STAR Fans' Forum - 8 January 2004

Notes from the STAR Fans' Forum held at the Princess Suite on 8th January 2004
Present: Steve Coppell and Nick Hammond and representing STAR: Chris Witcher, Paula Martin and over 250 STAR members.

Firstly, thanks to everyone for the welcome I have received. Alan had done a good job here and I took the job with some trepidation as he would be a hard act to follow. I am well aware of the weight of responsibility I have taken on.

I believe your playing career was ended prematurely by a tackle by a Hungarian player at Wembley when you were 28?
Having retired from playing with a bad knee at the age of 28, I still hold the record for Manchester United for making the most consecutive appearances for an outfield player (every match for about 4 years!!) However, I have now survived 20 years in management, probably because I have taken regular breaks -- both voluntary and involuntary. However, I am grateful for every game as it may be the last one.

How old were you when you decided to be a footballer and how did you come to sign for Tranmere?
Puberty can be a cruel time. At 17 I was still only five feet tall and weighed nothing and I was playing against giants. I went to Tranmere after my A levels, and spent 12 months as an 'amateur'. Tommy Docherty showed an interest and this led to nine wonderful years at Old Trafford, and I was allowed to stop at University to complete my degree.

How does Reading compare to other teams Steve has managed? How does your outlook on the game and the way it should be played differ from that of AP?
From day 1 I knew we were going in the right direction. Alan had done a good job. Last year was a tremendous achievement. The first 11 games this season after AP left yielded 15 points, the next 11 produced 22. Then we have fallen over the cliff!! I can't give you one reason but there are lots of little ones. Alan told me that 4-5-1 guarantees that you don't lose 3-0! I can't explain the Palace or the Wimbledon games. I can only tell you that we were all massively disappointed.

We all know that Steve Coppell and Alan Pardew are great friends. Did that help or hinder Coppell's decision to move to Reading?
It certainly helped. I am analytical in my methods. I tend to allow mistakes and have faith in the starting eleven. I don't make changes for changes sake. Alan was energy driven. My only concern when I was offered the job was the precedent set by Alan Pardew. However, I hope to build on this in my own style.

When you first came to the Club you inherited an entire management structure, whereas many new managers will bring in their own people. What have been the pros and cons for you with this system?
When I first started, I had Ian Evans at Crystal Palace I felt like I had lost my left arm when he moved on. I have probably had 10 or 11 assistants over the years. It stops you getting stale and they all bring new ideas, etc. Otherwise this job could become a real grind. Since I arrived here the core team has been magnificent. Everything here is totally different. The coaches' input is excellent and Niall Clarke's is stimulating. It is good for me.

How do you reconcile the long term success of the Club with a manager on such a short contract?
Any manager is judged by results. I spent nine years at Crystal Palace with seven of those were without a contract. I chose 20 months as if this season is not successful I have the summer to prepare my way and the start of the next season to prove I am right. It is down to me. I don't want the millstone of a long term contract which is unfair to both parties. I don't want to be tied in where there is no future together. However, I hope that in October or November next year I will be sitting down to discuss a new one.

Now some questions for Nick
STAR has collected £4000 from our founder members for the Academy - would you like to let our members know how you intend to use this money later this season?
We have come a long way but we would like to give our younger teams different experience. We would like to take them abroad to compete in tournaments. As well as part of their development it gives the coaching team time to observe the character of the boys and this can be used in their future plans. We already compare favourably with the top clubs and this will be another step in the right direction. Thank you for the funding from STAR.

Could Nicky Hammond explain a little more about the Director of Football role? Lots of clubs have a 'Director of Football' but it seems a bit of a vague title.
The role is different in every club. Here at Reading it arose from Alan Pardew's departure. I had worked closely with him and we were looking for continuity, we needed someone who knew what had gone before and also the long term development plans for the club. I had to ensure that the new man would not come into the Club and rip it to pieces. I am also responsible for the contribution of the Academy alongside Brendan Rodgers, who has now taken on the day to day running. I am responsible for the development of the new training ground. I am also the only Director of Football who is a goalkeeper coach. I also deal with issues which may hinder Steve in his preparation of the team.

What is the situation regarding transfers. We've had Nicky and Nigel Howe telling us the club are actively looking at new players but Steve telling us there is no money. Should we ignore all comment and just wait for the press conferences?
Every club is looking to bring in new players and we are no different. We have an excellent chief scout in Brian McDermott. However, we have to work to the budget (set in the summer with Alan Pardew) agreed with the Chairman. We have brought in Dave Kitson and Ivar Ingimarsson and Martin Butler has moved out all within our budgets. Top players may mean breaking the budget so the task is to identify the players we need and then convince the Chairman.

Some questions were now taken from the floor:
In the famous Brentford - Reading game when Brentford scored you sat emotionless. What was going through your mind?
We equalised too early!
Honestly, it was the end of a long hard season. Brentford had been written off but we had battled into a position where with the right result we could be promoted automatically. And there we were with our noses in front…. When Reading equalised we were surprised as no-one had scored that style of goal against us.

How many players from the current squad will be good enough for the Premiership?
You will only know better when you get there. Players have to develop and if they are good enough they will develop. However, we have to earn the right to test these players at the top level. What we need is the belief factor.

What do you think about the use of a Sports Scientist?
After 20 years in management you can look at players and get a gut feeling about how the players are feeling. What Niall Clark brings is the science to back it up. He can show which players are tired, who needs a rest, who needs to work harder and he can offer opinions about how to deal with these individuals. Players train hard here, harder than elsewhere, and quite rightly take a pride in their fitness.

Back to the written questions:
Dave Kitson has been described as 'one for the future', how far in the future as he's 23 already!
What I am anxious to do is keep the pressure off him. You must remember that teams are made up of individuals, not machines. When you bring in a new player he is desperate for success and you in turn are desperate for him to succeed. I want David Kitson to come in and set the world on fire. I don't mind if players make mistakes, but they must then work to put them right, in the match context and in their own development.

Andy Hughes creates a big division amongst the fans. Some criticise his passing and the fact that he finds it hard to play in just one position during a game. Others admire his work rate and ability to score crucial goals. What does he bring to the side in your opinion?
All of these things!!
He is what I call a mid range player. He is still learning his trade but he has tremendous enthusiasm. I see him as a 'work in progress' but he has the desire to be better. He always wants to play, to improve. His deficiencies have him playing in the first division but his enthusiasm is premiership. I would always want him in my squad.

Is Jamie Ashdown on loan at Rushden with a view to a permanent move or is it expected that the first team experience there will mean he is a contender for our first team next season and do you expect Jamie Young to step up in the event of an injury to Marcus Hahnemann?
Jamie is not at Rushden with a view to a permanent move. In reserve team football there are not enough games, there is a long break around Christmas, it doesn't test you or make the demands of the first team, particularly for a goalkeeper. We sent Jamie to Rushden to improve his confidence and his self-belief. If we had a short term problem then I have confidence in Jamie Young to step in for one or two games, but if it was a longer term injury we would have to consider other options.

When Marcus was on loan to us from Fulham, I remember being really impressed by how quick he could distribute the ball, following a save, lately, I notice that Marcus more typically hoofs it with a kick, is this a deliberate change?
I have always thought that from any defensive position Marcus could turn defence into attack. I encourage the quick break, 'look early - look long'. This season it is noticeable that Marcus is not as accurate; his kicking is more 'floaty'. We try to look for variation either play it out or kick it long and I look to Marcus to make that decision. If there is no option for the quick break, throw or kick then he holds on to the ball and sets himself.

On Boxing Day Wimbledon gave a full debut to a 16 year old straight from their academy and he joined several others under 21 who had similarly graduated. Derby have three under 18s in their team. Norwich had a 15 year old keeper on the bench when we played at Carrow Road. Several others in the division are fielding youngsters who have come through the ranks, do you think we are likely to field a team predominantly made up of 'home grown' players?
Although that is true the situation at both Derby and Wimbledon is that they have been forced to play these young players, good though they are, through financial problems. It is well documented that the 'golden years' for development are from 7 - 10 and we are able to utilise this now. The older boys were picked up having been released by other academies - Darius came to us at 16 as did Nathan. I am still convinced we will develop our own players, although it will probably be only one a year. The Academy has given us credibility and we have three young Irish first year scholars who chose us over several premier clubs because of our reputation.

Are you attempting to recreate the entire 2001/02 Brentford side at Reading?
It's just a case of familiarity and footballing budgets. At £100k, Ivar Ingimarsson represented good value and Lloyd Owusu in on loan. You have the big boys at the top and the little boys at the bottom. Success is easy ---- you can buy it!! We have a budget to which we work. However, if the Chairman is excited then perhaps the budget can be bent.

Have you instructed the full-backs to play differently with regard to their attacking role since you arrived at the club?
No, I haven't really tinkered with the defence. It's still the same shape, but they are not playing with the same confidence. Last year we were the only team playing 4-5-1. Now they are all doing it, or variations of it. What seems to be lacking is the 'out ball', the pass to help the full back get the ball forward. I have told the forwards I need more from them to help the full backs, and this in turn will help them to get forward more quickly.

Questions from the floor again:
Lloyd Owusu made a difference at Walsall with his committed performance. Will you be looking to sign him?
It is a question of timing. A month ago Nicky Forster was our only striker. Now we have the Goat, Kitson and Lloyd makes four. Lloyd Owusu is a very committed player even if he is not the most gifted and he brings something different to the team.

Which players currently coming through the Academy do you think are potential stars of the future?
It is early days for Steve to have formed any opinions so I will take this question. Peter Castle made his debut for the first team at Watford at the end of last season when he was just 16 and still developing. Andre Boucaud has been very close and benefited from his spell at Peterborough, but we have lots of central midfielders. Rifat has had a difficult time this year and seems to have dropped back. We have a young Irish scholar called Hayes, who is just 16 and we have high hopes of this left sided midfielder. Darren Campbell is a good winger but his physical development is not yet complete. I could reel off several other names but I will say that we are hopeful that the future of the Club lies with the Academy.

With our promotions and involvement in the playoffs we have had three long years. Are the players getting tired and how much longer can they perform at this level?
You're quite right. It's not a big squad but it is a fantastic group of boys and we have had three years of success. As players, as a team and as a club we have grown enormously but we still want to go forward. It is very difficult to criticise the Chairman when you look at the journey from Elm Park to the current situation, but I will continue to fight him if Steve needs my support to push the club forward.

You alluded to the fact that as well as Director of Football you are still the goalkeeping coach. Some fans are concerned that Marcus doesn't command his box. How do you see it?
As a goalkeeper last season his level was exceptional and difficult to follow. The good thing is that his errors came from positive mistakes. That is, he was trying to be pro-active. He has not been helped by the changes across the back four. However, he is a great character and I cannot think of any keeper that I would swap him with.

I've been supporting Reading since I was seven and have seen lots of passion etc. but we don't get any results from corners. Do you practice corners?
We practice more here than any club that I have been at!!! There is a grave danger of 'paralysis by analysis'. I hate robotic set pieces. Football is about intuition. I want the players to think for themselves and react to the situations around them. This also introduces doubt in the opposition. We are not a big team: if you 'match up' when we defend set pieces and we are often 4/5 inches shorter. So when we attack we do not have a lighthouse to work round and we are more dependent on quick movement in and around the box.

Do you ever want to go back and sit in the stands? It seems sometimes that we are watching a different game… do you see what we see?
I always spend the first half in the stands. By preference I would like to spend the first 15/20 minutes of the second half there as well. I think I can see things better and I see no benefit in standing and shouting at the players. I have to have confidence in them making decisions and it is what you do after you have made a mistake which shows how good a player you are.

Kevin Watson … is he still going elsewhere? It would be a shame to lose him as he could teach the youngsters like Sidwell and Harper so much.
After I was appointed, one of the first people to come into my office was Kevin, telling me that he was not part of my plans. He was very frustrated by the lack of games he was getting. Interestingly, he has played more games under me this season than he did for Alan Pardew. I believe he is the best passing midfielder that we have got, but what happens will be determined by what we do in the rest of the season.

Bas Savage … has done well but why are you playing him on the right wing when Scott Murray is sitting on the sidelines?
Bas has done a good job when he has played. Scott Murray has not been the Bristol City player we saw last year. Bas has got to learn in the first team and there have been occasions when I have left him on out of sheer bloody-mindedness, to help him. I don't want to take him off every time. If he was looking across at the bench every match expecting to be taken off it would undermine his confidence.

Finally written questions:
At the end of the Christmas fixtures, particularly Boxing Day there was a great deal of booing from the crowd. How does this affect the player?
The dressing room was like a morgue!!! After the Palace game we wanted to put things right. Yet at the end of it 3-0 was flattering. I can't explain. The difference between the teams for Wigan and Palace and Wimbledon was minimal. The players can't explain it either. I can assure words were said in the dressing room, and I asked them: 'Am I asking you to do something with which you are not comfortable?' At the end of the day it had nothing to do with the shape, formation etc. - we were just crap!
Since then we have shown an improvement at Walsall, after Wimbledon we all felt lower than a snake's belly but you can only look at the next game.

It's a very even division this season. Is that because the quality of teams is generally poorer, or better than last season?
The quality is closer this season.
We have had more problems against teams when they have been lower in the division than us. After last season there are different expectations. The emphasis is on us to win and this puts different demands on the players and the management. We always do well when we are the underdogs but we have got to learn to do it better all of the time.

Reading fans are quick to spend the Chairman's money; if you could spend what you like how much do you think it would take to build a team capable of reaching and staying in the Premiership?
Around £20 million. You have to invest in the team, in quality. Those that do get promoted but the problem then is that most clubs estimate that their wage bill increases SEVEN fold. You have to admire West Brom for giving it a go last season whilst not bankrupting the club, but in the end they came back down.

Thanks very much for the opportunity to speak to you. I am still getting the feel of the Club but the reception has been very welcoming and I appreciate that. I hope that we will all get to know each other better and I am aware that managing this Club is an honour and a responsibility. It has been a stimulating and welcoming three months and let's look forward to the rest of this season being on a par.

Many thanks to Phil Cullimore for the notes
Full notes of the meeting are available on

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