Steve Coppell’s face, notable for giving little away, told it all. His Reading side had spent the best part of an hour of this Play-Off semi final bossing an inferior Burnley outfit as they searched for the all-important, tie-levelling, goal, And then conceded two sucker punches. That those sucker punches were of the most stunning quality mattered little to the 53 year-old from Norris Green. His face bore the expression of someone who knew the time had come for a parting of the ways.
And so it proved. Within hours of the final whistle at the Madejski Stadium Coppell had announced his resignation as Royals manager, bringing the curtain down on a five-and-a-half-year-spell described by Chairman John Madejski as “The most successful period in the club’s history”. For once, overstatement did not come into it.
Coppell was apologetic to Reading fans for his failure to guide the club to promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt, and appears to have left on good terms- a rarity in this modern age of severance packages and lawsuits. It is known that he contemplated leaving the club last summer following relegation, but was persuaded to stay by the “positive reaction of the club’s supporters”. However, the club’s shoddy end to a season which promised much- the Royals are without a home win since January 27- has meant a parting of the ways, which most observers believe to be in the best interests of all parties.
Oh how different things should have been. Reading were most people’s favourites to achieve a swift return to the top flight, with the nucleus of their Premier League side retained despite offers from elsewhere- for Kevin Doyle & Stephen Hunt in particular, and some Championship know-how added to the ranks in the likes of Chris Armstrong & Jay Tabb. Early season form seemed to suggest that these predictions had been correct, as the Royals swept to the Championship’s summit in autumn with a three-goal demolition of eventual Champions Wolves at Molineux. Doyle & Hunt were showing Premier League form, and James Harper & Marek Matejovsky were the best central midfield pairing in the league.
Quite what went wrong after that is mysterious. Goals dried up, Doyle ended the season with 18, but only two of those came post-Christmas, whilst Hunt ended the season on the substitute’s bench, with Mali international Jimmy Kebe & young Welsh star Simon Church preferred for the make-or-break clash with Burnley yesterday. The team itself only managed 19 goals in 23 games following the turn of the year. Indeed, their starting eleven last night had notched just 16 times between them all season. Burnley’s had managed 69.
Former Royals skipper Adrian Williams opined that the side’s home form was what had cost them the chance of promotion, and ultimately Coppell his job. He isn’t far wrong, dropped points to relegation candidates Nottingham Forest, Barnsley, Charlton & Southampton cost at least as much as defeats to promotion rivals Birmingham & Sheffield United. Coppell’s side finished just six points shy of automatically-promoted Birmingham, and would have earned promotion had they beaten the Blues on the final day. Predictably, they came up short at the Madejski.
Last night they were the better side against Owen Coyle’s over-achieving Burnley, without ever looking likely to win. With Doyle ruled out thanks to an Achilles injury, joining Noel Hunt on a treatment table that accounted for 30 of Reading’s 72 goals, it was left to Shane Long to lead the line. Dave Kitson, re-signed late in the season on loan from Stoke, joined Hunt & Glen Little on an experience-packed bench as Coppell gave a first Royals start to the 19 year-old Church on the right hand side of attack.
It was a move that, whilst understandable given the insipid displays offered up by Hunt, Kitson & co in the latter games of the season, could always backfire. As it transpired, neither Church, Kebe nor Long could breach the Burnley backline, and by the time Coppell had introduced his three more-experienced men from the sidelines, Martin Paterson had pretty much ended the contest with the most superb of 30 yard strikes. Left footed and struck as sweetly as you like, it left Marcus Hahnemann clutching at fresh air as it whistled into his right hand corner.
Reading must be sick of the sight of Coyle, who is building a smart reputation as one of the brightest young managers around. The Scot was a scorer at Wembley in the 1995 First Division Play-Off final when Bolton overcame a 2 goal deficit to clinch promotion to the Premiership at the Royals’ expense, and he proved their undoing again here. His side defended in numbers during a first half in which they were palpably second best, riding their luck at times through a Brian Jensen save from Long, and a handball by the same player outside of his penalty area that, fortunately, was punished only by a yellow card by referee Mike Riley.
But once Paterson’s exocet had knocked the stuffing out of the home side inside of five second half minutes, there was only one side dreaming of Wembley. Steven Thompson put the icing on the cake seven minutes later with a strike of similar quality, a beautiful dipping volley with his left foot that did Hahnemann all ends up, and crashed home via the underside of the bar. Reading must have wished for the final whistle there and then, the final thirty-three minutes was painful. Long summed up the mood of the club with a frustration-fuelled kick of the corner flag, whilst late chances for Kitson & Tabb were snatched at with understandable anger.
Coppell’s departure will leave a void at the Madejski, that much is certain. With the likes of Doyle, Hunt & Harper all likely to leave the club, his replacement will find not only some big (if unspectacular) shoes to fill in the manager’s office, but also a hole in his playing staff. It remains to be sign whether Reading a) have the resources the replenish the squad significantly, and b) can attract the necessary calibre of player to Berkshire. Coppell proved adept at getting the best from little-known players- Doyle & Long arrived from the Irish league for a pittance, whilst the likes of Harper & Steve Sidwell were plucked from Arsenal’s youth set-up- yet when given money to spend often found life in the transfer market tough- the likes of Emerse Fae, Kalifa Cisse & Kebe bear witness to this.
A side that has failed to win any of their last nine home matches, despite a playing squad that isn’t vastly different to the one which saw them finish 8th in their debut top-flight season, suggests changes are required, and in Madejski they have a Chairman with undoubted passion for the club. The question is, who can replace the most successful manager in the club’s history?