After 82 minutes of this Saturday’s defeat to Aston Villa, I was ashamed to be a Reading fan. Not because of the performance on the pitch, the effort of the players, or the tactics of the manager. In the twenty years that I’ve supported Reading, I’ve seen us lose by six to Bristol Rovers, hover perilously close to the fourth tier of English football, and get taken apart by Oxford on one of the coldest days I remember, so losing isn’t a new thing for me. I can take it.
Instead it was because a sizeable number of fans jeered off a player who, for me at least, represents everything that is good about our football club, Mikele Leigertwood. As I think of him despondently jogging off the pitch being roundly mocked by many thousands of people in the ground, I feel angry, embarrassed, and genuinely sorry for the guy.
Lest we forget, this is a man who, less than a year ago, almost by sheer force of will scuffed us into the Premier League to prompt scenes at the Madejski that I will never forget. And who, when we first signed him, went around twenty games without tasting defeat, shoring up a midfield that was too easily outfought and outmuscled when it counted.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not starry-eyed enough to miss some of his deficiencies. His touch is often heavy, passes frequently go astray, and he looks as surprised as anyone when he scores. The best players can outwit him with their movement, guile, intelligence, and ability, and he can, as a result, struggle to track their runs in the area between defence and midfield. It would be true to say he hasn't, perhaps, had the season that he, or any of us, would have liked.
But for me, Leigertwood represents all of our strengths as well. He is a player who might well have plied his trade in the lower echelons of English football. But through hard-work, commitment to the cause, and no little skill, he has extracted every single ounce of ability that he has to become a Premier League player.
He is tenacious, strong, and does the under-appreciated work of football, breaking up the play, tracking men, winning headers and second balls. There are times when he seems to gain possession through sheer mental and physical strength alone, wanting it that much more than his opponents. Even though there might be certain aspects of his game which are not up to scratch, he makes the most of everything he has, and that's why I admire him.
My description of Leigertwood should sound familiar to any supporter of Reading FC as it adequately defines our club as well. Last season we got promoted not through being technically better than other clubs, but through refusing to give up. Not through playing beautiful football, but through playing to our strengths, and refusing to lie down. It wasn't always pretty but it meant that we finished above teams, whether West Ham, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, or Nottingham Forest, with more resources, more supporters, and a more decorated history.
So, to boo Leigertwood and to cheer his replacement Danny Guthrie was, fundamentally, to misunderstand what our club is all about. We're a club in Leigertwood's image, making the most of what we have, which means that any victories we have are that much sweeter. One based on hard work and team spirit, not individuals.
I'm as disappointed as anyone with how this season has worked out. But, if we do end up going down it won't be because the heroes of last year, Ledge, McAnuff, Gorkss et al., failed to make the step up. We all knew in our hearts of hearts at the start of the season that it would be tough for them. It will be because those who we signed in the summer to give us that extra bit of quality have failed to show it and haven't shown the equivalent willingness to work for the team.
As Guthrie stepped onto the pitch, then, I sensed that we were at a crossroads, a point where our identity was in flux. We cheered a player who has been nothing but dismissive about our club as he replaced a man who got us into the Premier League in the first place.
And I have nothing in particular against Guthrie, but it crystallized to me that we could go two ways as a club. Either we could take the route of paying ridiculous wages to those who think they're bigger than us. Whose passion can be measured by counting the zeroes at the end of their pay cheque. And, who, when the going gets tough, will disappear.
Or we could give our absolute support to those like Leigertwood. Those who have stood with us in tough times. Who have wanted to play for us and who have sweated out every bit of energy for the cause when it wasn't fashionable to be with us.
We have to make the choice, in other words, between becoming just another hysterical club ruined by the perilous dream world of the Premier League, or staying true to our roots, our community, and making the most of what we have.
I know what I choose.