players can be trusted to play where. Watching us against Wigan, I saw nothing that made me think the side had even played together before.
We'll do alright. We'll win a few big games, one less than last year now that West Ham have got promoted. We'll lose some games we should win. We might make the play-offs.
But, look back at these predictions over the last few years and it's the same comments. We're in positions that we've never really achieved consistently ever and the football is an improvement on what has gone in the past. The stadium is fuller than it has been. We're gradually finding our voice as fans. These are good things but we're not really going anywhere. And that is worrying.
EDIT: We've just broken our transfer record on Leroy Lita and signed a solid defensive midfielder in Gunnarsson and, now, our side, Coppell's side, is beginning to take shape. That serves me right for writing this a month or so before the season starts.
Soundbites(from assorted census correspondents)
"I don't think Wales are going to win the World Cup"
"It should say 'Which is better, mud or dust?'
"Whoever collated these questions is deranged." (tell me about it - ed)
"Der weiss Elefant ist uberall ein Seltenheit in der Welt"
"The Panama hat does not, in fact, come from Panama. It's origins lie in Ecuador. I do not know the capital of Ecuador."
"I don't have steel plates in my feet.
They're just well 'ard!"
"Part II 4 (3) of the Money Laundering regulations 2003 states that as soon as reasonably practicable after contact is made between an applicant for business and a person/firm carrying out relevant business, satisfactory evidence of the applocant's identity must be produced."
"I'm 10 years old and live in Ecuador so I should no where my capital is!"
"It did not rain as much as it should have in the winter"
"Would you like to buy Shaun Goater?"
"A golden eagle can see a rabbit from two miles away"
"That World Cup question - it's a bit unfair on the Welsh fans, isn't it? What with them already being out more than a year before the tournament starts.
"Dust anybody? Dust?"
"If you stood every car in the world end to end, some of them would float into space and the others would fall over."