By the time you read this, it might all be over. At noon today, my soccer team kicks off a crucial match that could all but secure a return to arguably the biggest stage in the entire world.
Reading FC has turned a season that once threatened relegation into one that looks almost certain to return it to the Premier League for the second time in its history. As I write this, the team sits three points clear of second place in the Championship and six points ahead of third, with just three games remaining.
To understanding how remarkable this is, consider that at the end of November, with over a third of the season already completed, Reading sat 15 and 13 points adrift of the leading teams Southampton and West Ham, respectively. Since the turn of the year, though, it has won 15 of 18 games, and with recent road victories over both aforementioned teams, Reading leapfrogged them to the top of the table.
I am a little wary of saying anything that could jinx this phenomenal resurgence, but it is hard to imagine that the team in best form in the Championship, and perhaps even in all of English soccer, won’t finish among the top two and secure automatic promotion.
And with that, everything changes. People will suddenly have heard of my hometown (when I wrote my second-ever column for The Daily back in 2009, the copy editor cut “Reading FC” down to the meaningless “FC”), it will be acceptable again to support the Royals and I might even be able to watch them play on TV while in the United States.
If the team does move up, life will quickly get a lot more difficult. The Championship is an incredibly tough place to play soccer, but the playing field is at least reasonably level. In the Premier League, you have to contend with the playthings of oil sheikhs and bored billionaires, clubs that can afford to buy the world’s elite players for extortionate sums and then just sit them on the bench.
The sports world will be looking elsewhere this week, with the soccer giants disputing the UEFA Champions League semifinals today and tomorrow. When ranking the superpowers of world soccer, three of the four remaining teams would surely sit near the top. But if anyone can ever truly claim to be the greatest team, maybe—and I know this is a huge leap—Reading in its current guise should be able to throw its name into the hat. Most famous clubs have illustrious histories and superstar players—Reading really has none of those—but right here and right now, it is what few organizations can call themselves: a team.
Its two remaining opponents for automatic promotion have two players each among the top-20 goal scorers in the division, while the Royals have none. In fact, Reading only has a single player who has broken into double figures this season. It sold perhaps its best attacking player in the 2009-2010 season, Gylfi Siggurdsson, at the start of the next year, and 12 months later, at the beginning of this season, it again sold the previous season’s star, Shane Long. The apparent result of both those sales was a significant dip in form, but both times the team pulled together, and both times it turned a poor start into an impressive finish.
The key to this, something that has been stated by the club itself, is that players are not just signed according to raw talent. Character and ability to fit in with the rest of the squad are crucial. There are no divas. And perhaps the best statistic of how well a team plays together is not goals scored, but goals conceded. By that measure, Reading tops the league. In 2012, it has even conceded fewer goals per game than Premiership leader Manchester United, 0.68 compared to 0.81.
Fans of more prominent clubs moan about insignificant little Reading potentially getting the chance to play in the Premier League while they remain stuck down in the leagues below, but in their complaints I see grudging admiration. Without the resources, money and talent of the big guns, the Royals have squeezed out every ounce of potential, and for that deserve more than anyone else to be in the situation in which they currently are.
Fans across the country often sing one particular song from the stands, inserting their team’s name where required. If the Royals win today, it might not be so much of an exaggeration to hear this ring out from the Madejski stadium: “And it’s Super Reading, Super Reading FC. We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.”
Although inexperienced soccer fans, Tom Taylor’s editors now think he’s delusional. Give him necessary support at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.