Ahead of Manchester United’s FA Cup tie against Reading tonight, SN interviewed Josh Aspinall from Vital Reading.
Stretty News: Tell us about your season so far? Plus some crystal ball gazing to the future. Your expectation for key remaining games. Toiling Wigan Athletic the perennial Premier League survivors visit Berkshire following the FA Cup game between ourselves. On the immediate horizon crucial ties at the Madejski Stadium with fellow relegation candidates Aston Villa, Southampton and the effervescent Harry Redknapp’s struggling Queen’s Park Rangers?
Josh Aspinall: It is an overused cliché, but it really has been a rollocaster ride for us Royals fans so far. At the start of the season, we weren’t picking up wins, but the performances were there. However, as the season dragged on and we reached the 8 game mark, it was starting to become quite a concern that we hadn’t picked up a win yet. We eventually got it against Everton in a hard-fought victory, but this was probably the worst thing we could have done, as we went on a seven-game losing streak from that game on.
If you would have asked us Royals fans on the 17th December, the day we lost 5-2 to Arsenal at home and sitting rock bottom of the Premier League, whether we would stay up, we would have said not a hope in the world. Despite that, a run of fine results after that which also earned us our labels of ‘comeback kings’, it proves how football can turn around very quickly. The upcoming home ties that you mentioned, I’m sure, will define our Premier League status for years to come.
SN: Reflect on the last meeting between our clubs back in the evening of 1 December 2012, your thoughts on the game in general, and the 3-4 result in United’s favour. Interestingly, Reading after that 14th league game were in 19th place in the Premiership table with 9 points on the board, Queens Park Rangers propping up the table with 6 points?
JA: That game was absolutely crazy, but was a blessing in disguise for us, as it once again proved to McDermott out current 4-4-2 system is outdated in Europe. It’s all fine and dandy scoring three goals against a very good side, but it’s not worth anything if you are going to concede four. I wasn’t too impressed for Federici getting beat at his near post for Anderson’s goal, while Rooney’s goal again highlighted our defensive frailties from low crosses’, which was well publicised by pundits. The penalty was a needless challenge from Shorey, while Van Perise’s was again another switch-off from our backline and with the form he is in, you don’t give him that sort of chance in front of goal, as he’ll take it. The result was never in doubt before the game in my opinion, but as I mentioned before, it proved how we could no longer cope playing 4-4-2 in this division.
SN: Do you think Brian McDermott will select a weakened side for the FA Cup tie against Manchester United, with one cautious eye on the Wigan Athletic (the clichéd 6 pointer) game. Surely the ultimate goal for Reading in their inaugural season back in the top flight after a four year absence, is Premier League survival?
JA: Had I not have read McDermott’s quotes before, saying that he is going to use his full squad, I would have said he would have probably kept the team the same. Considering Brian does name a change line-up, I would have to give credit to him, as that would be a brave piece of management considering it is Old Trafford. He would be justified in doing so though, as he changed the team for the cup ties against Crawley and Sheffield United, where we accumulated seven goals in total and were very dominant performances, so those players in question probably deserve their opportunity on the big stage.
SN: Reading are currently positioned in a precarious 18th place in the Premier League table having registered 23 points on the board with 26 games completed in this campaign. Can Reading avoid the drop with 12 games to save themselves, with some pundits implying a canny manager and new wealthy investors, may not be enough to retain Premiership status. The magic figure to achieve safety was thought to be in the vicinity of 40 points in previous seasons, what points tally do Reading need to gather too ensure they retain top-tier football next season ?
JA: I would highly doubt we will reach the 40 point marker, but I still strongly believe we can do it without that mythical points tally. As I mentioned, the home games against Wigan, Southampton, Villa and QPR will make or break our season. If we all four, I’m 90% sure we will avoid the drop. If we win three of the four, I’d be about 60%. Anything less than nine points from that batch of games, I feel it may be time up for us. The only sides I fear out of that four are Aston Villa, for their overwhelming attack, and Southampton for the way they are playing at the minute. I would dismiss games such as Arsenal and Man Utd away, as well as Man City at home, we have much bigger fish to fry as the saying goes.
SN: Who do you believe will be relegated this season and why ?
JA: You have put me in an awkward position here my friend. I don’t think QPR are going to survive, you can look at all the big names they have, but I still see Clint Hill and Shaun Derry on the team sheet every week, so I can’t give them much hope. As well as Wigan can play on their day, I think they must be running low on their nine lives and their run in is extremely tough. I can see it going to the wire between us and Villa, which makes the game at the Madejski so crucial. I’m going to led heart rule over head on this odd occasion and say we will escape, with Villa going down at our expense. I’m confident we have the spirit to fight til the final game, especially considering we have always been a side that has excelled in the final half of the season under McDermott.
SN: John Madejski relinquished control of Reading Football Club to Russian billionaires fronted by 29 year old Anton Zingarevich in the summer past. Thames Sports Investments acquiring 51% of the shareholding of the football club. At this early juncture are TSI displaying positive signs that they are there for the long game to move Reading F C to the next level as pro – active football investors?
JA: Some asked questions when Zingarevich first took over, as when you hear foreigner with large pockets, the alarm bells start ringing. However, I can’t sing the praises of him enough, he is wonderful owner. He has a great relationship with Brian, which was brought to the forefront when he constantly defended him, despite high media pressure claiming Brian was on the verge of the sack. In terms of money, he has been very sensible. We haven’t spent major bucks in the summer or January, but we have made some very astute signings that mirror our club ethos. We have never been a club that is going to pay silly wages for players who are not worth it, with the same principle for transfer fees. Also, look up his wife Katsia Zingarevich and it will prove how he remains positive going home every Saturday after we lose…
SN: Reading gained the services of the Russian hitman Pavel Pogrebynak on a Bosman signing from Martin Jol’s Fulham in the summer transfer window. Is this a good signing for Reading. Why could Fulham not agree terms with Pogrebynak and Reading could reach a deal with the striker?
JA: No one can put their finger on why Pogrebnyak didn’t sign a deal with Fulham, but their reluctance to pay him a decent wage over the £30,000 barrier is certainly much talked about. What probably swayed a player of European calibre to join little ‘ole Reading, was probably his compatriot Zingarevich going over to Russia’s Euro 2012 base to discuss a move to Berkshire, which the Pog himself highlights as a key reasons. In terms of his start here, he hasn’t set the world alight, but he is playing in a system at the moment that doesn’t get him many chances. When we played 4-4-2, we couldn’t create the chances for him as we never had enough of the ball, yet now we have gone 4-5-1, the midfield is getting more involved in our attacking phases. He will work his socks off for the side and has great hold up play, he won’t get the credit he deserves sometimes, but on the whole, he has done a decent job.
SN:The Latvian centre back Kaspars Gorkss signed for Reading from QPR in the summer of 2011, why have Reading allowed a player considered to be key to the football club, to be loaned to Wolves a team fighting for their Championship League survival. The thinking behind this season long loan as Reading are also fighting for survival allowing an experienced time served professional to leave the club, with the possibility of a permanent switch to Molinuex in summer transfer window ?
JA: The problem with Kaspars was that he was too good for the Championship, yet wasn’t good enough for the Premier League. In the Championship, the play is a lot more direct and through the middle, which he could deal with all day long. However, the Premier League from a technical and physical perspective was too much for Gorkss to handle. He will always been fondly fought of here and it is no coincidence he earned two promotions in a row for separate clubs, but the Premier League was a set to far for him. We do have a recall option in the first 28 days if any problems did arise in our current crop of defenders.
SN: Reading have a net transfer spend in the last 10 years of minus 1. 372 million pounds, a truly fantastic performance to achieved what the football club have on a relative shoe – string budget. Is it fair however to say that Reading are a selling club when they have a top player?
JA: Before TSI and Zingarevich came in, we were very much a selling club. This can be seen most prominently through the transfers of Shane Long and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who were so crucial to our side. In all honesty, I don’t think any of our current players are anywhere near the ability of those two players I just mentioned and wouldn’t go for anywhere near the money Long and Sig went for. However, TSI give us stability and mean we don’t have to be selling key players, which is good if we want to build a squad around a certain player. It’s also quite ironic how we tried to sign Sigurdsson back for £10 million on deadline day, which again portrays the influence Zingarevich has had here from a financial point of view.
SN: In season 2005-06 Reading won promotion to the Premiership for the first time, with a record breaking 106 points for all the English leagues. Finishing in their first season in the top-tier, in a highly credible 8th position, followed by an 18th place finish and relegation in their second season in the top flight league. Tell us how difficult is it to be promoted from the Championship and to then adapt to the rigours and compete with the challenges of the money rich Premier League?
JA: It is tough; especially as he we have never had the money to build a new squad capable of avoiding a relegation dog fight in this division. When we first went up and finished eighth, I wouldn’t call it a freak accident but I would be very surprised to see another side do that in my lifetime, considering the mini-divisions that are appearing in the league. The season following was tough, as most teams knew what we were about and we still didn’t have the financial means to strengthen further. This season however, if we stay up, I can see us doing some major spending in the summer considering the money that is being talked about.
SN: There were/are ambitious plans to expand the Madejski Stadium to a capacity of 38,000 from the current limit of 24,500. Is it fair to assume this is clearly linked to Premier League survival and a conservative approach with financial investment the Reading board of directors maintain. Tell us about the plans for developing the Madejski ground and the anticipated pulling power of Reading within the Berkshire catchment area to enable Reading to fill their stadium with a capacity of 50% more than at present?
JA: When quizzed about it recently Zingarevich didn’t really hint whether it would still take place if we were relegated, but it wouldn’t surprise me if plans were halted as a result. Can I see us filling out a 38,000 at the moment? No. Give it a few years and if we are an established Premier League team, I reckon we could at a stretch. The catchment area works in our advantage in a way, as we don’t have many professional sides notably close to us, bar Swindon and Oxford, but who would want to support them?! That needs to be worked on, but if several schemes are put in place and better transport links to the Stadium, it is certainly an achievable goal.
SN: Brendan Rodgers arrived at Reading after a short period at Watford. To unceremoniously leave Reading after less than 1 year at the football club, moving onto, eventually pastures new in South Wales with Swansea. What is the background to this carousel of managerial hop-scotch maneuvers of the Irishman. Did he leave behind a feel good factor at Reading with the clubs best wishes for his future?
JA: I wouldn’t say he left behind a feel good factor, but it proved that we are still a little way off playing like Barcelona! For the previous six years under Coppell, we played a very direct style of football, differing completely from Rodgers’ philosophy of football. Reading fans also appreciated what Rodgers did and I have great respect for Brendan and for what he tried to impose on this club, it wasn’t the right time and wasn’t the right squad of players. Would I welcome him back in the future? Without a doubt, yes, but only if he was given the time and backing by the board.
SN: Brian McDermott is slowly building a fine CV with 9th and 5th place finishes in the Championship, climaxing with an outright promotion to the Premiership with a 1st place spot in his third term at the helm of the Royals. Can Reading retain the obvious ability of a young manager like McDermott who is winning admirers in various quarters and recently winning the Barclays Premiership manager of month for January 2013?
JA: To be honest, I doubt Brian’s door will be knocked on by a bigger club any time soon, but if he keeps us up, I agree it is a possibility. It was believed he was very close to joining Wolves in January last year, when the takeover was in the advanced stages, with Brian apparently not very keen on the deal happening. However, since signing a new deal to deflate any speculation and forming a superb working partnership with Zingarevich, I can see him being a Royal regardless of our Premier League status come May.
The only thing that could possibly sway Brian is the Republic of Ireland job, which he has publicly stated he would have an interest in one day. If he was to the job, I would be £330 richer though, after sticking a tenner on him being the next Ireland gaffer, so it would be very mixed emotions for me!
SN: Tell us about Brian McDermott’s background at Reading in a scouting capacity and as youth team manager. Clearly he has the ingredients to be able to accurately assess young football talent, out – with the generally overpriced Premiership and to a lesser extent the Championship teams. Is it reasonable to suggest his ability to recognise undiscovered young football players to make the step up to Reading football club is another weapon in his Armour, and there fore another tick on his burgeoning Resume?
JA: Without a doubt, it is a great asset to have. The majority of players in the squad would have been scouted by Brian, if not, managed by him in the reserves for many years. To this day, Brian is very astute in finding lower league players that are in many ways, sleeping giants. This can be seen through the acquisition of Adam Le Fondre in the summer of 2011 and most recently Hope Akpan from Crawley, who looks a bargain buy for £300,000.
SN: Your opinion of Sir Alex Ferguson?
JA: In a nutshell, one of the greatest managers of all time. To still be managing at this level at the age of 71 is quite frankly incredible. I’m too young to remember the sides he built at the start of the century, but to consistently make United such a force in Europe and domestically season-after-season, is an outstanding achievement.
SN: Historically Aldershot Town were your fiercest rivals in your football environs, can you envisage that enemy being a serious force again. Or is it simply a fact that Oxford United and Swindon Town represent a greater threat in the long-term to Readings dominance in the aptly named Didcot Triangle?
JA: I can’t really see us, Oxford and Aldershot sharing a league anytime soon, but Portsmouth fans probably said that four years ago! Swindon is a possibility if they achieve promotion this year and we go down, which both look on the cards. We have never really had a massive notable rival in recent years, instead we have seemed to have formed mini rivalries with QPR, West Ham and Cardiff.
SN: Tell us who are Readings bogey team out of all the clubs in the 4 main leagues in English – Welsh football ?
JA: Interesting question. The first team that comes to my mind is Peterborough! In the Championship last year they ended our eight game winning run by beating us comfortably 3-1 and the previous time we played them at London Road, they came from 2-0 down at half time to beat us. In the Premier League, it is probably Arsenal. Whenever we play them, not only do we lose, but we get outplayed and thoroughly outscored. We have conceded 16 goals in our last 3 games at the Madejski to Wenger’s side, which says it all really. I therefore look forward to our trip to the Emirates next month!
SN: Adam Le Fondre was your top goal scorer last season netting 12 times, superbly aiding Reading to win the Championship. Le Fondre has equaled that goal scoring feat at this stage of the season already. Impressively he was awarded the Barclays Premiership player of the month for January 2013 having played less than 90 minutes football in total for the month, being utilized regularly as a substitute.
Is Le Fondre to be likened to Javier Hernandez or a Manchester United icon Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as a super sub?
JA: Solskjaer has certainly been mentioned; make of that what you will! Alfie himself has publicly admitted he doesn’t like the tag of ‘super sub’ and wants to start games, but strange as it may sound, he is a better player from the bench. McDermott has adopted a 4-5-1system, where Pogrebnyak leads the line and as the closing stages approach, we revert to 4-4-2 and bring Le Fondre to try and win/draw the game. It has certainly worked in January, but whether we can keep deploying this tactic for the end of the season remains to be seen. I would like Alfie to start sometime soon and it wouldn’t surprise me if he did on Monday.
SN: Give your view on Manchester United’s season to date, prior to the Cup game this evening. Do you think the League Title will be heading back to the red side of Manchester?
JA: I wouldn’t say United have been outstanding overall this season as they have been in previous campaigns, but they are very much getting the job done to a superb extent. I would be very surprised if the title wasn’t heading to the red side of Manchester, 12 points is too much for City to catch up on, and especially the rampaging form you’re in.
SN: Fantasy time, You have a choice of three of Manchester United’s players. Who would you select and why?
JA: Van Persie, Carrick and Vidic. Van Persie for obvious reasons, probably the most inform striker in the world at the moment, bar the missed chances on Wednesday night. Carrick may seem a surprise but I’ve always been a massive Carrick fan. Call me crazy, but he is a very similar player to Xabi Alonso, who can sit in front of the back four and dictate the tempo of a game and have great composure on the ball, which is a player Reading could have really done with this season. Vidic, again quite self-explanatory, world class defender that would walk into any side in the world.
SN: I’m sure you will have watched with a tinge of trepidation on Wedensday evening, Manchester United’s performance against the mighty Real Madrid at the magnificent Santiago Bernabeu recording a credible 1-1 draw. Your thoughts on both teams performances and in particular the three young Red Devils; David de Gea, Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones?
JA: De Gea was impressive, made some very smart saves in the game, which will do his confidence a great boost. Welbeck is a player that I have never particularly rated as a striker, his play outside the box is good, but when he gets in there, he can make silly decisions. However, against Madrid, he proved me wrong and put in a great shift down that left hand side. I was surprised by the inclusion Phil Jones into the starting XI, but justified his manager’s decision with a mature performance. He harried the Madrid midfield, put his body on the line and proved his creativity with his pass for Van Perise in the last minute.
SN: Reading’s shirt sponsor is the up-market grocery chain Waitrose. Very suave sophisticated and overbearingly professional. Spuriously link the following British based retailers to football clubs as you think appropriate. IE; Manchester United = Harrods as an example?
JA: Sainsburys = Manchester United = always up there amongst the best.
Morrisons = Chelsea = Not the best, but always up there among the best
Lidl = Leeds = Plain and simple, no one likes it
Aldi = Reading = We haven’t got the best products, but still utilise them quite well.
Marks & Spencer = QPR = May look expensive from the outside but actually rubbish inside
Comet = Coventry = another place in financial trouble, but have some sympathy for
HMV = Portsmouth = going bust and don’t really care considering they did us no favours in our relegation battle in 2008, when they lost to Fulham at home 1-0.
Poundland = Aldershot Town = you could probably buy most of their players for a pound
Farmfoods = Crewe = they like to grow it themselves then sell it on for a decent price
Argos = Stoke = Their products aren’t the best looking, but they do the job
John Lewis = West Ham = They think they are better than they actually are
Iceland = Swindon = flogging their best product for stupidly low prices
Anne Summers = Swansea = When they are in full flow, they can play some sexy football
Harrods = Manchester City = in a word, expensive.
SN: Your thoughts on football players activities and general nonsense, dis-functional behaviour on Twitter (Joey Barton aside)?
JA: I have to admit, I do enjoy Twitter nowadays, I find it a much better source of information than most things. I’m all for footballers using it, as I believe it’s a great way to connect with fans, except when people like Joey Barton attempt to make themselves come across as some psychological guru, which he is far from. In terms of player activities, it would be good if every footballer lived life like Mario Balotelli, it would make a much better world.
SN: Name and shame; the three most unreliable sources who spew dis-ingenious, muck raking tittle tattle about Reading Football Club?
JA: I would probably narrow it down to two culprits. We have a forum called Hob Nob Anyone? (linked to our biscuitmen nickname), where people saw we are after so and so, then people take it for the absolute truth and spread it like wildfire. This then transmits to the second source, that is Twitter. It may be a good source of information and banter, but is also a good source of rubbish information. People believe anything they hear these days!
SN: Shed some detail on who are the key players Manchester United will have to pay special attention tonight in our FA Cup duel under the Old Trafford lights?
JA: The obvious one is Adam Le Fondre, who I expect to start. Brian has started him in all of our cup games and I’m sure he wants to prove a point to the gaffer that he is capable of starting games against the best teams. Another one, you may or may not have heard of is Daniel Carrico. We signed him from Sporting Lisbon at the start of January, despite a few years being linked with a £20 million to some of the top European teams. He played against West Brom a few weeks ago but was obviously off the pace after only playing two games in four months. However, it has been rumoured he will play a part on Monday, so it will be interesting to see how he gets on.
SN: One scenario for you to ponder over Josh. Could the Premier League title be done and dusted by the time Manchester City visit the Madejski Stadium in your penultimate game of the season. City having thrown in the towel and effectively gone AWOL. Providing Reading with an additional lifeline (if needed) to secure Premier League survival in beating a demoralized Citizens side. Thanks to Manchester United’s resolve and determination to prise the League trophy back home?
JA: Funnily enough, I was talking to a Man United fan the other day about this and said it could make a difference. In a way, City looked like a side that knew they had already lost the title when they lost 3-1 to Southampton, it was a gutless performance. Even if we play a half-bothered Man City side, I don’t particularly fancy our chances, but that fight and drive could earn us a result, as it did against Chelsea.
SN: Brian McDermott along with several other Premier League clubs, whisked his Reading players off to Dubai almost immediately after your narrow 2 – 1 loss to Stoke City at the Brittania Stadium. Was this for basic training in a sunny winter climate or to further improve the team spirit and bond the football players at the club for the final push of an arduous season, both in the League and the FA Cup competition?
JA: The main reason behind it was how the turfs over here in Berkshire were not being very kind, so it gave us an opportunity to train without disruption. I don’t think our team spirit is a problem at all really, in fact it is probably our strong point as a club, but it obvious does no harm in that respect.
SN: A successful season and a disaster of a season for the Royals (Biscuitmen), discuss Josh?
JA: So far, I still believe it has been a success. Had you have offered me this position at the start of the season; I would have probably taken it. We may have signed players with international and Premier League experience, but the main core of our team was predominantly Championship players that worked their backsides off to get into this league. The Prem was always going to be tough and we knew it, it was just a matter of us staying in it and fighting til the very end, which we are doing. Even if we were to be relegated in a hard-fought battle, incredible as it sounds, I would still probably consider it a success for us as a club and how far we have come.
SN: Reading reached the Third Round of the FA Cup last season can they progress and eliminate Manchester United this evening at the Theater of Dreams. Your match prediction Josh?
JA: Irrelevant of what side Sir Alex puts out, I think a United win has to be on the cards. We always seem to put a good game on, especially in the FA Cup and I can see it following in a similar vein. 3-1 defeat for us and I would fully expect you to go onto the lift the trophy in May.
SN would like to thank Josh for his time.