I have to admit it, I still have fond memories of Reading's first season in the Premier League where the shocked the world and finished seventh. I really enjoyed that team of Kevin Doyle, Dave Kitson, Leroy Lita, Nicky Hunt, Bobby Convey, Nicky Shorey and the rest. They were a good story, fun to watch, and full of fantasy bargains. I also got to take a tour of the stadium and meet one of the club executives as part of writing and marketing for another web site - they treated us very nicely despite the fact that we weren't with a "major media property" which goes a long way in my book.
Heading into this next iteration of Reading in the Premier League, I have to admit that half of my projection is built on research and knowledge and the other half is built on my hopes for them to do well even if the club is under new ownership. There certainly seems to exist the foundation for them to be every bit as good and talented as Norwich were last season but there is such a fragile difference between how things came together for Norwich and how things almost came apart for QPR last season that you don't want to assume too much or get too carried away on hopes and wishes of good things.
Here's how I see Reading's season shaking out in the real world and for fantasy managers:
Quick Recap of Last Season: Won the Championship title by one point despite a lower goal differential than both the second and third place finishers. They did it with the best defense in the division and a middle of the pack goal scoring force. To give you an idea of how "great defense in the Championship" translated to the Premier League over the last couple of years - both teams that carried that title into the Prem (Newcastle in 2009-10 into 2010-11 and QPR in 2010-11 into 2011-12) stayed up but Newcastle's defense was middle of the pack in the Premier League and QPR's was in the bottom quartile. The difference between these past two teams and Reading is that NUFC and QPR scored far more goals at the Championship level. Reading were tied for 5th but in a pack in the mid-60s whereas Newcastle scored 90 and QPR were at least over 70.
What Changed: What is even more worrisome for Reading is the fact that not THAT much has changed between last season and this season to lead you to believe they have added significantly to their attack. Chris Jones' favorite player Pavel Pogrebnyak was brought in to lead the line after some promising signs for Fulham after a January loan move into the Prem. An OK move but Pog wasn't consistent and Chris' argument that he was more lucky than good in having a nice streak early in his Craven Cottage stay must have Reading supporters worried. On the defensive side of the ball, more effort has been made at least - between undersized central defender Adrian Mariappa coming from Watford and Nicky Shorey making a triumphant return to the one place he was really good there is at least some Premier League experience in the mix. Finally, Danny Guthrie comes in after having failed to find a home or even a regular position to call his own in his previous Premier League stops. Guthrie was most effective for Newcastle in the Championship but has pinballed between almost all of the midfield roles without ever being a clear first choice in any of them in the Premier League. He's a solid squad pick-up but unless he takes a major step forward, this looks more like an acquisition for next season back in the Championship than one that will make a dent in the Prem.
Real World Projection: As much as it pains me to say it and as often as the newly promoted sides have surprised in recent years, I have a hard time seeing Reading staying up based on their current investment and roster. They cut it too close in the Championship last season and haven't added enough to convince me they have improved enough to thrive in the Premier League.
Fantasy Production: It is hard to say how productive Reading would have been in terms of fantasy numbers since they weren't in the Premier League last season. The team in the Premier League that they most closely resembled from a goals scored/goals conceded standpoint was Tottenham except the rate of goals conceded and scored was lower in both cases because Championship clubs play 8 more matches than Premier League clubs do. Factoring in the jump in division, you have to be concerned that Reading won't produce a great deal for fantasy managers to love.
Fantasy Gold: Despite my dire predictions for Reading's fate in the real world Premier League, there are certainly some hopes for fantasy based on past history. Old favorite defender Ian Harte and midfielder Jobi McAnuff look like the kind of players who can thrive even on a bad team. Between them, they will take the set pieces, get the phantom points and the assists.
- Ian Harte - Per "The Rules", we really do love us some wing defenders and Harte, while old, has proven that he can churn out phantom points in the Premier League. It remains to be seen whether he can stay healthy (he only played 32 matches last season) and maintain production while stepping up a division at age 34. Until proven otherwise though, he appears to be great value.
- Jobi McAnuff - Just about every team that comes up from the championship has a player like this who had great stats as a creator in the Championship - about half seem to be able to translate that quality to the Premier League and more importantly to fantasy. For every Charlie Adam and Chris Brunt there is a Graham Dorans and Wayne Routledge. McAnuff could go either way but certainly bears watching.
- Pavel Pogrebnyak - I had Pog for a cheap price when he hit his hat trick early in his Fulham stay last season so I have a soft spot in my fantasy heart for him. Despite that, I'm very wary as his service will probably be worse and the defensive attention on him greater without a Clint Dempsey working with him. There is a chance that he'll thrive as the focal point of Reading's attack but I'm more inclined to think he'll shrink rather than shine as the spotlight brightens. I'd hate to see managers chasing after the hope of another inexpensive hat trick.
- Jimmy Kebe - The other midfielder to watch at Reading is Jimmy Kebe - he hasn't always been consistent with getting assists at the Championship level but each year he seems to have a solid combination of goals and assists from a midfield position. Midfielders who depend on goals for their points often have more trouble translating to the Premier League - especially at 28 - but Kebe is worth watching at the very least.
- The Rest - With no Reading player costing more than 7.81 coming into the season, I don't think there are any players who are truly overpriced. The players mentioned above are the ones I'd consider to start the season but there are always a few Grant Holt or Angel Rangel-like surprises that no one sees coming so we'll watch and try to figure out what is good early luck and what appears to have some staying power when other Reading players do well. (this last part applies to all of the promoted teams).
First Five Weeks: Stoke, @Chelsea, @Sunderland, Tottenham, @WBA, Newcastle - Not a particularly kind start to the season with none of the first five out of the running for the top half and two obviously superior teams in Chelsea and Spurs on the agenda. The only upside to the early part of the season is that Reading have a double match the first week of the season and would make great filler to help you afford some of the Chelsea players you're no doubt trying to jam into your line-up for their two-game week. After the first week, the rest of the schedule until October begins is pretty rugged and I'd not be over-invested in Reading players beyond Harte.