It was a decision that became increasingly inevitable following his discussion with Fulham, but after the Royals’ most recent defeat to QPR Steve Clarke was relieved of his duties as Reading manager. Anyone taking a brief look at social media after the game will have seen the overwhelming backing of the #ClarkeOut campaign and it is clear that the fans lost their patience when it came to the manager.
If you were to compare Clarke’s situation at the club only weeks ago to now it would be like chalk and cheese. Nick Blackman was on a goalscoring run, Reading were beating the likes of Middlesbrough and Burnley and suggestions of promotion were not being laughed off around the Madejski. Now Reading find themselves in a poor run of form and Clarke out of a job.
The main turning point for Clarke was following his discussion with Fulham. When speaking to the media Clarke has said that the package on offer at the London club was not as good as the one he had in Reading and subsequently he chose not to move. The problem with this for the fans, however, is that it became blatantly clear that Clarke would jump ship if the right offer came along. From then on, no matter how the team performed, Clarke was always going to struggle to get the fans back on side. If the fans are not on side then the attendances and atmosphere are going to be effected and that will then have a knock on effect on the confidence of the players.
This being said, the question is had the team returned to winning ways would the fans begin to overlook Clarke’s personal actions? After all Clarke was able to build a strong squad that in the early part of the season was performing well. Had the team not been hit by injuries to the likes of Stephen Quinn and Aaron Tshibola in particular, and subsequently been able to afford some form of squad rotation, the team had the potential to continue their positive performances. Due to these injuries Clarke had to increasingly rely upon players like Danny Williams and Oliver Norwood running themselves into the ground game after game.
Clarke’s ability as a manager has been proven in the past both at other clubs such as West Brom and earlier in his time at Reading. Last season’s history-making FA Cup run in particular stands out as they narrowly missed out on the final with a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal at Wembley. This season, since building a team to his liking, the 5-1 victory against Ipswich and wins against some of the strongest sides in the Championship immediately stand-out. The issue is that while there have been some impressive performances under Clarke, overall he had the lowest win percentage of a Reading manager since Brendan Rodgers.
While the Fulham incident will probably be the overwhelming reason for fans wanting Clarke out, the team will have to shoulder some of the blame. Long before Clarke spoke to the club, the Reading team was struggling to maintain form and win games. The shocking turnaround at Craven Cottage was only the beginning as Reading went on to also lose to the likes of Cardiff, Nottingham Forest and now QPR.
As Reading’s poor run continued it was clear that confidence was knocked. It can also be said that at times Clarke’s tactics haven’t helped- playing a back five late against Bolton being the immediate one that comes to mind. The continuous argument against Blackman playing on the wing is another that many fans bring up. It must be said, however, that Reading’s top goalscorer has demonstrated in the past that he is capable of scoring from central and wide positions and playing him centrally in the last game did not make any difference.
Bearing in mind Reading’s form and Clarke’s personal actions, therefore, his sacking was grudgingly probably the right choice. When he was appointed I was pleased and even up until the QPR game I felt he could still turn things around. Loyalty in football is exceedingly difficult to come by these days and if Clarke was able to get the team winning again then that was the main concern. A combination of the players clearly not playing for him, the fans being fully against his actions and the way he has set up the team in recent games, meant the board will have been left with little choice.
The main concern now, however, is trying to bring someone in during a hectic Christmas period and return some form of stability to the Madejski. The squad is arguably the strongest it has been in years, the Thais have already shown that they are happy to invest and the fans are willing the club to do well. Clarke, however, has become the third Reading manager in as many years to be relieved of his duties and you feel that the new appointment will have to get back to winning ways as soon as possible to prevent a free-fall down the table.
Reading now take on Preston, Hull, Blackburn, Wolves and Brentford in their next five games- none of which will be easy games, particularly after the sacking of Clarke. The pressure is on the squad now more than ever. With Clarke taking much of the blame it is up to the players to up their game before the fans refocus their anger on them. There are players such as Paolo Hurtado and Ola John who should be pushing to start games while there are injuries and they’re not and Jordan Obita has clearly accepted life on the bench in recent games.
Whoever is brought in as the next manager will have a decent squad available to them and they need to make use of it. Only time will tell if sacking Clarke and bringing in new blood was the right decision, but the sooner it is resolved the better. One word of advice to the new manager- corners are important, use them.