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Like Father, Like Son


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Like Father, Like Son

He had been there before. Only he had no feeling of déjà vu.

Many times he had stood there, in the wings, watching the world swirling around his famous father as one controversy after another passed them like phantasms in the night.

Yet, when he had been there, things were different. The prizes were the European Cup, the Premiership, FA Cup, you name it – at one time or another, his father had won all three. There was a statue of him outside the stadium and even to mention his name in the hallowed halls of the stadium was to revere his accomplishments. He was, and would forever be, a club icon.

And now, the son was in the same place. More or less, anyway.

His career had been solid, for its part – like his father, a former Rangers defender but, unlike his father, he hadn’t been able to escape that career with his health intact. A brutal challenge in an Old Firm game – brutal, but clean in the eyes of the referee – had left him with a hideously broken leg from which it was doubtful that he could come back.

It turned out that even with all the family’s famed determination, his career couldn’t be saved, but even that didn’t stop him. It turned out that clubs all over England and Scotland were interested in finding out whether the 37-year old had his father’s managerial acumen, or even a scrap of it.

So, when his father’s old club came calling, the temptation was too much to resist.

The name of the place was different, but then after his father had left, the club had fallen on hard times. It used to be known as the Madejski Stadium, or “The Mad Stad” when things were going well – but now it was known as the Select Car Leasing Stadium, which had none of the same romance but all of the naming rights fees.

He stood at a podium in the 1871 Suite where his father had stood so many times, fighting battles for his club as well as for his personal honor.

Ryan Ridgway was the man now. And he was the man at Reading Football Club.

Notes: FM 23, home and major European nations loaded. Those who have read any of the Rat Pack stories or Legend in My Mind will note that I have taken liberty with some dates (and ages) for the purpose of narrative. But hey, it’s his world, we just live in it …

I will also admit that I've been looking for an inspiration to give me my "muse" back. The answer might have been right in front of me all along. Anyway, here's hoping.

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Thank you, Mark. It's been hard to get motivated -- COVID wasn't kind to me or my family and it's been very hard to motivate. Hopefully this will do the trick. Good to be around the group again.

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The cast of characters was different. But the tasks were still the same. Gone were the media hounds, the vipers who had tried to make the Premiership’s first American manager pull up his stakes and go home. Gone were the Italian media hounds, who deserved special recognition for all they had done along the same lines.

Gone were the ne’er-do-wells who had tried to crush the Ridgway family. Or, at least if they were gone, they weren’t making their locations known.

Ryan had hated them right along with his parents. It went on for years, until Ryan was old enough to understand what the word “vitriol” really meant. But by that time, his father had won the European Cup for Reading once and the Premiership twice – lofty achievements indeed for a provincial club who had never even been in the top flight until Steve Coppell put them there before bolting for Manchester United.

Rob Ridgway had put Reading on the map in a football sense and some people truly hated him for it. As in, to want to kill him for it. The people who had tried were truly gone – in prison, little lamented by anyone except those unfortunate enough to be in their immediate families.

The ringleader, a Reading board member called Sidney Richmond, was irretrievably gone – dead ten years, with his lifelong goals of owning Reading Football Club and firing Rob Ridgway both unrealized.

The night Richmond died, Ryan remembered his father’s reaction. It was perhaps ghoulish, but his father had popped the cork on a bottle of good champagne to celebrate. His mother, Patty Ridgway, had objected at first but when she saw the look in her husband’s eyes that said their family woes might finally be over, had acquiesced to a drink of the bubbly.

Reading FC had been a circus when Rob Ridgway was the manager, and part of that was his own fault. Possessed of an extremely strong will, and at times an ego to match, Rob was a dangerous man to cross. Yet nearly everyone seemed to try, and that only made him fight harder.

Seven years after coming to Reading, however, Rob suffered a heart attack. It was a warning shot from his body, and it was enough to force him into retirement. Things didn’t get any better for Ryan after that, as his beloved mother contracted breast cancer shortly after his father’s heart attack but had managed to beat her affliction with the same determination her husband had shown.

Now, they sat at home together in Berkshire when they weren’t traveling, and Patty loved the peace and quiet almost as much as she loved her garden. For now, all the football issues in the family rested with the Ridgway’s second son.

Rob Ridgway Junior had been miscarried, so the parents naturally tried to protect Ryan as best they could from the world’s vicissitudes when he was born two years later. Rob had blamed Richmond for worrying Patty to the point where she lost the baby, but he had never shared that with her. He knew what her reaction would have been, even if Rob had been right.

Ryan was determined to become his own man. Born in England to American parents, he had big shoes to fill, but in a time when being “the first” no longer mattered. That was freeing to Ryan and he took full advantage of it.

He had been a better player than his father, but it remained to be seen whether he would be a better manager. Surely, he wouldn’t have to deal with the same things his father had.


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Like his father with his mother, Ryan loved his wife with all his might.

He met the former Annie St. Cyr while playing at Rangers, and their relationship had quickly developed into a marital one – unlike his father’s, which had taken a lot more time.

Ryan had received his mother’s red hair and hazel eyes as biological gifts and, with a neatly trimmed full beard to augment it all, he was one of the most eligible bachelors in Glasgow. Annie then took him completely by storm.

Raven-haired with penetrating blue eyes, Annie was a vision and Ryan knew it. When she sat down with Patty Ridgway for the first time at dinner, the two hit it off immediately and both the Ridgway men knew that total success was within Ryan’s grasp.

They had married just six months before Ryan’s injury and he had said more than once that he might not have made it through as strongly as he did without her. Determination was woven into the family DNA, so she was perfect for him in more ways than one.

She never let him fall. She never let him fail. And she showed that she loved Ryan for a lot more than just football.

Rob would joke, inevitably, that in exchange for her steadfastness, Ryan should make him a grandfather. Try as they might, though, that hadn’t yet happened – and in the life of a young football manager, that can be for the best.

Ryan had other fish to fry.

In the first place, Reading would start the schedule on minus six points due to financial considerations from the year before. That had also led to a year-long transfer embargo against the club, which meant that any squad improvements would have to be done on free transfers. In short, Ryan’s task of avoiding relegation would be huge.

His squad wasn’t threadbare by any stretch – there were 64 players under contract at the club – but it meant that the tactic Ryan wanted to play might not always be in the cards if certain players weren’t healthy.

Ryan liked to press. In that regard he was very different from his father, who preferred to have his clubs wait deep before launching antiseptic counterstrikes that were as pretty to look at as they were lethal to the opposition. It was a philosophical difference – but a noticeable one.

Tactics would be everything in a situation where a club couldn’t expect reinforcement for an entire season. To avoid the drop to League One would be an immense challenge, but then it was even more pronounced considering where the club had been.

Rob Ridgway had led the Biscuitmen to European glory. The club’s unforgettable 2-1 triumph over Chelsea in an all-English final had cemented his place not only in Reading history but in football history as well. No American manager had ever come anywhere close to his accomplishment and that made it even more special to everyone at the club.

He had led them to a pair of Premiership crowns as well, in a day when no one outside of the Big Four ever won them. But after his heart attack and sudden retirement, things changed.

Longtime owner Sir John Madejski sold the club and its fortunes fell faster than a rock from the surface to the bottom of the Thames. Relegation followed a few years later and then lack of investment in the club nearly got it relegated twice. Jaap Stam, Sir Alex Ferguson’s great center-half at Manchester United and a gifted manager in his own right, couldn’t right the ship. It seemed that no one could. And then came the financial trouble.

Paul Ince, another former United star, left by mutual consent after the points deduction and that opened the door for Ryan. He hoped that the light at the end of Reading’s tunnel was not an incoming train.

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A joy to have you writing again, tenthree - I'm already enjoying this a great deal, and look forward to seeing how another Ridgway fares in Reading. Glad you're feeling up to another story, these boards are a better place for it.

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Thanks, ED ... nice to be back home. It's fun to see all the young folk doing so well on the board!


“We are better than this, gentlemen.”

Ryan had the first team squad gathered around him on the first day of training. They were all ears. They were tired of being the Championship’s chew toy and wanted something different.

“Nobody gives this club a chance. And that’s not acceptable. Not just to me, but it had better not be acceptable to any of you. You are the players who put on the shirt each week and fight for this club.  It should hurt you the most when we lose. We have to decide, and I would prefer that it be right now, that we aren’t going to take it anymore, that we are going to do what is required, and we are going to stay up.”

The first person to nod his head was Shane Long, which Ryan found interesting. Long had played for Rob Ridgway, who had sold him as a much younger player to give him the playing time his skill deserved. Now at age 35, he was back to close out his career at Reading. His first joking words to Ryan had been memorable – “Oh, God, not another Ridgway!” he had exclaimed in mock horror, but the situation was different now. Ryan Ridgway needed Shane Long’s talents in a way his father had not.

There were a very few other holdovers from Rob’s era still at the club. Chief physio Matt Herons was there, as was the venerable scout Steve Shorey, still going strong at age 72. Perhaps the most important holdover, though, was not a holdover from Rob’s era.

Midfielder Thomas Ince, son of the departed manager and arguably Reading’s best player, would require special treatment. Both the Inces knew that a change was probably good for the club, but that didn’t make it hurt any less and it certainly wouldn’t make the younger Ince any less susceptible to bids from other clubs looking to poke over Reading’s carcass before the season began.

The club also didn’t have a true first-choice goalkeeper, even though it had one keeper better than the others. It was also lacking depth in the midfield, especially in the holding positions, of which two would generally be required in Ryan’s preferred tactics. The squad was barely up to Championship standard and reinforcements would have to come from the u-21s if needed.

By the by, there was also something else new at Reading, something Ryan’s father had fought tooth and nail against: it had a Director of Football.

The core premise of the Richmond clan’s case against Rob Ridgway had been that he didn’t possess the needed skills to succeed in all the facets of running a club. Of course, this opinion was primarily held to encourage John Madejski to sell the club and allow the new ownership to sack the manager. But Rob had indeed shown a keen eye for acquiring talent and the result had been glory in domestic and European competitions alike.

Madejski had indeed sold the club, to Russian billioniare Anton Zingarevich, who soon moved away from it. That allowed Chinese businessman Dai Yongge, who built his fortune by building shopping centers out of former air-raid shelters, to buy it. He had presided over the dissolution of his former team, Beijing Renhe, over financial difficulties presumably exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.

He then bought 75 percent of Reading’s shares and proceeded to supervise another financial crisis, resulting in that six-point deduction for financial instability amid rumors of not making payroll at times during the season. His sister, Dai Xiu Li, holds a seat on the board alongside Madejski, who is now an honorary life president of the club.

To say that Ryan was walking into a hornet’s nest would be an understatement. A fans’ group creatively named “Sell Before We Dai” is devoted to pressuring Yongge to sell the club before things get any worse.

So it wasn’t so much an internal struggle Ryan was walking into, it was a controversy between the board and the fans, one most managers would be wise to steer clear of provoking.

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Edited by tenthreeleader
scraping off some rust.
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And if that wasn’t enough, Ryan had intercontinental travel to worry about in the friendly schedule.

Ocean City FC, a Reading affiliate club located, not coincidentally, in Ocean City, New Jersey, was entitled to ask for a friendly. So, Yongge gave them one. That would have been fine had the next friendly, at Basingstoke Town, not been scheduled for 72 hours afterward. Trying to build fitness in a relatively small squad while flying back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean is not an easy thing.

After that, the team would have four whole days to prepare for the marquee visit of Spurs to Berkshire on the 9th of July. Belgian second-division side SK Beveren was the last home friendly opponent before the last tune-up at Exeter City on the 23rd. The Grecians would hopefully not provide too severe a test as the Championship opener at Blackpool was just one week later.

Winging their way westward, Ryan had his first real chance to talk shop with another ex-Bluenose. Alex Rae would be his assistant manager, who spent two comparatively pedestrian years in Glasgow both before and after making a name for himself at Millwall, Sunderland and Wolves.  

He was a veteran of 585 senior matches in England and Scotland, but he was also an authority on Paul Ince. The pair had worked together at MK Dons, Notts County and Blackpool with Ince’s departure at the first location and sacking at second ending Rae’s tenure at those clubs as well.

Ryan didn’t want to sack Rae, for the simple reason that there was little time and even less money to replace him. He knew Rae to be a good player and everything he had heard suggested he was just fine in an assistant’s role as well.

Ryan wanted to pick his brain both on the squad and on managing the Tom Ince as well. He was a player Reading could ill afford to lose.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as all that,” Rae said. “Tom knows it’s a business just like we all do. It’s not like he’s going to run asking for a transfer because the club let his dad go.”

“I just need to make sure,” Ryan replied.

“You could do worse than talk with Tom about it,” Rae smiled.

“I plan to,” Ryan answered. “I’d just like some idea of the ground I’m walking on before I do it.”

“Fair enough,” Rae answered. “I just don’t think I’d go into the conversation worried.”

2 July 2022
Reading v Ocean City

At halftime of the game in New Jersey, Ryan had his talk with Tom Ince. The two remained in the changing room as the rest of the squad went out to finish dismantling their amateur rivals.

Ince had helped set up three goals as Reading blitzed their genial hosts for five in the first half.

The players hadn’t had much time in Ryan’s preferred 4-2-3-1 look but they loved to press, so Ryan indulged them by pouring high pressure on the Ocean City back line.

But at half, five goals were more than enough and so Ryan pulled almost all the senior players he had brought on the trip, sent Rae out to look after the team at the start of the second half, and had his talk with his team’s top player.

It went well. Ince, who was on a multi-year contract and thus could generate money for the club through a sale, expressed his desire to stay and, not surprisingly, regret at his father’s predicament.

“There’s no money, gaffer,” he had said. “My dad couldn’t do anything without money and I hope you’re better than he was at doing so. All I know is he gave it his all.”

It turned out that Rae was correct. Ince didn’t appear to be in any sort of distress so Ryan could put that out of his mind.

The second team did just as well as the first team in the second half – they pumped home five more goals. The carnage including a goal after the team had been reduced to ten men thanks to Sam Hutchinson’s ludicrous two-foot challenge with the score 9-0. It was the first time Ryan since schoolboy days that he had seen any team score ten times, so the flight back to Heathrow was a happy one indeed, even if Hutchinson’s ears were burning after the match for getting a straight red card in a friendly match.

The remainder friendly schedule didn’t offer a whole lot of challenge except for Spurs, and Ryan was of two minds about that. On the one hand, he wanted his team to be as ready for the season as they could be against opponents who could make them better. On the other hand, this was a team that sorely needed a confidence boost and a few smaller teams used as cannon fodder wouldn’t hurt in providing it.

Such as on that day. Reading had 36 attempts to their hosts’ three, putting 18 on frame and ten in the back of the net along with 69 percent possession.

But, that was supposed to happen.

Ocean City 0-10 Reading
Ejaria 4; Loum 18; Casadel 20, 42; MeÏté 39; Hendrick 56; Carroll 63, 70 pen; Azeez 78; Hutchinson s/o 84; Hollett 87.

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Always loved a tenthree story back in the day when I was around more. Enjoying this so far and always a nice morale booster to knock 10 past an opponent during pre-season. Looking forward to reading more.

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There was one other issue that Ryan should have expected when he was hired, and the press wasn’t long in bringing it up.

“What has your father had to say so far?”

This was from someone who could have guessed the answer. Jill Weatherby, the redoubtable reporter once of the Evening Post and now representing Berkshire Live, was asking the question. She had been a faithful ally to Rob during the many controversies surrounding his time at the club.

Ryan, set up for the question, had a ready answer.

“Why don’t you ask him, Jill?” Ryan smiled. “You know he always answers your phone calls.”

Weatherby had done an incredible amount of work in Rob’s day, more than holding her own against tabloid press from all over the world who wanted to sell papers by printing hearsay about Rob Ridgway and his fashion model wife.

And in so doing, Weatherby had exposed the background behind “The Supporters”. This was a group dedicated to destroying the Ridgway family starting during Rob’s time at Calvio Padova, and eventually grew to include Richmond and a whole host of horrible people who had both significant financial muscle and a series of shell companies in which to hide all their cash when Rob arrived at Reading.

Following Reading in those days was the footballing equivalent of watching Coronation Street with a side helping of EastEnders for dessert. Everything was an issue. Everything mattered to someone who didn’t have any business really caring about it.

Patty Ridgway’s ex-paramour spent years trying to infiltrate the family’s armor, a fact for which Patty rarely stopped apologizing to her husband. He continually forgave her – he hated Peter McGuire as much as she did – but the individual Rob referred to for years as simply “the little man” had friends.

Unfortunately, those friends wanted the same thing Peter did, which had nothing to do with football and everything to do with destroying the Ridgway family, particularly his marriage. To the extent that these desires intersected with Sidney Richmond’s, they partnered. To the extent that they didn’t, each wing of the group continually got in the other’s way.

Richmond liked to say he was “in charge” because he had the most money and deemed himself the most ruthless. The others liked to ignore him, except when they were in his presence.

Eventually, the whole scheme came crashing down of its own weight, with financial crimes units doing most of the wrecking ball work. As Rob opined, “never stand between a government and money.”

But the ride had been spectacular, not unlike watching a rollercoaster zooming around the tracks while burning to the ground. The tabloids reported regularly on the goings-on around the soaps, and they treated Reading FC the same way.

This was unfortunate, because Rob insisted all along that he didn’t want to damage the club’s reputation. Perhaps he had, perhaps he hadn’t, but the worst part of the controversy was that his adversaries excelled in making Rob the center of every fracas, designed to affect both results as well as the manager personally.

Yet one of the few survivors of all the controversy – Weatherby – had come out smelling like a rose, her career on the rise, her reputation impeccable, and her phone calls now answered all over the footballing world. She had served, however unintentionally, as a staunch Rob Ridgway ally and once the story had at last come to an end at the Old Bailey on sentencing day, she was one of the very few people involved in the saga who could claim any sort of credit.

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5 July 2022
Basingstoke Town v Reading

The second friendly was in some ways even better than the first. The fact that the opposition was only about ten miles away was even nicer.

Again, the Royals scored five times in the first half against non-league opposition, but also had three more goals chalked off for offside in the first 45 minutes as well.

Ince had a first-half hat trick, capping off his day from the penalty spot and getting a match ball that Rae got to first, drawing eyes and a smiley face on it to make the ball look like “Wilson” from the movie Cast Away.

Basingstoke didn’t make their task any easier by getting Ira Murrain sent off in 36 minutes for a challenge on Meïté that was quite similar to Hutchinson’s against Ocean City. That is to say, utterly senseless and rather crude.

At least other people lose their minds occasionally,” Ryan mused to Rae as the Dragons midfielder headed to an early shower. It really was child’s play after that.

Oh, and the other thing: the scorers credited Reading with fifty attempts at goal. Yes, 33 of them missed the target, but those that didn’t caused a hell of a lot of damage.

Basingstoke Town 0-7 Reading
Loum 2, 26; Ince 23, 31, 45+3 pen; Fornah 57, Hoilett 63

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Annie was ready for Ryan when he got home.

“Seventeen goals to nil away,” she teased. “At this rate you might not concede all season.”

He hugged his wife tight, gave her a soft kiss, and chuckled.

“We play Spurs next,” he said. “Talk to me then.”

“Not until then?” Her eyes grew large, and she knew her husband wouldn’t be able to resist them.

“Okay, Mrs. Pedantic,” Ryan replied with a grin, as they sat on their couch. “Talk to me any time you like.”

One of the things Ryan had always admired about his father was his unshakeable determination to provide for, and defend, his family regardless of what brickbats were thrown his way. Once, after a confrontation with a French reporter after a Champions League game, his American heritage had led to an internal nickname of “Sergeant Rock”, a moniker he did nothing to prevent.

That was eventually shortened to “Rock”, and it was a nickname that stuck with Rob Ridgway for the rest of his career.

Ryan wouldn’t necessarily have claimed that name for himself, though as Rangers’ vice-captain he was known for throwing his weight around in the dressing room when things weren’t going as well as they might. Now, as a manager, he would have to find that steel in his everyday interaction with some players.

As a family man, however, he felt completely differently about being a “rock”. Annie leaned his head against Ryan’s shoulder, and they sat for a long moment, simply cuddling and enjoying their time together.

“I hope you’re this happy to see me after we play Spurs,” he said softly. “I think the honeymoon might end that night.”

“Believe in yourself like I believe in you,” Annie said, gently trailing a finger across his cheek. “It will be just fine, trust me.”

“I think this match needs to go well, even if the board doesn’t care much about it,” Ryan said. “It’s important for the fans.”

“That’s your father talking,” Annie replied sweetly. “Sometimes that’s great. But not this time.”

He had long since learned to trust his wife’s judgement and, wisely, he decided that now was not the time to talk like his dad.

“Well, that’s all well and good,” he finally replied, “but the club invited Mom and Dad to the stadium to watch the match. I think we’ll want to do well.”

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Rob Ridgway had thought long and hard about accepting his old club’s invitation to return.

There was a time he had been advised to stay away, for his own safety. Those were in the days when Rob still occasionally thought about a future in the game, one that he felt had been stolen from him.

The more conventional wisdom said that even though he was an excellent tactician and a man-manager without peer, he was polarizing. You would never have heard that from the masses at the Mad Stad back in the day, though. “Rob Ridgway’s Barmy Army” had traveled the length and breadth of Europe to support their club and they wouldn’t hear a bad word against him.

But in board room parlance, it was arguable that the only more polarizing manager in Britain at that time was Jose Mourinho. Directors hated him. Fans loved him. And he won matches. Lots and lots of matches.

Personality-wise, it was easy to like Rob. But a wild streak and a tendency to bite the hand of authority won him as many enemies as friends.

When it came to getting a job done on the pitch, though, there were few better. His win percentage of 64 percent was second only to Sir Alex Ferguson in the Premier League era, and if need dictated, he would remind people of it.

That was the way he was. He wanted things a certain way, didn’t like to be interfered with in running the club, especially by someone who wasn’t his chairman, and then he’d back up his ego by winning on that Saturday. His Reading teams were known for their mental toughness, which they inherited from their boss. His work with the players was so good that when he inevitably ran afoul of management, the players would back up their boss because they believed in him.

But that sense of invincibility had faded over time. There were those who said he could be elected mayor of Reading if he would have simply tipped his cap to the crowd when he finally left. But, that wasn’t Rob Ridgway.

However, his relationship with Sir John Madejski was warm and understanding.  Madejski was the only man alive who seemed to know how to handle Rob Ridgway and shielded him from the worst threats to reach his office.

But when he finally sold the club, Rob’s protector was gone. And the manager knew that it was time to go.

The leavetaking was bitter. Rob would never say he felt his chairman betrayed him but there was little doubt that had he stayed, the elder Ridgway would have as well. The club’s plummeting from grace – and at the rate it fell, plummet was the right word to use – had been shockingly fast.

He hardly recognized the Championship side that took the pitch for the club he had represented for so long. It didn’t look like it had much of a clue tactically, the new owners weren’t investing, and every day seemed to bring another doomscrolling story on the Evening Post’s old website, now called Berkshire Live.

Ryan had asked him, but only briefly, whether he should take the position when it was offered to him. Rob’s advice had been classic: “Ryan, it’s not my club anymore, and you’re a grown man. You have to do what you think is best.”

So, despite the significant potential to drink from a poisoned chalice, Ryan had accepted the new ownership’s offer. It was a challenge he couldn’t pass up, he had told the press. The thought of pacing the touchline as his father had was heartwarming but surely wouldn’t conjure up much pathos from the scribes if he couldn’t win matches.

But now, as a proud father, Rob was being asked to return. And, like his son, he had someone he could turn to for advice.

“Go,” Patty Ridgway had told her husband. “You can’t let the past drag you down like this. You know you want to go to support Ryan.”

“Of course I do,” he said, sitting back in his easy chair. “But I also don’t want to put pressure on him.”

“He’s your son,” Patty replied. “Pressure doesn’t bother him.”

“He’s your son,” Rob smiled. “He has more brains than his dad.”

But he had known all along what he was going to do. He called the front office and said he would accept the club’s invitation.

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So do I :D



9 July 2022
Reading v Tottenham

One of the reasons Rob had balked at going back to the stadium was that he might overshadow his son. Ryan’s first home match in charge of the Royals was supposed to be memorable and the old manager wanted his son’s memories to be grounded in the right reasons.

So it was that when he and Patty took their seats in the stand behind the Reading dugout, it wasn’t long before they were noticed.

The crowd size was excellent for a friendly – 21,494, just over 2,000 shy of capacity – and they saw the return of their “Rock” almost as one.

As the fans noticed his presence, they rose almost as one, applauding until either their hands got tired or he acknowledged them.

Patty elbowed Rob gently in the ribs.

“Will you get up and wave?” she chided. “This is embarrassing.”

Finally, Rob rose to his feet and waved to the throng. The roar was louder than had been heard in the stadium for some time, and Ryan’s Royals responded by starting out toe-to-toe with Antonio Conte’s team before a national television audience.

That being said, Reading was overmatched. Conte hadn’t started a full-strength team, but he had done Ryan the honor of starting Harry Kane, Richarlison, Ivan Perišić and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, among others.

Reading could make no headway. That was partly due to the talent gap between the teams, but Ryan had sent his XI out cautiously, to avoid the kind of big start from Spurs that would sap his young players’ confidence.

They avoided the blitzing that could have undone the team’s early work, but they weren’t able to get forward. They were, however, defending quite well indeed, limiting Spurs in the attack and holding them largely to longer shots that Joe Lumley could handle well.

From the stands, Rob watched as the home fans waited to see the team that had scored seventeen goals in the first two friendlies. It was nowhere to be found, but that didn’t seem to bother the young manager.

It didn’t bother Rob, either. If these fans expected Reading to head out and carry all before them, they were in for a rude awakening. This was a match to see how the Royals might fare against better opposition and to toughen them up for the 46-match Championship slog.

“Good, good,” Rob mumbled to himself as the referee blew for half-time with the score still nil-nil. “He’ll be happy with that.”

Patty, who knew better by this time than to ask her husband what was on his mind when he was talking to himself, simply held onto his arm. She was rooting for her son, nothing more and nothing less. They got up to greet longtime friends in the guest seating area and whiled the halftime break away.

Downstairs in the changing room, though they had managed only three attempts in the first half, Ryan wasn’t upset with his club. “That’s what we need against some of the teams we’ll face,” he said. “It’s going to work out well for us later if we keep defending like this.”

Chins came up around the room – let’s face it, nobody likes to be shut down for an entire 45-minute half – as the players realized that Ocean City was a long, long way away both in geographic distance as well as in their minds.

The second half began and Ryan continued to see what he needed to see – his first XI holding Spurs at bay. He also changed their tactic – experimenting to see if a more positive outlook wound generate something better against their larger opponents.

While the answer to that question was “no”, it also didn’t lead to many major issues at the back. As players began to tire and Ryan began to substitute and blood his younger players, both Ryan and his father came to the same realization at the same time.

Conte wasn’t doing the same thing.

He was making substitutions but the anchors of his team, including Kane, remained out there. Spurs hadn’t lost either of their two friendlies to that point so one wondered what possessed the manager to keep his first team out there.

The answer was, he wanted them to win and win well – and Spurs weren’t doing it.

That got Ryan up and off the bench, pacing the touchline like his father had, a combination of teacher, tactician and caged animal all rolled up into one person.

Obviously, he couldn’t go back and re-enter his starting group, but he could urge his youngsters to make a final stand. The one area where there was some steel was up front.

Andy Carroll, the six-foot-four target man who had made his name at West Ham and Liverpool, was up front. He wasn’t the full-time force he had been in his younger days, but in a short burst, as a second-half substitute, it certainly benefitted Spurs to keep a close eye on him.

That, Spurs did. What Reading didn’t do was keep a close eye on Pape Matar Sarr. The young Senegalese winger stole in, took a layoff from a well-marked Kane and beat Lumley to the top left corner of his goal from twelve yards in the 88th minute.

Friendly or not, that hurt. It was a gut punch for Ryan, whose team had defended tenaciously and now had a choice to make. Hold on, or go f or broke.

Ryan's choice was to not accept the result lying down. In prior days, this was where supersub Leroy Lita would come in and break the opposition’s hearts with some late-show wonder goal. Today, it was Carroll who would need to fill that role.

Reading got forward immediately after the goal and found Carroll nearly unmarked in front. However, his header merely grazed the bar as it went over and the Royals’ best chance of the match went begging.

Then it was over, and Ryan shook hands with Conte. Back in the day, Rob would, likely as not, fielded a look of frustration from an opposing manager who had seen points flash by him only to land on Reading’s side of the table.

Ryan couldn’t do that. But Conte knew.

“You are more than good enough to stay up,” he told Ryan as they shook hands. The younger man could do nothing but smile and thank him in return.

It wasn’t patronizing. But it still didn’t feel good to hear.

Reading 0-1 Spurs
Sarr ‘88

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To make matters worse, both Meité and Ejaria left the Spurs match with knocks that would limit their training for the next week but little else. Still, it was the wrong time for injuries, as Hirons observed in making his report to Ryan the following day.

“Like there’s a good time for injuries?” the manager had replied.

Ejaria had a knock on his shin which, while painful, probably would not end his career. Meité twisted a knee, which would bear close watching in the days to come.

It made Meité a doubt for the next friendly against SK Beveren, with Ryan not wanting to risk one of his best players unnecessarily.

The bigger issue for Ejaria was a series of groin injuries, which, while not immediately career-threatening, could be career-altering if not managed properly. He had missed ten weeks of the prior season with two torn muscles and a strain, all on the right side.

Reading’s injury list was mercifully short. Liam Moore wouldn’t be back until the holidays as he recovered from an ACL tear, and Scott Dann was out until perhaps March after a torn hamstring required surgery to fix.

Injured players or no, Ryan had some things he wanted to try against Wim De Decker’s second-tier side in the next friendly. He wanted to see all the team’s top tacticical options utilized in friendly competitions, so Ryan switched from German (gegenpress) to Spanish (tiki-taka) for the Beveren friendly.

Given its emphasis on slow buildup and possession, you wouldn’t necessarily have expected a team favored to win at home to be utilizing it. Yet, Ryan wanted to see how well his players had learned their lessons in training.

14 July 2022
Reading v SK Beveren

Reading handled the tactical shift well. However, they were prevented from scoring in the first half to some diabolically bad luck involving Cesare Casadei. The Chelsea loanee hit the goalpost not once but twice in the first half hour, denying the start Ryan wanted from his team but at the same time, doing what the tactic required before a substantially smaller crowd than for Spurs.

It took a moment of brilliance from Junior Hoilett, the 47-times capped Canadian international, to get Reading on the scoreboard, with a sublime set piece finding the back of the net from 25 yards just as the match ticked into first half injury time.

It was no less than they deserved – Reading had dominated possession throughout, as you’d expect from confident tiki-taka play – and not allowed Beveren a shot on target in the opening 45 minutes.

It was done with mostly players who wouldn’t be first-choices. Ryan wanted the regulars to have a last runout in the final friendly at Exeter before preparing for Blackpool and the start of the Championship season, and they had looked pretty good in the process.

There are some things, though, that not every fan understands, such as why a team would look comparatively lethargic against opposition it was expected to beat, even though they were a goal up at half-time.

In the second half, Ryan brought on most of his first eleven with half an hour to play and shifted them back into their gegenpress. Almost immediately, it was 3-0 to the Royals thanks to Azeez and Long, which showed Ryan a thing or two about how to set out his stall when it needed to score.

That alignment had bred 19 of Reading’s 20 goals in the preseason to date and if the players came to full understanding of the tactic, it might very well lead to competitiveness against the Championship clubs Reading would have to beat to stay up.

A clean sheet was ruined four minutes from time as Ronny Deconinck shook loose and beat second-choice keeper Dean Bouzanis to make the final count 3-1. Not bad, but there was still room for plenty of improvement.

Reading 3-1 SK Beveren
Hoilett 45, Azeez 71, Long 73; Deconinck 88

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  • 2 weeks later...

Rob Ridgway had the look of someone who has just been told his only child wants to become a professional unicyclist.

His expression was sour and the corners of his mouth turned slightly downward. But then, he often looked like that when surprised by a reporter.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Patty asked.

“I’d rather have bamboo spears under my fingernails,” he replied.

He had been caught outside the stadium trying to retreat to his car after the Beveren match, which he had watched from the 1871 Suite instead of from the stand. The crowd numbered only twenty percent of those who had come to see Spurs and his presence would have been even more conspicuous.

“What did they ask you?”

“How is Ryan progressing, how is he different from you, do you give him any advice, all the banal sorts of stuff that give media a bad name.”

“Don’t be angry, Rob,” Patty said, gently taking his arm as they walked to their car.

“I don’t know,” he finally replied after a heavy sigh. He wore the face of a man with low expectations.

“You don’t know what?”

“I don’t know what they’re going to say,” Rob said, shaking his head slowly.

“You didn’t give them anything bad to write about, did you?” The question was supposed to be rhetorical.

“Of course not,” he answered.

“Then why are you worried?”

“Well, to sell papers or get web hits, reporters have been known to take things out of context.”

# # #

The next morning, Rob’s fears came to light in the form of a Mail Online headline: “Rob Ridgway: I’d have handled Spurs differently!”

He sat at their breakfast table, uttered one unprintable and highly rude word, and sent a link of the story to Patty.

She shook her head, and in her own inimitable fashion, crystalized her point in reply.

“You know, Rob,” she said, a hint of a smile crossing her face, “even though you spoke with the press, there’s no rule saying you have to actually read what they write, especially now that you’re retired.” She passed him a jar of strawberry preserves to spread on his morning toast.

“It’s going to get back to Ryan,” Rob replied defensively. “He doesn’t need that.”

“Ryan won’t care,” Patty responded. “Give him some credit, Rob, he knows how the press work.”

“Or don’t work,” Rob scowled. “Lazy reporting. Making something out of nothing.”

The article talked about differences between the Ridgways; Rob was rarely seen on a football pitch without two strikers in his team, whereas Ryan preferred to utilize one with attacking midfielders. Rob wouldn’t think of using a back three, while Ryan would consider it under the right circumstances.

But most importantly of all, Rob managed like a stereotypical American; damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. This occasionally led to charges of him being tactically naïve with 4-1-3-2 being his alignment of choice, battering opponents into submission. Ryan, on the other hand, was willing to consider more nuance, in accordance with the more modern demands of the game.

However, both men already had reputations for being master man-managers. You can often accomplish more if you don’t care who gets credit for doing it, and both father and son tried at every attempt to instill that belief in their teams.

Rob had won a Champions League playing his way. That approach was certainly good enough for Ryan, but with a far less talented squad at his disposal his goals were both more modest and arguably harder to attain than his father’s had been.

So Rob saw the article as driving an unnecessary wedge, not only between father and son but potentially between son and supporters. They didn’t really need to know how Rob would have managed against Spurs, because he didn’t get to manage against Spurs. So, it was all moot.

To his everlasting credit, Ryan handled the inevitable follow-up questioning well.

“My dad would have done it differently?” Ryan asked, with a look of innocence as pure as the driven snow. “Well, imagine that. Two different people with different ideas.”

Did he receive advice from his father? “No,” Ryan said. Did he want advice from his father? “No,” Ryan replied once more, “at least not until I ask for it.”

“My dad is his own man, and I’m my own man,” Ryan said patiently. “Will we disagree? Sure. Does it matter? Only in the sense that my dad doesn’t like being told when he’s wrong.”

That brought a laugh from the assembled scribes, as Ryan silently, and a bit desperately, now tried to change the subject. Finally, he said what everyone was thinking.

“Don’t tell the supporters”, he said with a sheepish grin. “They’ll want my dad back.”

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23 July 2022
Exeter City v Reading

It was the last chance for players to make a good impression on the manager. By and large, the Royals had played very well indeed during the run-in to the season but Ryan wanted one more thing out of his team.

That was a confident performance away against decent opposition, and the Grecians were nominated to provide it. A league below the Royals, they had only an away win to non-league Frome Town to their credit in three matches, with a home loss to Walsall and an away draw with Stockport County giving Gary Caldwell reason for concern.

Ryan wanted to play most of the people he felt would start at Blackpool, to give them one more chance to jell a bit before heading into the Championship wars.

Exeter had bounced around between conference level and League One in the first years of the new century but were now a well-established League One side, which was perfect for Ryan’s goals for the day.

“Lads, one more chance to impress,” he said, and this time he was watching for responses. In previous friendlies, some of the cheekier members of the team had said they would have preferred to watch from the bench – and that was pure poison to the manager, who made sure the individual players in question knew about their transgression at the earliest opportunity.

“If you don’t want to play, nothing is stopping me from keeping you on the bench,” Ryan had told Hoilett after the Ocean City match. “I expect you to be willing, ready and able to play when you’re selected for the team, is that clear?”

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” the Canadian international protested, but Ryan wouldn’t hear it.

“I am not going to argue with you,” he said, softly but firmly. “I can only go by the words that come out of your mouth, and if you seriously tell me you don’t want to play, I’ll sit you down until you do.”

That was a bit of a surprising promise to make, in that the squad’s depth was very thin, could not be added to on a permanent basis for the next two transfer windows, and the team was only one rash of injuries away from potential disaster.

Thankfully, Hoilett both got the message and didn’t hold it against Ryan. Attitudes aside, Ryan needed Hoilett to fill a certain very specific role – as someone who could come off the bench and make a real impact, especially from a set piece. It wouldn’t do to have him unhappy to come on.

Hoilett didn’t start the match – and it might have been better if he had, since Reading came out looking very wasteful against the Grecians. They poured forward as they had done in every previous friendly except for Spurs, but only led 1-0 at the break thanks to a very nice 19th minute strike from Ovie Ejaria.

They had sixteen shot attempts in the first 45 minutes, with five going wide and a remarkable three hitting the woodwork. It could easily have been 4-0 at halftime and as a result Ryan went a bit easier on his team than he otherwise might have in his team talk.

Instead, he simply told them to keep at it and the results would come. He felt a bit like Stephen Covey, the businessman and motivational speaker, who said “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

The “main thing” was a solid performance in this case and the relaxed Royals gave that solid performance to their boss in the second half.

Casadei, who was making a very strong statement for playing behind the striker, scored a wonderful goal in the 66th minute as Reading eased back into their regular style of attack, which put the game out of reach for all intents and purposes.

Amadou Mbengue, a free transfer from Metz, capped things off two minutes from time with a chip that left Gary Woods stranded for the final score, which was made even more comfortable since Lumley didn’t have to make a single save all day.

That was that. Reading would now be on their own, with the Championship grind awaiting.

Exeter City 0-3 Reading
Ejaria 19, Casadei 66, Mbengue 87

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Ever the optimists, the preseason media polls showed Reading not finishing bottom – but finishing 18th and thus avoiding the drop.

That was welcome news as the first week of “official” training began. Blackpool awaited – like Reading, not too long ago a Premier League club, but now trying to fight its way back to the top level.

They were managed by Mick McCarthy, the veteran Irishman who was never afraid to speak his mind. That said, he was coming off a run at Cardiff that saw the Bluebirds win only 14 of his 38 matches in charge, losing the last eight on the spin before he left the club by mutual consent.

But he had managed the Republic of Ireland well enough, earning 34 wins and 24 draws in 78 matches, and guided Wolves both to promotion and to Premier League safety twice, earning a Championship Manager of the Year award in the process.

That said, he was polarizing. His tactics tended to be defensive which didn’t help him with fans, and which led directly to his departure from Ipswich after he called their supporters “numbskulls” for disagreeing with his style of play.

And now he was in Blackpool, the first club in English history to earn promotion from every division of the Football League through playoff victories.

The painful years of the Oyston family’s ownership behind them, the Seasiders, like Reading, were simply hoping to stay afloat in the 2022-23 Championship.

As such, McCarthy was presented to Ryan as an easy target for criticism in his first press gaggle of the season.

“I don’t want to hear anything about that,” Ryan protested. ‘Mick’s team is Mick’s team, not mine, and I’m not going to have any comment on how he runs it or how successful I think he will be. Managers’ jobs in this league are hard enough without speculation from you people on whether he’ll do a good job. I can tell you this, though: every manager in this league is “all-in”. Every manager in this league wants success just as much as every other manager. We can’t all achieve it. I’m reasonably optimistic we can go in and get a result, but as for speculating on another manager, count me out.”

That drew a frown from Garry Hunt, reporter for Sporting Life. He appeared to be, in the words of the immortal P.G. Wodehouse, “someone who had drunk deeply from the cup of life only to find a dead beetle at the bottom.”

Clearly, Hunt was after something. Just as clearly, Ryan was steering clear from giving Hunt what he wanted.

So, he tried again. “Don’t you think Mick will have something to say about that?” he asked, by way of a follow-up question.

“Maybe he will, maybe he won’t,” Ryan said. “It’s none of my concern. Maybe quit trying to make it my concern.”

For his part, McCarthy appreciated the kindness, and said so in his own gaggle later that day. So much for controversy.

The week seemed to pass fairly quickly, with Meite healing rapidly. His place in the XI assured, Ryan felt much better about his team’s chances.

So it was that the coach trip to Lancashire was quiet and relatively uneventful. In the manager’s accustomed space in the front row opposite the driver, Ryan had a chance to Facetime with Annie while the trip progressed, and then to go over the match plan for what seemed like the thousandth time in the past six days.

No matter how hard he tried, Ryan couldn’t change the words even if he wanted to. Press, press, press and then press some more. Make their center backs play the ball. Pressure them to the middle, as their best threats seemed to come from the wings. Pass short, hit them on the counter and make it hard for them to live with the Royals.

The words seemed to march through Ryan’s head repeatedly as he finally lay down for some sleep on the last night before the start of the season. It wasn’t like counting sheep, but repeating rote memorization soon lulled the manager into sleep.

# # #

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30 July 2022
Blackpool v Reading – Championship Match Day #1

It was a glorious mid-summer day, perfect for the start of a new season. Ryan woke to the sun shining into his eyes through a crack he had inconveniently left in the blinds.

Ryan wasn’t the best morning person on the best of days, and so, cursing his bad luck and hoping the manner of his waking would be the only thing that would go wrong that day, he got out of bed and made himself a cup of coffee.

With a three-o’clock kickoff, there was time to wake up slowly. Team breakfast was at 9 a.m. sharp, and you didn’t dare be late, especially if you were in the starting eleven.

The coach would leave for the stadium at 12:30, giving the players about two hours to settle in and warm up before the match started. Setting itineraries for late road matches can be vexing – you want your players to have enough time to settle in but not so much time that they lose their edge or, worse yet, get bored. Yet, you can’t have them arrive so close to match time that they feel rushed. And, the problem was even worse if you happened to be unfortunate enough to play at night.

Ryan’s team talk was met with blank faces for the most part – understandable for a team in Reading’s situation. The players weren’t in for rah-rah, ‘let’s have a great season’ nonsense. He kept things light in the pre-match talk, reminded a few key players of their defensive assignments, and decided to let the positive energy a new season can bring wash over his players.

Whatever it was that washed over Jeff Hendrick probably needed to be rewashed, as the Newcastle loanee lasted exactly 46 seconds before going into Geoff Eltringham’s book after a crude challenge on Kenny Dougall.

Ryan turned to Rae with an expression of anger. “He’s a lucky boy,” he said, and Rae simply nodded in reply. Hendrick was fortunate to still be on the pitch and Ryan got up to the touchline to tell his midfielder to cool his jets in case he hadn’t already figured that out for himself.  

Thus pinned back within the first sixty seconds with a defensive midfielder on a yellow card, it was plain where the Seasiders were going to focus their attacks. But to his credit, Hendrick held his ground and most importantly, kept his feet as he did his job.

Reading looked much the sharper of the two sides even with Hendrick’s booking, and slowly they started to build pressure on Chris Maxwell’s goal. Despite both teams pressing, Reading dominated possession and it was pretty clear that whatever match plan McCarthy had given his players needed to be adjusted.

That need became more profound after Carroll ghosted to the front of the net and slid a low shot past Maxwell and home in eighteen minutes for the first official goal of Ryan’s tenure.

Again unlike his father, Ryan wasn’t pacing the touchline. The famed “Ridgway stare” found its new iteration from the bench, but a first goal was something to be celebrated, and he did so by leaping to his feet and accepting congratulations from his staff while extending them to Carroll.

As if the opening twenty minutes weren’t good enough, Reading found a second gear – and a second goal – soon afterward. This time it was Ince, taking an inch-perfect set piece from twenty-five yards away from the goal, making it 2-0 to the visitors still inside the first half hour.

Now McCarthy’s men were hearing it from their own fans, and the Seasiders were sent off with a cascade of whistles from the stands as Reading easily maintained its two-goal advantage until halftime.

Better teams than Reading had seen two-goal away leads evaporate in the summer sun, so while was careful to praise his players for a job well done, he knew they needed a bit of steel to avoid coughing up three precious points in the first match of the season.

“Lads, you have half the club’s financial penalty in your hands right now,” he said. “Very well done in the first half, but let’s make sure we leave here with all the points. Don’t let up. Get a third goal if you can, and let’s ruin this day for them.”

Carroll, thus inflamed, went out and put a shot off the woodwork less than a minute into the second half, which put the fear of God into McCarthy and the fear of rotten luck into Ryan.

Carroll’s miss, however close, provided a powerful jolt to Blackpool, which piled forward to try to get back into the match.

Yet the “pile” always seemed to stop at the top of Reading’s penalty area. The back four played with great poise and were always well positioned, leading to six offsides against Blackpool in the second half alone.

When it was all over, and Eltringham had blown for full time, Blackpool had had one more shot on target in the second half than they had had in the first, but then one has always been greater than zero.

McCarthy met Ryan for a handshake after the match. “You ran us ragged,” McCarthy said.

Ryan smiled at the flattery. “Well, look at it this way, Mick,” he said. “You’re still three points ahead of us.”

Blackpool 0-2 Reading
Carroll 19, Ince 28

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  • 2 weeks later...

The mood was light both on the coach trip back to Berkshire and at training after a Victory Sunday day off. The Royals had truly played well in their lid-lifting match of the season and with the visit of Cardiff City coming on the following Saturday, there were high hopes to erase the six-point penalty after only two matches if the team could do the business on its home patch.

Seeing this, Ryan had some specific instructions for his backroom team when they all reported for training on the Monday.

“It has to be business as usual for these players,” he said. “Let them enjoy the win but if it comes up, remind them that it was last week. Today is the day we start worrying about this week.”

Ryan himself reinforced the point during the team’s morning stretches. As his father had done so often, Ryan walked between the rows of stretching players and gave a sermonette about the Bluebirds, the weekend’s upcoming opponent.

“They can and will take you down if you let down your guard,” Ryan warned. “We’re putting in a tactic that the coaches think will make that a bit less likely, but it’s still down to you to make the plan work and take another step forward. Don’t forget that we’re still three points in the hole and we have to play at least as well this Saturday as you did last Saturday to take care of that little problem.”

To Ryan, part of success in management was to always leave players with something to strive for while making them do that striving from a position of strength. That is generally much more difficult to do when you aren’t dropping a pile of points, but the line is very fine.

Coming home for the opening match against Cardiff would certainly help. The thought of having some momentum was nice, though.

So was the team’s first public event of the season, at The Oracle, one of Reading’s main retail venues. Rob had had a few events there during his tenure, and not a few moments of tribulation, but the mood was different now. The pressures were different. No one begrudged Ryan his position, unlike many in England who had doubted and sometimes ridiculed his father.

Of course, Ryan was English by birth, so that made things easier from the point of view of the xenophobic, but his attitudes and philosophies were very much American. All this being said, there was no reason for the players not to have a good time with each other and the fans who came out.

Of course, a main difference between The Oracle in 2022 and in Rob’s day was that nearly half the shops had gone. The advent of e-commerce and the COVID pandemic had hit retail in Berkshire, as well as all over the world, particularly hard.

Still, the crowd was decent, and the thing the fans wanted to talk about almost more than the team was the owner.

Now there was an area where Ryan could relate to his father. The long rivalry between Sir John Madejski and Sidney Richmond had made daily headlines. Now, the “Before We Dai” group dedicated to forcing Dai Yongge to sell up was looking for ammunition from the manager or the players to help raise their stock.

If they came to the Oracle with the idea that anyone in Reading colours was going to slate the owner, they were fooling themselves. Ironic as it might have been, whatever Ryan thought about Dai before he had taken the job now had taken a back seat to helping him succeed and making him money.

In that respect, fans were torn between rooting for the manager to succeed and wondering if he would fail, which might bring the change they wanted.

Certainly no one in attendance that night was going to root against the club – but they had seen better teams than this Royals outfit underachieve, underperform and finally, succumb. Management had responded by breaking the rules and getting the club a points penalty in exchange for the loyalty of the supporters.

Ryan’s popularity, and the popularity of the family name, had eased some of the criticism, which in turn led to the hardest core of the anti-Dai faction accusing him of making the hire to deflect criticism away from himself.

There’s no pleasing some people, Ryan supposed, and managed to sidestep any criticism, intended or otherwise, of his senior management team. He had passed the word to his players that anyone who spoke ill of the club management would find himself on the transfer list and there would be little to nothing Ryan could to do help them.

Nice and quiet. The evening went just the way it was supposed to go.

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  • 4 weeks later...

6 August 2022
Reading v Cardiff – Championship Match Day #2

The first home match for a new manager is, generally, a happy occasion. Unless something drastic has already happened on the pitch, the honeymoon period is usually still in effect – unless you’ve already managed a rival, in which case the reaction is often little more than lukewarm applause.

The honeymoon was definitely still on as Ryan arrived in the car park on Biscuitman Way to enter the stadium, Annie by his side.

Hand in hand, they walked across the car park and past the onlookers outside the staff and player entrance, Ryan stopping to sign a few programs along the way before Annie tugged at his sleeve.

“This makes me nervous,” she said. “Let’s go inside.”

While Ryan was trying to figure out why positive feedback from fans would make his wife nervous, he nonetheless did as she asked and they entered the stadium.

Downstairs, all was quiet. Ryan gave Annie a goodbye-for-now kiss, and she was escorted by a club staffer to the Royals Suite, where she would watch the match with the VIPs of the Reading world.

Once in his office, Ryan went over the match plan one more time just to make sure none of it had left his short-term memory. Rae approached, sat opposite him for a pre-match cuppa, and the two men hashed out the plan for the day one last time.

“Right where you left off, lads,” Ryan said in his team talk. “Pick up where you left off last time and we’ll be celebrating when it’s done. Make yourselves hard to live with.”

In the first half, Reading largely did as their manager instructed. There seemed to be an ease to their play that hadn’t existed late in Paul Ince’s term and the end result was a pretty impressive first half performance for a stadium crowd that was just over half capacity.

The stadium had once been bigger – Madejski had gotten approval for expansion during the Champions League days – but municipal opposition had slowed progress. It had made maintaining the squad Rob had built very difficult from a financial standpoint, and was one reason the club wasn’t able to hold its lofty position. And since Madejski had built the stadium with his own money, he was understandably upset at not being able to add to it.

Now, though, that seemed a blessing. Large swaths of the upper rows were unoccupied, so the crowd was naturally closer to the action. From his seat with the Eamonn Dolan Stand to his left, Ryan watched his team get to work against the Bluebirds.

Attacking toward that same stand, Reading controlled the first half. It took just over 40 minutes to get their just desserts, as Meite broke down the right and squared from the byline for Ejaria. Standing about three feet from the goal line, Ejaria fluffed his lines, shooting straight into goalkeeper Ryan Allsop.

The rebound, though, went straight to Carroll, who bundled home from barely two yards out from goal to get Reading into pole position.

The breakthrough felt both nice and deserved and now it was just a matter of getting to half time with the lead.

Sometimes that is surprisingly difficult, and it was in this case for the Royals. Amadou Mbengue chased down a free kick to the right of the goal, and whipped a clearance but in so doing violated one of the cardinal rules of defending: don’t clear the ball across the face of your goal.

His clearance hit Cardiff forward Sori Kaba right in the forehead and deflected onto the boot of midfielder Romaine Sawyers. His reflexes were faster than Lumley’s, and his first-time effort somehow arrowed its way into the top left corner of the goal to get Cardiff level with an entirely undeserved goal in the first minute of added time.

Ryan said one quiet, exceedingly rude word, and watched referee David Coote blow for halftime seconds after the restart.

His annoyance obvious, Ryan led the march to the changing room. Once there, and everyone was seated, poor Mbengue looked like he wanted to dig a hole behind his locker and hide there.

“Okay, we got a bad break,” he said by way of beginning. “Nine times out of ten we’ll never see anything like that play happening. But you have to be smart. Make the good play every time and see where it gets you. Think it through. These fellows should be no trouble for you in the second half if you just keep your bottle and do your jobs the right way.”

Upon sending out his players for the second half, the reaction appeared luke warm. Reading was plainly the better team, dominating possession, completing virtually every pass they attempted, and finding ways to get to goal while the Bluebirds did their best Muhammad Ali “rope-a-dope” dodge and weave.

Only this time, the goal didn’t come. As such, the galling error by Mbengue wound up costing the team two points, meaning getting out of the hole would have to wait until another day.

Annoyed, Ryan waved a stat sheet in front of him after the game. “You have to do better than that, gentlemen,” he warned, pointing to the sheet. “I really could care less what an ‘expected goal’ is, but even the computer guys say you should have won today.”

For the record, the pocket protectors in the analytics office did say Reading should have won, but 2.18 – 0.31 looks really strange on a scoreboard.

Reading 1-1 Cardiff
Carroll 41; Sawyers 45+1

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The coach ride home was boisterous, as it should be when a club claims a cup win away from home. Ryan leaned back in his seat opposite the driver, first row on the left like God intended, and rested his head in a corner between the window and the edge of his headrest. A few jolts later, rubbing his head, he decided to shift his position.

He opened his phone to find Annie’s text waiting for him. “Miss you,” she wrote, with a sad-faced emoji attached to the end.

This was the part of the game Ryan genuinely hated. Say whatever you want about the glory of being a football star or a decent football manager, Wednesday nights miles from home really suck.

Annie bore Ryan’s absences bravely. She wasn’t made out of glass, but she did very much love her husband and to have him gone so much was difficult at times. Being alone on a Wednesday night at home sucked as well.

“I’ll be hone soon,” he wrote, with a happy-faced emoji attached to the end. The wordless battle of round yellow faces was on. Ryan felt he needed to keep up Annie’s morale at times, and he wondered if this would be one of them. So, he sent a heart.

She replied with an emoji kiss. It was starting to get sophomoric but at least they were chatting. In between texts with his dad, Ryan conveniently communicated the coach’s distance from home to Annie. She liked that the numbers kept getting smaller, which couldn’t always be said in the British roadway system.

Between the roadways and the NHS, there were enough delays between them to put some age on a man.

As they talked, Ryan’s “match high” slowly subsided. Among the Type-A personalities in his field (which was pretty much everyone who managed a club), there is a tendency to replay the match in the mind, looking for ways to improve and enjoying the thoughts of a special moment, such as Long’s third goal.

When his team lost, everyone knew better than to bother Ryan, either as a player, coach or manager. He could be in a Sunday league and he’d still have the same competitive vibes.

But Annie changed all that. She sent him a selfie she had taken of the couple on their honeymoon to the Cayman Islands. They were on Seven Mile Beach, he was wearing a black shirt with a banana print on it, she was in a white blouse over a tank top and they both looked like they would step right off the beach and straight into GQ.

The match didn’t matter as much then, as she texted, “you should hurry home” before texting an emoji bed to end the conversation.

Smiling, Ryan realized that winning in life was even more important than winning at football.

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