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Rob Ridgway's "Rat Pack"

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Ah memories. I remember when I tried to bring David Beckham to Crystal Palace in FM07, but the board (stupidly) didn't want to splash out an extra 50k to meet the wage bill he was demanding. I'm sure his shirt sales alone would have been enough to compensate for his wage. So I lost out and he ended up going to QPR - my hated rivals - where he was a smashing success.

I hope it's not just my imagination, but i've found the game has a tendancy to reward you for bringing in players with a big dressing-room presence. That's why I stuck with Hungarian International Sandor Torghelle even though (as a striker) he managed a measly 2 goals in over 50 appearences with my 2. Bundesliga Jena side.

So I would personally applaud the signing of Beckham; though it looks like RR himself isn't so keen... ;)

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Becks is interesting for a number of reasons. Richmond thinks those numbers are in the millions, so that's the reason for the bid. RR is now in a delicate situation, because he believes he has better players for his tactic already on the wings. Toffee, I have never managed what the game would classify as a 'marquee' player save for half a season at Manchester United in FM06, so I'll learn right along with Rob if Becks comes to Berkshire. Stay tuned ...

___

Friday, July 17

I could see the headlines in my sleep, and when I woke up today, there they were.

Ridgway: ‘We Don’t Need Becks’” adorned the back page of this morning’s Guardian. If it were anyone but Beckham, I could reject the story out of hand. But since he is who he is, this one won’t go away. Richmond has done his best.

I didn’t even need to call Madejski this morning. Press is all over him as well, and since he has to now enter the fray, I figure I don’t need to push his buttons any harder than they’ve already been pushed.

Richmond has made my point regarding his interference without me having to say a word. Sir John knows perfectly well that if I wanted to put in a bid for David Beckham I would have done so. I haven’t, because I think Salomon Kalou is a better option for us on the right side of midfield.

From a marketing standpoint, however, there is no player in the world with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo who could make us more money in merchandising than David Beckham. Obviously, that’s the primary reason Richmond wants him here.

The other reasons, of course, is to take over the player procurement side of the operation, which he has long wanted to do. He’d like nothing better than to bring in the world’s greatest marquee player over his club’s manager, who has tried and failed to bring in lesser players. That, on his way to showing me the door.

It’s all about ego with Sidney, and I can’t fault that because I’ve got an ego that’s as important to me as his is to him. The difference between us is that at least I try to keep mine in check around people not associated with my area of the operation. He doesn’t.

Of course, I’ve gone head to head with Sidney and his boys at the club, but it’s been necessary to keep my own position free from threat. I’ll fight him, but this season I plan to be smarter about it. I’m the guy that has the club into Europe, win or lose in our qualifier, so I’ve got a bit of leverage.

I’m also the lesser half of a celebrity couple, something our publicist Freddie Eaton reminded us about last season. Patty is on the cusp of great things, but now she’s in a bit of a race against time when it comes to her career. We’re delighted she’s pregnant, but if she wants to do any shoots over the next year, they’re either going to have to be in maternity wear or they’ll need to be done before the baby starts to show.

That said, her celebrity is growing each day. The photos taken of her on Malibu beach earlier this year have sold well everywhere they’ve been placed, and I was a bit alarmed to learn recently that her Google search is one of the twenty most popular on the entire Internet at the moment.

All she has to do is voice an opinion, and there will be people who are going to listen to it. I don’t mind that, and Eaton is holding her in reserve for the occasion when we need her popularity the most.

I repeated my statement to the press today regarding Beckham – great player, model professional, not necessarily what we need at Reading Football Club – and the press looked at me like I had two heads. How could I not want David Beckham on my club?

“I am happy with the players I have and I’m loyal to the players who got us here,” I explained. “They deserve the chance to play at the next level and that’s the end of it. I have all the respect in the world for what David has achieved but he’s a key player in the MLS now and I’m sure Los Angeles doesn’t want the speculation any more than I do.”

I said all this as the players went through a full-speed workout before the Mainz match tomorrow. Due to the size of the traveling squad I’ve brought with me, I’m not so worried about saving legs at this point. I want conditioning and I want the players running whenever they step onto the pitch until we get back to England.

# # #

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Saturday, July 18

Mainz v Reading – Friendly Match #2

The match tonight hardly seemed to matter. Beckham has replied from Los Angeles, and his words didn’t help me.

The Galaxy aren’t exactly setting the MLS on fire, resting in fifth place in their Western Conference, out of playoff consideration for the time being. It’s early in their season yet, but right now that team is going nowhere in a hurry.

“I’ve read the speculation linking me back to England,” he told the Los Angeles Times yesterday. “I have no desire to leave the Galaxy with our job unfinished, but the Champions League is unlike any competition in the world and someday before my career ends, I wouldn’t mind playing in it again.”

He also knows full well, of course, that any selection for Steve McClaren’s England depends on playing well, hopefully for a team that’s a bit closer to the home base of operations, shall we say. So he was ruling out a move without ruling out a move, if you catch my meaning. He still wants to be an international player and with the World Cup pending, I don’t think Becks is exactly ready to retire from the international scene.

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It’s not that I am against having a former England captain in my organization, it’s that I honestly think I’ve got better players right now. Of course, there are those casual fans brought up with the notion that David Beckham hung the moon – and those are the people Richmond wants in the fold so he can make money as the new owner and chairman of Reading FC. God forbid.

So, that’s the situation in a nutshell. The fact that it was a weekend helped a bit in that there wasn’t media crawling all over the place, but I knew the post-match throng I’d face would be a lot bigger than usual.

Patty’s phone call this morning helped. She’s got a very nice way of keeping my thoughts where they ought to be, and I’m quite grateful for that.

“Just a friendly reminder that I’m pregnant,” she cooed, and suddenly my troubles were a little bit farther away.

# # #

The Bruchwegstadion in Mainz is about to be replaced. The home of FSV Mainz 05 since 1929, it will give way to the Coface Arena sometime this season.

It’s good that Mainz is back in the Bundesliga to celebrate the opening of their new stadium. The current one was far less than half full for our visit tonight, though.

Not that this really mattered to me – I was more curious to see how my team would do against some top-flight opposition.

Mainz has been an up-and-down team in recent seasons but is now on the upswing. Relegated from the top flight in 2006-07, they came back at the first time of asking as Second Division champions the following year thanks to a last-day win at Wehen.

Last year, though, they might well have been the biggest surprise in Europe that wasn’t named Reading. They finished fifth in the league, but were notable for being the last-day opponents of new champions Hamburg SV. They fell 1-0 as the latter were crowned on the final day.

Formed, as their name intimates, in 1905, they went through a series of mergers to grow into the club they are today. Some of the mergers were voluntary (with Sportverein 1908 Mainz after World War I) and one was not (with Reichsbahn SV Mainz in 1938, as the Nazis reorganized German football).

A regional team until 1990, Mainz burst onto the national scene that year by laying waste to the entire Southwest Regional League through losing one and drawing four of 34 league matches. Their first promotion to the Bundesliga came in 2003-04 and with the exception of 2007-08, they’ve been a top flight team ever since.

We arrived at the stadium to a polite reception from our hosts as German television cameras took in all the festivities. Unfortunately for me, tonight’s match was televised so I got to give an interview to the match broadcasters – in German – about Beckham. It wasn’t like there was a team trying to get into the Champions League taking on a team trying to get into the UEFA Cup. I mean, we had important matters to discuss.

Such is the man’s fame, I suppose. I gave the German broadcasters the same message I gave the

British media yesterday – Beckham is nice but not necessary.

It’s crazy. I’m supposed to have my wishes respected in player procurement, but someone like Richmond can still say what he said and paint me into a corner. It’s maddening.

So while the television broadcast began, the cameras caught me glowering in the visitors dugout. My expression showed that even though the match was a friendly, the visiting manager wasn’t in the spirit.

The first team got a real test tonight as well. That was gratifying to see, as both teams put out solid squads. The small crowd saw some pretty decent football as two well balanced clubs went at it hammer and tongs to try to prove something to each other.

That restored my mood in fairly short order, as we put out a decent performance on the road.

Dillon noticed something was wrong and correctly guessed the problem. “Rob, you’re going to have to deal with that speculation until there’s a final yes or no,” he said. He was also telling me not a thing I didn’t already know.

“That’s just it, Kevin,” I answered, as Maloney barely missed from twenty-five yards. “Look at Maloney out there. If we go out and get a guy like Beckham, who’s going to sit? Dica? Kalou? Not hardly. It’s going to be Shaun, he knows it, and so does everyone else despite him being the player of the year last season. Dammit, Kevin, that is not fair to Shaun Maloney and I can’t do that to him!”

“Easy, Rob,” he replied. “Take it easy. No one is suggesting that.”

“Well, the only other way is to play five midfielders and that’s a non-starter. Someone has to sit.”

“All I am saying,” he answered, “is that you think about what you might do with Beckham if he were here. You can’t rule out the possibility, and neither can you rule out the thought that someone might come in for Kalou with a bid the chairman might find too good to refuse.”

My head started to hurt, as referee Andreas Neumann blew for halftime in a scoreless match. I turned to Dillon as we walked side by side up the players’ tunnel to the changing rooms.

“Quit making so much sense,” I said. “You’ll make my head explode.”

# # #

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Aw damn it, I caught up.

Incredible writing, and story.

Just one small thing; I think you put commas in too much after "Yet" when you start a sentence. However, this is still my second favourite piece of reading ever (#1 being Dante's Inferno), simply because it is so gratifying. Brilliant work again.

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Aw damn it, I caught up.

Incredible writing, and story.

Just one small thing; I think you put commas in too much after "Yet" when you start a sentence. However, this is still my second favourite piece of reading ever (#1 being Dante's Inferno), simply because it is so gratifying. Brilliant work again.

Like putting comma's after "however"?? :)

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It definitely is sheer irritant to have a big name linked to your club to shake the mood in the backroom.

Personally as a manager I rather bring in players who can produce results than merely push shirts off the racks.

It would be interesting though if Richmond get his way and bring in Beckham and how Emiliani would stir a storm in the teacup when Beckham does not start every single match.

I don't think Landon Donovan is one who like to badmouth his fellow team mates, which makes me wonder about Beckham's commitment level to his football club these days

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Just one small thing; I think you put commas in too much after "Yet" when you start a sentence. However, this is still my second favourite piece of reading ever (#1 being Dante's Inferno), simply because it is so gratifying. Brilliant work again.

It's funny how everybody does things differently. Personally I've put always put a comma after 'yet', at least when starting a sentence anyway. When beginning a sentence with 'however', I tend to put a comma about 90% of the time (but not always). Strange.

Anyway, I can't imagine Beckham would be worth his salt at a CL side in 09/10, or whenever it is. Only Tenthree can see the player attributes though.

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Interesting conversation here ... one thing that I do look for is patterns in my writing. When I see myself getting into bad habits (and as humans, we all do), I don't mind hearing about them. Remember, RRRP is, with the exception of the match reports, largely written as a stream of consciousness along established plot guidelines. I think it's more appropriate to write a fictional 'diary' that way. These comments are therefore quite valuable.

Now, on to Becks. Technically and mentally, he's still quite an accomplished player even at 34 years of age. His physical skills are on the wane, however, and that's the main issue for Rob. My personal feeling is that the 08 game engine rewards the physical and above all the pacy player, neither of which describes Beckham at this point in his career. As a dead-ball specialist he's still aces, but I can't play a player solely for that reason in a CL side. However, he'd sell a ton of shirts and that's why Mr. Pince-Nez wants him.

And MokBull, welcome to the Rat Pack with my sincere thanks for your high praise. It remains to be seen whether RR will eventually find himself 'sullen in the black mire'.

___

If I could pick one player who would be perhaps the best argument for not signing Beckham, it would have been the player who scored on 68 minutes.

I made six changes to the side at halftime to get others onto the pitch and one of them was the talented youngster Henri Saivet. It was he who finally found the breakthrough and he did so working with another of our good young players.

Lobont had started the play with a goal kick and he elected to go right up the middle. He found Osbourne, our signing from Villa, and the 6’2” England u-19 international knew what to do with it. Saivet timed his run perfectly, and Osbourne simply flicked on with his header.

Henri slipped between central defenders Nikolce Noveski and Hannu Tihinen, and raced in on captain Dino Wache in the Mainz goal. It was a simple thing for the 18-year old Frenchman to round Wache and slot home to get us ahead.

Youth had definitely been served in our lineup, with our captain starting the whole play. I couldn’t find a thing wrong with any of it, of course, and Saivet was quite pleased at scoring his first goal in the shirt. Even though it didn’t officially count for anything, it had sent a message. The boy is here to play.

Mainz gained a lot of possession after that, but we kept them at arm’s length. Our devastating counter game took on another dimension with the introduction of Lita one of the few players I have who can match Kalou stride for stride in a sprint, so with he and Saivet up front we really had wheels to exploit any mistake they left at the back.

In the other dugout, manager Jürgen Klopp had other plans for the end of this match. That meant blooding some of his own youngsters. In doing so, he took the point off the end of the Mainz spear, if you will. We weren’t threatened and since I had mostly younger players on the pitch at the end of the match, their youth wasn’t served at a time when ours was.

I was fine with that.

Mainz 0

Reading 1 (Saivet 68)

A – 8,277, Bruchwegstadion, Mainz, Germany

Man of the Match – Bogdan Lobont, Reading

# # #

Monday, July 20

More conditioning for the players this week as we prepare for Sunday’s match against our feeder club, Farnborough.

The relationship is one I wouldn’t mind ending, actually – Farnborough hasn’t provided us with anything looking like a decent player for some years – but the sentimentalist in me would see that as a shame. The lower league club needs the money, and as long as the relationship is good I really don’t see any reason to end it.

Don’t tell Richmond, though. He might want to sack me for wasting money.

The whole Beckham thing is going viral now. Someone posted a photoshopped picture of Beckham wearing our home blue and white hoops on the Hob Nob website and the debate going on there is pretty fierce.

So is the discussion in the blogosphere, which is now centering on why we would want to disrupt the harmony of our squad by bringing in a player like Beckham.

From a professional standpoint, my position is clear – I’m not bidding for him. But Sidney has done his job and done it well – he’s now a player in terms of input on new arrivals and I can’t stop that. In a way, it would have been better to have a Director of Football as he wanted last year than to have to put up with this.

I don’t know if Richmond has any football background or not. It could well be that he’s just a fan like the rest of our base, or he might have actually played somewhere in his younger days. Still, though, making a talent judgment on one of the most recognizable names on the planet is something I’d prefer a scout to do.

Which was why Steve Shorey approached me after the training session with steam coming out his years. “Rob, about this Beckham thing,” he said, and I nodded.

“The scouts are bloody well pi**ed off,” he said. “We know you didn’t have anything to do with this bid, if it happens, but we’re not happy at being left out of the loop. The lads asked me to talk with you. We had to let someone know.”

“I understand that,” I answered. “Fact of the matter is, though, that there was never a loop to be in. I never asked for the player and I certainly haven’t submitted a bid for him. Mr. Richmond is doing this all on his own. That makes me just as upset as it makes you.”

“So what do we do about it?”

“If the bosses decide they want to make a bid, they make a bid and then we make our own decisions,” I said. “That seems pretty simple to me. Look, Steve, you know good and well that someone could come in with a huge bid for Kalou right at the deadline and Sir John might decide it was too good to turn down. I’d hope he wouldn’t do that, of course, but that’s how it is in this game sometimes. We have to be prepared for it. I’ve told him that I don’t want the controversy that this bid and this speculation causes, and he’s sympathetic. I promise you, I’ll also tell him that the story is having negative effect on club staff.”

“I’d be much obliged, Rob,” he said. “Thanks for understanding.”

“It’s all part of the job,” I smiled, and he headed back to his office to report to the other scouts.

# # #

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Tuesday, July 21

I got a bit of a start when I walked past the marketing office today.

I had just finished an interview with Winthrop – who has been remarkably quiet in recent days, leading me to wonder what he’s up to – but on the way back to my office, I passed his open door.

There I saw a print of the photoshopped Beckham picture from Hob Nob, taped to his wall. That seemed curious to me, and of course I know he’s in tight with Richmond, so I wonder whose idea it really was to bring the 96-times capped midfielder here.

From my point of view, though, any formal contact would need to come through Beckham’s army of agents. For now, I’m sure he’s happy making lots of money in Los Angeles and doing some underwear modeling on the side. Not that this concerns me, mind you.

It concerned Patty, though, who teased me after her morning constitutional. “Not so bad today,” she said as she headed off to make a little toast for herself. “But I might not be the only model in the Reading family soon, right?”

“Sore subject, babe,” I cautioned, pointing my browser to ESPN’s website. The American sports media giant was all over the Beckham story. It’s now something I’m going to have to deal with not only now but possibly in January as well unless someone else makes a successful bid.

I have worries about an ongoing media circus. It’s like Cristiano Ronaldo with United, who is in the news every other day about some link with the bottomless money pit known as Real Madrid.

The cycle is always the same – first, some newspaper reports ‘exclusively’ that a deal has been agreed. Then Steve Coppell goes ballistic, as part of stage two. In stage three, the player’s representatives say he’s perfectly happy in Manchester, thank you very much. And in stage four, Real Madrid says it’s all a send-up and surely there is no way they would ever consider poaching a player from another team.

Unfortunately for their competitors, stage five then sees the Madridistas getting their player. So far, United has avoided Stage Five with Ronaldo, but it may only be a matter of time.

It’s tiresome. Yet now it’s happening with Beckham and it’s happening to me. Except this time the roles are reversed – my strings are being pulled by my own management. I waited all day for Sir John to clarify the situation, but he never did.

Alexi Lalas, the general manager of the Galaxy and a former teammate of mine with the US National Team, also took to the stage today. He helped me by denying speculation regarding the move. “I know Rob Ridgway and I know he wouldn’t try to destabilize our team by making this kind of a bid,” Lalas told the Los Angeles Times today. “That is not the way Rob operates.”

He’s got that right. Unfortunately, it is the way Sidney Richmond operates. That gives me reason for concern.

# # #

We’re starting to crank up promotion for the Champions League qualifiers, and hopefully some extra shirt sales as well. Whether or not we make it to the big stage, we’re playing in Europe, and as a result the merchandising folks have manufactured a European strip for us this year.

It’s all black, as opposed to our silver and black hooped away shirts, with silver numerals and trim. It’s rather attractive, but the downside to it is that the shirts are insanely hard to read from a distance. I do wonder if they aren’t going to have to make some sort of alteration to the shirts to add trim, so broadcasters and fans can see who is who on the pitch.

But then, that’s not my worry. That's marketing. I’d say the same about the football side, but it appears that player acquisition is the domain of the marketing department as well.

As a result, I’m in a bit of a bad mood.

# # #

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Wow. God knows how long its taken me but I've finally caught up after reading Calcio and then Rat Pack!

I know you've got superlatives flying around this story but there must be some room for more - I've read my fair share of stories around the FM scene and I have to say this is the best one I've read! Keep up the great work mate, up the Reading!

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benrollo, thanks for your loyal readership and welcome (officially, now) to the Rat Pack! I appreciate your patience -- clearly, it's getting harder to pick up on this story from the beginning. Thanks so much for your kind words!

___

Wednesday, July 22

My wife is now the one who is feeling nervous.

Fifteen months ago, an Italian court sentenced two men, named Agostino Galliano and Gotardo Ricci, to five years’ imprisonment for running her car off the road as she traveled between our homes in Padua and her office in Venice.

Today, an Italian newspaper reported that the government is under increasing pressure to release the two men, as part of a general amnesty being considered to reduce the prison population. Budget and economic woes are now everywhere, and it seems the Italian government is no different. Sentencing guidelines would make them eligible for parole soon in any event.

So, it wasn’t surprising that she should be asked for comment. The reporter first called Patty’s agency, who referred him to Freddie Eaton. He then called Patty, and they strategized on how to answer the question.

I arrived home from training to find her in a bad way.

Galliano and Ricci were, and are, small-time thugs. It’s that simple. But as you might expect from the point of view of their victim, that didn’t matter.

“I told Freddie to tell the reporter that I want to see justice done, and that means those two goons serve their entire terms,” she spat. “The thought of those two getting out of jail for any reason before the last day of their terms makes me sick to my stomach.”

“I can’t imagine why the government would consider early release. I wonder if your celebrity has anything to do with that?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “This is the part of the business that makes me really uncomfortable, Rob.”

“Look, we have private security now,” I said. “If you decide to go anywhere, you bring them along and those two clowns don’t get anywhere near you. I’d think that they wouldn’t even try, given the fact that everyone who knows you also knows about them.”

“I was looking for a little more support from you,” she snapped. “Really, the people who tried to kill your wife and the mother of your child may be getting out of prison soon. Doesn’t that bother you at least a little bit?”

I frowned. “I never said that,” I replied. “Of course I want to see them serve their term. I’d think your former employer might have a little bit of pull in that area as well. All I’m saying is let’s let this play itself out before we start to worry too much about it. I will do whatever I have to do to keep you safe.”

“Or else I’ll sic my father on you,” she said. She wasn’t smiling.

# # #

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Friday, July 24

We’ve had a couple of days’ peace on the Beckham front, and that is certainly welcome. Richmond hasn’t said anything, because he hasn’t really had to.

The news cycle is now into the ‘opinion’ phase on Beckham and that seems to suit Sidney just fine. The club’s name is in the paper every day, and it’s all over the internet.

It might well be that he’s simply trying a publicity ploy, and if that was his intention, it’s certainly working. Every columnist in England, and a few in the States, has something new to write about now. The articles carry our name, so I’m sure Sidney is happy.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t told me his plan and I’m not about to go to him to find out what it is. I have other things to do and Sir John really doesn’t want me trying to play power politics any more on top of it all.

Never mind that if we don’t get the player, and I repeat that I really don’t need him here at his age, the reputation of the club will suffer. That’s the same perceived offense for which he tried to crucify me last season.

Besides, I don’t think Becks would be too excited about our next friendly anyway. We’re off to Cherrywood Road to take on Farnborough and naturally we’ll be able to name our score. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it would be a match where a world star like Beckham would sit in the stand and sign autographs, if he even went on the trip at all.

Patty spoke to me today. That was a good thing, since she hasn’t done that since Wednesday night.

She’s still quite angry over the discussion we had regarding the possible release of her assailants, and there’s nothing I can say that will convince her that I want to see them locked up as well. She evidently wants me to don my Superman suit and take out those two goons. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my wife, but we’re paying good money for security and I really do think there is nothing for her to fear.

Talk about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I certainly did, and I’m paying for it right now. Yet this morning, she tried to break the ice.

“Feeling any different today, Rob?” she asked, as I sat to eat breakfast. I knew better than to ask why she was asking. I felt just great, but saying those words would result in more trouble.

“Thanks for asking, but I’m more concerned about how you’re feeling,” I replied as diplomatically as I could.

“The same,” she answered. “Had a change of heart?”

“My heart never changed, hon,” I said. “I just want you to understand that the reality is that those two yardapes are going to get out sooner or later and that you have the means to make sure they don’t get near you. That’s all I was saying. It’s not like I want you to go through that again.”

She looked at me with a piercing expression. I haven’t been on the wrong side of those green eyes in over a year now and frankly it’s been a pretty good year as a result.

“You could have said it a lot differently,” she said.

“No doubt about that. I was wrong in how I said it. But you know, deep down, that…”

“…you’re right,” she admitted. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it, and I don’t like what I heard from you. But since we’re stuck with each other, we have to find a way around that.”

“Stuck? That sounds pretty ominous.”

“Well, I don’t mean it like that,” she said. “I do love you and you know that. But we have to communicate better. I don’t like these misunderstandings with you. They hurt my heart.”

“Mine too,” I replied. “After all, you’re precious cargo carrying precious cargo.”

At that, her expression changed, and she got up from her side of the table to sit in my lap.

Patty guided my hand to her stomach. “Rob, this should be all that matters to you,” she said, a tear running down her cheek. “Our family, and our baby inside me. That’s it. You have your job, yes, but when you aren’t doing it, you need to be concentrating on what’s here at home.”

“I do,” I began, but she would have none of it.

“Don’t be so cavalier about the people who tried to kill me,” she said. “Really. I wouldn’t be if they had tried to kill you. That bus driver is still in prison for what he tried to do to you, and if they ever thought about letting him out early I’d be in Italy scratching the eyeballs out of whatever judge would agree to it.”

She meant business. But she had something else to say.

“I’ve backed you up with both my parents ever since we got married,” she said. “I’ve told them that you were going to protect me come what may. Now is the chance for you to prove it, Rob. Don’t fail me.”

# # #

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Hmm. Patty seems to be somewhat out of touch with the criminal justice system. I keep getting the feeling that Rob is being punished for not immediately flying over to Italy to beat those crooks over the head personally.

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Thanks to all for the comments ... Marmoset, welcome to the Rat Pack and thank you for your praise! I must say I didn't count on the spread in the reaction to this post, so I'll simply note this: Rob and Patty do have a good marriage. However, if you want to see a fight, go back to Calcio and re-read the 'Battle of the Biennale'. They don't fight often but when they do it can be sharp.

One point of today's post; Patty is scared, for reasons that may or may not be defensible. Toffee, you're quite right to point out what you did, but sometimes reason just doesn't matter, especially in the mind of a victim.

___

Sunday, July 26

Farnborough v Reading – Friendly Match #3

If I were worried about anyone making an attempt against either me or any member of my family, this is probably the last place on earth I’d expect it to happen.

Cherrywood Road is quaint. Some supporters use different descriptive words, which would tend more towards ‘ugly’.

Heading up from the modest dressing rooms to the old-fashioned dugouts, you get a sense of the old-fashioned game. There’s not a thing wrong with that for me, and since the game was on a warm Sunday afternoon, I stood in my technical area in a golf shirt and slacks, completely comfortable with my lot in life.

The place was filled to over capacity, with over 4,300 fans cramming into the ground which is listed at 4,163, here to see the Premiership visitors. We kicked off toward the Prospect Road end and its ‘covered’ stand, which actually covered about one-quarter of the area immediately behind the home goal. Thankfully, it was a glorious afternoon so the atmosphere outside was as nice as the atmosphere inside.

It was actually a day to get back to our roots and to celebrate the game of football. Places like this are where dreams are really built and the romance of it all seemed quite appealing to me. This was the sort of day I returned to England to experience.

While I daydreamed for a few moments, my players thankfully went about their business. The second eleven got the start today and were scheduled to play the overwhelming majority of the match.

I hardly had to say a word beforehand. The players knew what they were there to do, and they wasted little time in doing it. Nine minutes into the match, Long had already buried a wonderful cross from Oster and for all practical purposes the outcome of the match was already decided.

The friendly atmosphere was conducive to appreciative applause of the efforts from both teams. The feeder relationship we enjoy with Farnborough also helps with that. We’re going to be loaning them a few players before the season is done, I’d imagine, and that doesn’t hurt anything either.

I didn’t have a whole lot to say while I stood there on the touchline, since as expected we were dominating the play in every aspect. We just weren’t scoring, and that was out of respect for our opponent as much as anything else.

Finally, though, I did have something important to say. I approached Wally Downes on the bench with a question.

“Wally, do we have any sunscreen over there?” I said, pointing to the physio bag. It was just that kind of afternoon.

# # #

The second half kicked off with us ahead 3-0. Long had cashed in again just before the half hour and Lita converted from a goalmouth scramble one minute before the interval.

I wanted the second eleven to play as much of the match as possible because the substitutes I had brought along were mostly members of the first team. Not wanting to risk the possibility of injury to, say, Dagoberto, I had to balance that against the desire to give the home supporters what they came to see from their parent club.

Finally, Sonko headed home from a corner on 73 minutes to make it 4-0 and I started the general wave of substitutions. Before long, a good portion of our first team was on the pitch and playing keep-away from our hosts.

“If I see a hard challenge for the rest of the match, I’m going to fine the player who makes it,” I told Bikey before letting him onto the pitch twelve minutes from time. “Spread the word around.”

Obviously, we were in complete command of the match and had been since Long’s breakthrough early in the match. By this point in time, the match fitness of those who had started the game was a bit improved, the home team was doing everything in its power to win the ball back from us, and I realized that the sunscreen in the physio bag wasn’t strong enough.

In all, it wasn’t a bad day, but my arms were starting to turn red. That concerned me more than anything Farnborough did to us today, which shouldn’t have come as any great surprise.

Farnborough 0

Reading 4 (Long 9, 29; Lita 44; Sonko 73)

A – 4,322, Cherrywood Road, Farnborough

Man of the Match – Shane Long, Reading

# # #

I’ll say this for Patty’s father. He’s consistent.

Though Patty would rather not fight, she made her point to me as gently as she could. Martin didn’t, and after reading the news from Italy, he was all over his son-in-law.

The cynic in me might have thought that my wife was hiding behind her father. She doesn’t have to push me hard because she knows Martin will.

The fact of the matter is that neither of us likes to fight. We tend to dance around certain issues and what happens is that the trouble we sometimes find doesn’t go away as quickly as we’d like.

That’s why, in this case, I hired security. I don’t want to have to deal with the things I dealt with in Italy, so someone else gets my money to do that for me.

My father-in-law, though, I had to deal with myself.

“What are you going to do about this?” he demanded.

“I’m going to do what I planned to do, which is to make sure the expensive private security I hired to protect your daughter does its job,” I said. “Really, what else can I do?”

“We’ve been through this before,” he said.

“And I’ve told you the same thing before,” I answered. “We never get anywhere because you don’t understand I have a contract and I need to honor it.”

“We never get anywhere because you don’t understand my daughter’s needs,” he snapped.

I hung up on him. I wasn’t in the mood, but I was in the mood to talk with my wife.

She’s nervous. I can understand that. She’s also emotional, which is frankly something I have a little harder time understanding.

She told me, coldly, that she doesn’t want to lose a second baby for any reason. While I fail to see how two petty thugs could have that kind of impact on our family, I share her sentiment.

I certainly don’t want to go through the emotional pain of another miscarriage – but obviously, Patty is taking counsel of her fears. She’s also taking those fears out on me.

# # #

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Tuesday, July 28

Hey, did you know David Beckham used to play in Spain?

No, really. He did. For some club in Madrid, as I recall.

The furor over Becks still hasn’t subsided. It seems they remember him there. That inconvenient truth is why I had a head-on collision with the Spanish footballing press today.

I thought Emiliani might make his first appearance around my club today, especially with all the controversy. Frankly, I’m amazed he hasn’t – I can’t even imagine what he’d say about the thought of his old friend Rob Ridgway managing a mega-star like Beckham.

So I peeked carefully around the corner into the interview room at Almería’s press facility this morning hoping the Italian wouldn’t be there. Jill Weatherby, the reporter from the Reading Evening Post, was. I was much happier to see her than I ever would be to see him.

Our lofty perch this season, and the possibility of playing in the Champions League, means she follows us everywhere now, even to friendly matches. She didn’t mind a trip to Spain, though she teased me a bit by asking if we could come here in January instead.

“All depends on the draw, Jill,” I smiled. She is tough but fair, and people read what she has to say. I don’t suppose it’s any easier on her being a beat reporter in one of the last bastions of male strength, that of professional football, so she has to make damn sure she knows the score before she writes anything.

Usually, she’s spot on. She also hasn’t opined as yet about Beckham and the longer she waits, the better I think it’s going to be from my point of view. She does not hold poorly thought out opinions and does not write them either. And, I suppose she doesn’t mind the idea of people waiting to hear her opinion, either.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. No one involved in this business – from player to coach to manager to broadcaster to writer – is in it because they don’t have ego. We all do. Jill is no exception. I just have to stay on her good side.

Today, though, that was easy. Before the Spanish press arrived, I asked her if she had talked with Richmond today.

“No, Rob, I haven’t,” she said. “You seem anxious. Anything up with Becks?”

“On or off the record?”

“I’d prefer on,” she admitted.

“On the record, not from my point of view,” I replied. “Off the record, I was just wondering if you had heard anything from the movers and shakers at the club.”

Jill and I know each other well enough for her to tell when I’m kidding, and I certainly was in this instance. “The word is that the minimum fee release would make Sir John’s eyes bulge out of his head,” she said, bypassing my sarcasm. “Movers and shakers aside, this club still isn’t ready to pay that kind of money. Yet I suspect you know that.”

“I look at it from a purely footballing perspective,” I said, dodging her invitation to comment on the club’s financial status. I leave those sorts of queries to the chairman. “Who am I going to move out of that midfield? Maloney, the player of the year? Dica, our new acquisition? Or Kalou, one of the best young talents, perhaps in the world? It’s a numbers game. I have to play it just like everyone else.”

“So why not get some depth?” she asked rhetorically.

“Because David Beckham wouldn’t be here as a makeweight,” I answered. “He’d be here to play on the biggest stage, if he came here at all. I got stick last season because I couldn’t bring Julio Baptista here. What sort of stick would I get if I went public that I wanted to buy David Beckham’s contract?”

“I wouldn’t envy you,” she admitted.

As we spoke, the home team’s scribes wandered in. They seemed used to a relaxed atmosphere with the opposing manager, and that was just fine with me. I sure don’t want or need any more media controversy.

I repeated, in the main, what I had told Weatherby about Becks, and proceeded to spend the next fifteen minutes repeating myself. It didn’t matter to me, though. Had the media been English I might have cleared the room out of frustration, but since these were people I might well never see again, I wasn’t above repeating my insistence that I get to choose the players I want to bring in.

I wonder if it’s all falling on deaf ears, but I don’t care.

# # #

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Wednesday, July 29

I think Jill was right. This really is a place I wouldn’t mind visiting in January.

Pre-season training isn’t all about wind sprints and conditioning. With the schedule we’ll be trying to keep this coming season, you have to take opportunity for fun where you can find it. So today, as a team building exercise, we went out on the town.

Almería is located on Spain’s south coast, on the Mediterranean. In short, it’s wonderful. The city’s name is derived from Arabic, and means ‘mirror’. That would evidently refer to the water.

It’s also home to the largest nude beach in Europe, so I made sure our team building was done on the other side of the city. Call me a prude, but I don’t want any of my players winding up in the tabloids or worse yet, in the hoosegow. Either by accident or on purpose.

It’s also one of the sunniest cities in Europe. Our tour guide told us this afternoon that Almería averages 320 sunny days a year. The place also has never suffered a day below zero degrees Centigrade since they started keeping records. Ever.

So, located on the Mediterranean as it is, I’m thinking this might be a place to consider retirement.

“We’ll retire – away from the beach,” Patty told me by phone when I mentioned the idea to her. That was a step in the right direction.

She was a bit warmer to me than after the Farnborough match, but to hear her talk like her old self on the phone was gratifying to me.

The other night, I came right out and told her – I don’t want her teaming up with her father against me. She was indignant, and finally I got the rise out of her I need to get before any constructive conversation can take place.

Her reaction was very sharp. I’ve said before that I don’t want to get on the wrong side of her anger – like I did in Venice when she thought I was going back to Kate – but this time I actively sought them out.

I hate fighting. We adore each other. But she needs to sit back and let me lead now. I’m going to take care of her because I could never forgive myself if I let anything happen to her that either my actions or my money could control.

All that said, I do have my pride – I’ve apologized to her enough for my ill-chosen words and sooner or later she’s going to have to either accept the apology as heartfelt or not.

I can understand her heartache. What I need is for her to cut me a little slack. This was a step in the right direction.

# # #

Meanwhile, there’s a lot to see here. For those who aren’t interested in natural beauty that doesn’t have a high voice and nice measurements, you can look around a thousand-year old town with all the trappings of an old Moorish fortress.

However, that isn’t going to hold the interest of footballers for any reasonable length of time, so I took the entire first squad – all 23 of them along for the trip, along with four coaches, two physios and our kit man – out for a seaside dinner. Not counting me, that made a nice, tidy dinner for thirty.

Since I was hungry, though, I decided to add myself to the list. The physios made sure the dinner menu matched what our nutritionists are prescribing for the players, but it was the thought that mattered here.

It was just a glorious evening on the Mediterranean shore. Sipping on a glass of wine, my sole concession to being the manager on a night where no other alcohol was served, I looked at Dillon and expressed what more than a few Englishmen in our group were thinking.

“I could get used to this,” I smiled.

“They don’t have the Champions League in this town,” Dillon reminded me. “We’ve work to do, Rob, and you know it.”

“Of course,” I replied, as I finished the glass. “And I’m not suggesting otherwise. But can you think of a better place to start working?”

# # #

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Thursday, July 30

Almería v Reading – Friendly Match #4

For a club that has only been in existence for 20 years, UD Almería has come quite a long way.

They earned promotion to La Liga in 2007, they’ve got a new stadium – the Estadio Meditarráneo was built five years ago to host the 2005 Mediterranean Games and holds 22,000 – and of course they have that truly perfect climate in which to play.

Unfortunately, not too many of the good citizens of the town bothered to show up for the match. The place wasn’t even one-quarter full as we prepared to take the pitch.

“Friends and family tonight,” I smiled at Dillon as we got ready to give the final talk to the players. The talk in friendly matches rarely varies, as these players know they are playing for their places and don’t need me to tell them that. The first eleven was back in front in my pecking order this evening, as they had been at Mainz.

I wanted a good start, friendly or not, because the players I had out there tonight were the ones I want to have start the season against United. I’d have needed to see something really horrible – or really special from one of the substitutes – to make me think about changing my mind.

There was virtually no home crowd to speak of, so I could yell instructions to players without fear of being drowned out. That was a little sad, frankly, but once the games start for real I’m sure their fans will make hearing a little more difficult for visiting players.

The small crowd made me wonder, in the back of my mind, if the Spanish footballing world was taking us seriously. That would have been a bit hard to take, but the fact is that we were the surprise team in England last year and that should have counted for something. Finally, though, we just got down to business.

As play moved on, it became increasingly obvious that we were the better side. I saw the most involved and active play from Dica that I’ve seen since he came here, and it came at exactly the right time. He is showing that he’s getting the hang of the 4-1-3-2 tactic, which is good given his vital role in that alignment.

Without the ‘raider’ lurking behind the strikers, they can sometimes wither on the vine for lack of service if opposing clubs are able to stifle our wingers. And without an active, box-to-box midfielder, the holder behind him is placed under undue pressure. You have to be a special athlete to play the position well all the time.

Maloney, for his part, is superb in the offensive half of the role. His trouble was that too often he didn’t track back enough to support the holding midfielder, and that led to defensive breakdowns that occasionally wound up in our net.

That’s why Shaun is on a wing this season – the left one, to allow Kalou to play his preferred right side. All of them were out there tonight and all of them were performing their tasks with aplomb.

Dica shaved the crossbar with a mighty blast nineteen minutes into the match that was the result of solid positional work and some very good short passing that had the home defense turned every which way.

By the time the Romanian was ready to shoot the ball, the defenders had been passed right out of the way. The ball movement was exemplary in every respect – all that was missing was the finish.

All four midfielders and Dagoberto had touched the ball in the attacking third and the layoff from Kalou to Dica for the shot was sublime. It marked the first time in my career as a manager I applauded a shot that didn’t wind up in the goal.

I turned to Dillon and he just smiled. “Lovely football, Rob,” he said. “Just lovely football.”

The way we were passing the ball, Almería couldn’t bother us because they couldn’t wrest possession away, especially from our midfielders. It was really fun to watch. That is the kind of football I want to see this team play more and more often – short passing, dominant in possession, watching for the break when it’s there – and this was the first time I had ever seen it for an extended period of time.

We counter quite well as a team, but there comes a time in a game when you have to keep the round thing away from the other fellow. The players were doing a superb job of that against a decent side, which would surely do wonders for confidence. Theirs, and mine.

The same five players then worked a nearly identical passing play on 34 minutes and this time, when Kalou laid off the ball to Dica, the raider simply one-touched it diagonally onto Dagoberto, who had reversed his run in the opposite direction. Suddenly, he was through on goal and he gleefully slotted home to give us a richly deserved lead.

I reacted with rather more emotion than I like to show during a friendly, but what the hell – as Ruud Gullit might have said, it was sexy football. I can’t phrase it in a way that makes more sense.

We just looked fabulous. It wasn’t like Farnborough, where we were supposed to dominate and did. This was top-flight opposition, which had finished in the top half of La Liga last season. We were clowning them and it looked very, very good.

We liked it so much that we scored again six minutes later, with Dagoberto again doing the honors as Maloney’s shot was parried onto his boot by the defense just six yards from goal. The resulting garbage goal was no problem for my leading scorer to convert, and there was nothing I was interested in doing except praising the players at halftime.

So, I did. In the second half, we maintained our lead and I spent a lot of time enjoying the scenery. Not really wanting to leave that beautiful climate, we headed to the airport somewhat buoyed by a clean sheet – our fourth straight in the friendly schedule.

Almería 0

Reading 2 (Dagoberto 34, 40)

A – 4,534, Estadio Mediterráneo, Almería.

Man of the Match – Dagoberto, Reading

# # #

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Friday, July 31

FC Zwolle v Reading – Friendly Match #5

“Rob, did you see the draw?"

It had been a short night. We flew from the Mediterranean coast to Amsterdam right after the match and found our hotel room for the night in Zwolle, where we will conclude our friendly schedule tomorrow night.

I let the players sleep this morning – I had planned a light afternoon training session for those who had played more than a half yesterday with everyone else getting full conditioning work – but the draw for the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League had been held while we slept and now Dillon wanted my attention at breakfast.

“No,” I answered. “Who’d we get?”

He handed me a sheet of paper that contained the draw. I found our name and stopped reading.

I had hoped for a match close to home due to the fact that we have an August schedule predominantly away from home and very heavy on the Big Four. I found our name and sighed heavily.

On August 12, we’re going to Moscow. CSKA is our opponent over two legs, which means we open against United on the ninth, get on a plane and fly 1500 miles for a match three days later on the twelfth, fly back another 1500 miles for another game three days later away to Everton and come home before another match on the following Wednesday away to the Champions of England.

Just for fun, we then get four days to prepare for a home match against the other automatic Champions League automatic qualifier, Arsenal. Our August fixture list now reads:

Sun Aug 9 – Man Utd

Wed Aug 12 - @ CSKA Moscow

Sat Aug 15 - @ Everton

Wed Aug 19 - @ Chelsea

Sun Aug 23 - Arsenal

Wed Aug 26 – CSKA Moscow

Sat Aug 29 - @ Middlesbrough

Weatherby found me first and asked me what I thought of the draw.

“It’s difficult,” I admitted, while sipping at my second cup of coffee. “But, that’s why we all signed up. If we want this club to be in the elite of Europe and to compete at the highest level, this is the kind of fixture list we’re going to have to put up with from time to time. You have to play the matches and you have to go where UEFA says to go. We’ll play Moscow and if we win, great. If we don’t, we go to the UEFA Cup. Any way you slice it, it’s going to be difficult.”

“Need Beckham now?” she asked.

“On or off the record?” I replied.

“Your choice.”

“On the record, my position hasn’t changed. Off the record, only if he can flap his arms and fly us to Moscow.”

# # #

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Powering on as usual, I see. Strong pre-season so far, I suspect another bumper season is on the cards. You really are too good at this, you know? :p

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Well, the schedule hasn't exactly been testing. August will be a huge month for the club, heavy on the Big Four and with a Champions League qualifier thrown in for good measure. As you'll see, Zwolle isn't exactly a threat either ..

__

The night’s friendly match was everything it needed to be. It was high-scoring, it was one-sided and it was over relatively quickly.

The fact we were even here in the first place was a testament to one of our youth players, Tristan van Laer. We purchased him from Zwolle in the January window and one of the conditions of the sale was a friendly.

All well and good. They wanted the measuring stick of playing us and I wanted one more shot at conditioning for these players.

Long and Lita started in partnership up front and they … well, they ‘gave ‘em L’, if you will. Just over ninety seconds into the match, Long had scored off a wonderful lead ball from Dica.

Lita finished with a crafty little chip from an outrageous angle to the left of the Zwolle goal just before the half hour as we started to crank up the short passing game I had seen at Almería. Clearly Zwolle didn’t have our level of technical accomplishment and this was the sort of attack that would lead to a successful night.

Not to be outdone, Long found the range seven minutes later to make it 3-0 before Zwolle’s Dyron Daal reminded us that there were in fact two teams in the game, sneaking a low shot past Lobont seven minutes before the interval to cut our lead to 3-1.

That, as the longtime reader will know, is the quickest way for a defender to earn the ire of this manager. Conceding in the last ten minutes of a half is a cardinal sin for me, and within the last five minutes is usually enough to earn the player responsible a date with the hair dryer. Since it was a friendly, though, and since we were already up three, it wasn’t such a huge deal this time.

To further mollify me, by the time I was able to talk to the players about it Lita had completed his hat trick and rendered the entire conversation unnecessary. He scored three minutes before the interval and again in first-half injury time to make it 5-1 to us. Any complaint I could have had was now almost laughably meaningless.

The substitution pattern got pushed forward in some ways a bit as a result of the first half outburst, and backward in others. With such a huge lead I could keep the second eleven on the pitch to condition them and hopefully hold the score down. Our fluent play from the Almería match had certainly continued in the first half, and the second half was marked by Craig Cathcart’s first goal for the club, heading home a corner eleven minutes from time.

The stats, in this case, told the whole story. We had 27 attempts at goal; they had three. We had thirteen shots on target; they had one. We were never offside in the match because we never needed to be. It was the perfect tuneup for United, and we left for home in a great mood.

FC Zwolle 1 (Dyron Daal 38)

Reading 6 (Long 2, 35; Lita 28, 42, 45; Cathcart 79)

A - 6,362, FC Zwolle Stadion, Zwolle

Man of the Match – Leroy Lita, Reading

# # #

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Good stuff.

Thinking ahead, the tough early-season will also mean a tough end-season. It's likely to be tense.

Also, out of curiousity; where do the critics reckon you'll end up in this year? (e.g. 'media prediction'). I'm sure at this point the newspaper are saturated with colourful pull-outs and expert columnists' predictions. Personally, i'm guessing they'll expect you to come 6th.

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Bring on the new season... Hopefully you can get through Moscow without too much trouble...

Hopefully you can get dos Santos in as well to have a great coup for the club, and maybe quieten down the Beckham rumours :D

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I wish, Toffee ... on the team information sheet, my media prediction is ... a subplot for another day. :D

Nemesis, playing against Akinfeev doesn't exactly thrill me ... Moscow is a difficult assignment for this club considering some we could have drawn.

___

Summary of the close season

(through August 1, 2009)

Arsenal (24-5-9, 2nd place)

Manager: Arsene Wenger

Leading goalscorer: Emanuel Adebayor (25)

Players in – GK Ben Foster (£400,000, Man Utd); AM Pedro León (£15.25, Levante); DR Alexis (£17m, Valencia)

Players out – ST Theo Walcott (£4.9m, Everton); RD Justin Hoyte (£500,000, West Brom); DC William Gallas (£6.25, Zaragoza); DC Philippe Senderos (£11.75m, Milan)

Aston Villa (15-11-12, 10th place)

Manager: Martin O’Neill

Leading goalscorer: Gabriel Agbonlahor (21)

Players in – GK Carlo Cudicini (£75,000, Chelsea); MC Danny Guthrie (free, Liverpool); AM Juan Manuel Mata (£4.4m, Valencia); AM Leonardo (free, Ajax)

Players out – AM Stiliyan Petrov (£725,000, Torino); MC Craig Gardner (£6.25m, Bolton);

Blackburn (12-8-18, 14th place)

Manager: Mark Hughes

Leading goalscorer: Roque Santa Cruz (16)

Players in: DM Evander Sno (£4.5m, Celtic); ST Garry O’Connor (£7.5m, Birmingham); DL Alexey Berezutskiy (£9.25m, CSKA Moscow)

Players out: none

Bolton (15-5-18, 13th place)

Manager: Sammy Lee

Leading goalscorer: El-Hadji Diouf (17)

Players in: CF Oscar Trejo (£4.8m, Mallorca); MC Craig Gardner (£6.25m, Aston Villa); ST Adrián ($5.75m, Deportivo); DC Martin Cácares ($5.25m, Villareal)

Players out: AM Daniel Braaten (£4.1m, Sunderland); ST El-Hadji Diouf (free, Napoli); DC Lubomir Michalik (£11m, Portsmouth); DL Filipe (£3.8m, Palermo); ML Ismael Aissati (£25m, Fiorentina)

Chelsea (25-8-5, 1st place)

Manager: Avram Grant

Leading goalscorer: Didier Drogba (29)

Players in: none

Players out: GK Carlo Cudicini (£75k, Aston Villa)

Derby County (10-9-19, 16th place)

Manager: Steve Clarke

Leading goalscorer: Nené (11)

Players in: DL Stephen Kelly (£275k, Birmingham); ST Reinaldo Marcelino Navia (free, FC Metz); GK Sebastián Saja ($10m, Grémio); DL Silviu Izvoranu ($750k, Dinamo Bucharest); DR Phil Bardsley (free, Man Utd)

Players out: AM Manduca (£450k, Getafe)

Everton (17-13-8, 6th place)

Manager: David Moyes

Leading goalscorer: Andy Johnson (26)

Players in: ST Theo Walcott (£4.9m, Arsenal)

Players out: Andy van der Meyde (free); Lee Carsley (free); DL Manuel Pasqual (£17.75m, Milan); DC Khalid Boulahrouz ($11.25m, Juventus)

Fulham (23-10-13, 3rd place Championship, promoted via playoff)

Manager: Adrian Boothroyd

Leading goalscorer: Collins John (28)

Players in: GK Davide Facchin (loan, Milan); AM Emanuele Orlandi (loan, Milan);

Players out: MR Clint Dempsey (£2.6m, Middlesbrough)

Liverpool (20-10-8, 5th place)

Manager: Rafael Benitez

Leading goalscorer: Fernando Torres (23)

Players in: none

Players out: none

Manchester City (18-7-13, 7th place)

Manager: Sven-Goran Eriksson

Leading goalscorer: Rolando Bianchi (23)

Players in: DL Juan Manuel Vargas (£5.75m, Catania); RD Julien Faubert ($12m, West Ham); DM Scott Parker (£6.25m, West Ham); ST Frederic Kanoute (£12.75m, Sevilla)

Players out: ST Giorgos Samaras (free, Betis)

Manchester United (21-7-10, 4th place)

Manager: Steve Coppell

Leading goalscorer: Wayne Rooney (32)

Players in: GK Diego Cavalieri (£26m, Torino)

Players out: DR Rafael (free, Gretna); DL Fabio (free, Benfica)

Middlesbrough (12-4-22, 15th place)

Manager: Harry Redknapp

Leading goalscorer: Mariano Pavone (10)

Players in: RD Pascal Chimbonda ($575k, Spurs); MR Clint Dempsey ($2.6m, Fulham)

Players out: DM George Boateng (free, FC Den Bosch); DC Robert Huth (£11m, Reading); DM Mohammed Shawky (£425k, Alemannia Aachen)

Newcastle (13-12-13, 12th place)

Manager: Sam Allardyce

Leading goalscorer: Alan Smith (11)

Players in: none

Players out: ST Mark Viduka (free)

Portsmouth (15-11-12, 9th place)

Manager: Roland Nilsson

Leading goalscorer: Jermaine Defoe (38)

Players in: AM Ali Karimi (£3.3m, Austria Wien); DC Lubomir Michalik ($11m, Bolton); AM Jakub Blasczcykowski (£10.75m, Napoli)

Players out: AM Sulley Ali Muntari ($16m, Spurs)

Reading (20-13-5, 3rd place)

Manager: Rob Ridgway

Leading goalscorer: Dagoberto (20)

Players in: ST Henri Saivet (£3.5m, Bordeaux); DC Robert Huth (£11m, Middlesbrough); MC Isaiah Osbourne (free, Aston Villa); DC Aílton (£475k, Racing Club)

Players out: DC Michael Duberry (free); MR Glen Little (free); DM Brynjar Gunnarsson (free); MC Oliver Bozanic (free, LeMans)

Sunderland (26-13-7, 1st place Championship)

Manager: Oleg Protasov

Leading goalscorer: Diomansy Kamara (24)

Players in: GK Dean Gerken (£26k, Hull); AM Daniel Braaten ($4.1m, Bolton); DM Custodio (£3.3m, Dinamo Moscow)

Players out: none

Spurs (17-8-13, 8th place)

Manager: Martin Jol

Leading goalscorer: Nicolas Anelka (27)

Players in: AM Sulley Ali Muntari ($16m, Portsmouth)

Players out: DR Pascal Chimbonda (£575k, Middlesbrough)

West Brom (9-11-18, 17th place)

Manager: Tony Mowbray

Leading goalscorer: Roberto Colautti (17)

Players in: ML Wayne Routledge (free, Spurs); RD Justin Hoyte (£575k, Arsenal); DR Anthony Vanden Borre (£3m, Fiorentina); ST Angelos Charisteas (£2.6m, Nürnberg)

Players out: GK Luke Steele (free, Rotherham)

West Ham (16-5-17, 11th place)

Manager: Billy Davies

Leading goalscorer: Dean Ashton (33)

Players in: MC Malkhaz Asatiani (£6.5m, Getafe)

Players out: DR Julien Faubert ($12m, Manchester City); DM Scott Parker (£6.25m, Manchester City)

Wigan (24-8-14, 2nd place Championship)

Manager: Roberto Martinez

Leading goalscorer: Emile Heskey (18)

Players in: none

Players out: AM Kevin Kilbane (free, Bristol City)

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Sunday, August 2

This is the start of United Week for us. I wish I could say it’s the start of Reading Week for them.

It’s not, though, because our opening opponent had a match to play today.

So it was that I found myself in a luxury box at Wembley watching United face Chelsea in the Charity Shield. Since we face both teams this month, watching that match in person seemed like the right thing to do.

At least Patty got to go with me. That was a nice thing and my hope is that our return home from the Continent has finally put an end to the anger she’s felt of late. She said nothing about the discussions we’ve had as our Reading contingent headed toward the stadium.

Yet, this was no ordinary scouting trip – this time we brought a delegation to represent the club.

Madejski went to the match, along with several members of our scouting staff. Richmond was noticeable by his absence. Evidently he was working on some club image project, or sitting at home wearing his replica David Beckham shirt and eating crisps.

Just to make things interesting, Sky’s pre-match broadcast showed the replica shirt as part of an ‘around the Premiership’ segment. The television in our box was on with the sound turned down, and while the image bothered me, I chose to let it slide.

I’ve done all the talking I’m going to do, and one wonders if the publicity surrounding Richmond’s interest will help or hurt his desire to bring in the marquee player.

To me, though, it doesn’t matter. I still haven’t had contact with any of Beckham’s people and have no intention of doing so unless I’m forced. That would be a circus I surely don’t need.

All I wanted was to concentrate on the football. With my wife at my side, I was able to do that. She was completely silent as the match unfolded. That bothered me. I got no reaction at all. As in zip, zero, nada.

Also bothersome to me was the fact that Steve Coppell and Avram Grant showed very little in terms of new tactics. Oh, well. I had to make the effort to see it in person.

Beside me, Patty was quiet. Finally, I looked at her and she didn’t give me a look of malice in return.

“Do I need to buy you an enragement ring?” I said, a hint of a smile crossing my face.

At that, the ice finally melted a bit. “No, Rob,” she said, reaching for my hand, interlocking our fingers and squeezing tightly.

Finally, her pretty face lit up. “I just want you to make sure I’m safe. That’s all I’ve ever wanted and it’s all you’ve ever been interested in doing. That’s why our conversation of the other day was so disturbing to me.”

“Honey, you know I didn’t mean it like that,” I answered, but she cut me off.

“For awhile, I wasn’t sure,” she replied, to my consternation. “Then I thought about it and came to my senses.”

I put my arm around her, something I rarely do in public but really ought to do more often, and pulled her close. “We’ve been through too much for me to be any other way,” I said, in a gentle remonstration.

“Just make sure our friends you hired stop the worrying, Rob,” she said. “That will help.”

# # #

The match itself was a snorefest, even though both teams scored. Carlos Tevez scored the first goal of the match in first half injury time and Chelsea’s young sensation Giuseppi Rossi scored thirteen minutes from time to force the match into a penalty shootout.

United wasn’t as good from the spot as the Blues were, so the trophy wound up in the hands of a happy Avram Grant a few minutes after the match ended. He built the best team in the Premiership last season and this result shows they really haven’t lost much. As one of our August opponents, we’re going to have to show our mettle quickly against them.

The last time we played Chelsea, the result was our heaviest defeat of the season. The 3-0 scoreline at Stamford Bridge flattered us, if you can believe that. We should have lost by a lot more.

We feel we have something to prove to both of these clubs and as we left the stadium today, it was nice to be able to think about the first month of the season without being the center of attention.

# # #

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Belated congratulations on the Champions League spot, and all of your awards. Moving house and starting a new job limited my Rat Pack reading time but I've finally caught up with everything.

Interesting to see Rafael and Fabio leave Man United (and always amusing that Gretna are still about). Don't think those two will be leaving an U for a long time in real life.

Oh, and I can't tell you how nervous I was reading about Hearts final game against Morton. I worry that we may face a similar outcome in ral life at the end of this season.

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Jen, thank you .. I thought of you and Terk when the result of Hearts' last match of the season was posted. I'm frankly surprised they were having the troubles they did, as their finances are better in FM08 than they are in later versions. Glad you slogged through to catch up :)

___

Monday, August 3

The world of transfer politics has swung in our direction for a change, and as a result I’m about to make my biggest player sale since I’ve been here.

It’s not huge, but for once a player who doesn’t figure into my first team plans was wanted by another club.

Jem Karacan is a talented central midfielder who is presently buried in our reserves. Turkish-born, he either wants to play in the Premiership or return to his homeland.

I can certainly understand that. He’s talented, yes, but he’s not going to displace Dica, Magallón or their understudies anytime soon. So, when Besiktas called this morning offering us cash up front for a talented young player, I agreed to the offer.

We have Jem valued at £1.5 million, and the Turks bid £1.8 million plus a 30-percent sell-on clause. That worked for me, and when I asked to see the player after training this morning, he had a sense of what was happening even before I opened the conversation.

“Has a bid been made for me, boss?” he asked, with a sense of trepidation.

“There has, Jem,” I answered. “It’s from Turkey. I think you deserve the chance to play so I’ve accepted the offer subject to your agreeing with the club.”

“Which club?” he asked, and I told him. A smile slowly spread across the young man’s face.

“You’ll go with our blessing, Jem,” I answered. “You’ve worked hard in training and tried very hard to improve as a player. The fact you didn’t play on the first team here is no reflection on your character. I wish you the very best of good fortune, but only if the offer they make to you meets your requirements. I’m happy for you to stay but you deserve a chance to play first team football.”

He nodded. For him it’s a chance to play closer to home and I think he’ll take full advantage.

# # #

Meanwhile, Derby is going to have additional money to spend in this window, after sending left-sided midfielder Szabolcs Huszti to Werder Bremen for a cool $10 million. Villa sprang today as well, nabbing right-sided fullback Angel from Villareal for £7.25 million.

Right now I’m generally pleased with our depth and general outlook, primarily because Osbourne has been training like a Crazy Train, if you will. The lad has been spectacular. At this point, he’s pushing Magallón – hard – for playing time.

Obviously, he’s determined to make the most of the chance he’s getting for a new start. He caught me intently observing an agility drill today and he knew my eyes were on him. Without a word, he simply nodded and got back to his work. He knows he is in my thoughts and that thought alone was worth added effort for him.

He’s got the right idea, and he may give me a selection difficulty sooner rather than later as a result.

# # #

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Tuesday, August 4

The media is starting its buildup for United. Yesterday they were with Coppell and today they were with me.

Despite the fact that we finished ahead of them in the table last season, they’re still far the bigger media draw because they’re Manchester United and we’re not. That’s understandable.

However after we play them, they still have the same upcoming as we do – winning over two legs to get into the Champions League group stages. Their search for form starts with us.

I’d say that Champions League qualification means a lot more to us than it does to them, but I’d be wrong. A sporting enterprise like Manchester United, especially considering their debt obligations, absolutely depends on the cash inflow that regular play in the world’s best club football event brings.

It’s also good for a club’s worldwide profile. Liverpool is finding that out this season, as they play in the UEFA Cup.

For a club of United’s size to fail to reach the Champions League proper would be a financial disaster of the first magnitude. We, on the other hand, look at the Champions League as a chance to be Europe’s darlings for a season and a chance to build for our future.

They look at it as a matter of right, and a matter of financial necessity. So, it could fairly be argued that they face a match far more important than their league opener coming up in about ten days’ time. It may affect how they line up to face us.

Their tie will be, in theory, slightly less difficult than ours – they face Swiss champions Grasshopper while we go to Moscow – but that’s the luck of the draw for you.

Until we regularly establish ourselves as contenders in this league, that’s the way it’s going to be. Yet I don’t mind it. In fact, I prefer it. Whatever helps us concentrate on the task at hand is fine with me.

Today, though, it was my day to spend with my friends in the press. I did so from our newly built press-media center. It’s a sign of how we’re starting to move up in the world.

The media center contains work space and broadband access for print journalists as well as television interview areas and studio facilities for reporters wishing to make live shots from our grounds. It also has satellite uplink facilities to provide the ultimate in convenience for our friends from the wonderful world of television.

My portion of that room is at one end. It is the mass interview area. It has a raised dais on one end, where I sit. At the opposite end of the room, television and press photographers can stand on a platform at equal height to the dais and get professional shots. I climbed the three steps to the dais and sat at the table, while the rest of the press prepared for the event.

“Ah, the Next One speaks to us from on high,” Emiliani said. It was the first time I had seen him since his planted story regarding Beckham.

“It’s where I have to sit,” I smiled. “But if you want me to teach you something about the game, Stefano, school is in session when you’re ready to attend.”

“You exaggerate your own importance,” he said, with the same smile in return. We trade some pretty fierce barbs with each other and only occasionally do I mean them. I didn’t see anything in these latest words from him, but I certainly had a bone to pick regarding his choice of recent news sources.

Stefano and I drew battle lines just over a year ago, when he was covering my Calcio Padova side for a local newspaper in Padua. A very terse meeting between us that included the club chairman left no doubt where I stood in terms of my relationship with the reporter at that time, and since then he’s been fencing with me for an angle on the story he surely wants to write to cement his own reputation.

I don’t know if he genuinely dislikes me, but he has seen that I’m a difficult nut to crack. Therefore, I’m a challenge to Stefano and few others in the press seem interested in taking on that same challenge. I don’t think it’s necessarily because I’m that tough to them, but because they have better things to do.

Last season’s swirling controversies were the perfect brew for him to do his worst, and he certainly tried. Now, with his ‘world exclusive’ Beckham story causing trouble for me virtually every day, he’s got what he has been after since that day in Padova. He’s got me roasting over a spit.

So, while I waited for the rest of the media to arrive, I knew that in future I’d have to get better control over these surroundings. I motioned to my friend Andrew Waters, media coordinator for the club, and he sat briefly with me on the dais.

I was smart enough to make sure the microphone on the dais was turned off before I spoke quietly into his ear. “Andrew, I need some help from you in getting used to all this press,” I said. “I can’t be out here so early next time and I know this is all my fault. Will you please write up a press day itinerary for me so I can spend as little time out here as possible?”

He grinned, and pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. “Right here for you, boss,” he said. “I was going to make a few recommendations to you anyway.”

“Good man,” I answered, taking the paper from his hand and putting it into the inside pocket of my lightweight club jacket. Then I teased him. “Where were you twenty minutes ago?”

“Right over there,” he said, pointing to a nearby wall around the corner. “Really, Rob, you ought to look harder next time.”

# # #

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“David Beckham has expressed interest in playing for Reading.”

I tried not to let my jaw fall through the floor. This was Emiliani talking, and he was naturally extending the life of his story. Unfortunately, what I couldn’t verify was whether anything he was saying was anywhere near the truth.

“All I will say about that today is this,” I began. “I’ve had no contact with any of David’s agents or representatives and as I have repeatedly stated before, he is a very good player but one without a potential role at this club. Next question.”

I was trying to be patient, knowing full well that the least sign of petulance on my part would lead to an interview full of Beckham questions. Still, though, I know tomorrow’s media will follow up on today’s question. It’s how the game works.

“Any other thoughts on this?” Weatherby, either trying to draw a line under the questioning or draw me out.

“Nope, Jill.” She got a smile from me. That also drew a scowl from Emiliani.

“You like her, Rob,” he said, and there were some audible gasps through the room. “You two like each other.”

I flashed a bright red. “I appreciate fair-minded people,” I said. I turned to Waters, standing at the left side of the dais to direct questioning.

“Andrew, we’ll discuss the status of Mr. Emiliani’s media credentials after the meeting. In the meantime, we’ll move the line of questioning on.”

Weatherby was as mad as I was, and the rest of the news conference seemed to fly by. He had really stirred up a hornet’s nest this time, and after I finished paying my due respect to United, Ronaldo, Tevez and new captain Wayne Rooney, I ended the event.

Weatherby stormed straight up to Emiliani and, as we Yanks would say, got right in his grill.

She was red-faced with anger. “Don’t you dare question my ethics or my integrity again,” she snapped. “You’ll have trouble with me, you’ll have trouble with my paper, and you might feel the back of my hand. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

Her blue eyes looked like they had been transformed into ice and even though she looked up at the Italian, I figured she could take her overweight accuser in a fair fight. Rather shockingly, I watched Jill double her fist, while a thunderstruck Emiliani looked at her with trepidation.

Now our security personnel were between them, and I stood to one side watching things transpire. I looked at Waters.

“Andrew, do me a favor,” I said, and the media man nodded. “When all this blows over, call Jill’s office and ask her to call me this afternoon. I need to go through a few things with her and I’m going to want the conversation witnessed by club counsel. Tell her she’ll want to do the same.”

“Will do, Rob,” he answered. With that, I went to run training.

# # #

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Lovin' the Jill right now... /me wants an Emiliani smashin'

But I must say - I'm worried for the future, nobody in this story yaps like that without being in a better position than who they're yapping about. I don't want Jill to get sent away because she's got a crush on Rob or something! :(

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Lovin' the Jill right now... /me wants an Emiliani smashin'

But I must say - I'm worried for the future, nobody in this story yaps like that without being in a better position than who they're yapping about. I don't want Jill to get sent away because she's got a crush on Rob or something! :(

I'm sure the Herald(?) would realise that would be ill-advised. Sending Jill away would only increase speculation in the tabloids that something was going on between the two.

Seems to me that Jill has painted a target on her back with that stormy reaction.

Added to which there's always the chance that there was still a microphone/camera on somewhere in the press room that recorded Jill threatening the man with physical violence! Never mind the witnesses.

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Great comments, fellows ... thanks very much! I will say that rivalries and emotional moments between journalists do happen in the real world. I've been around them and seen them first-hand. This one, though, might have ramifications.

___

Wednesday, August 5

As a rule, locals don’t like to be bullied by outsiders, so the conversation I had with Jill yesterday was one designed to give the locals a leg up.

She happily returned my call, still spitting mad from Emiliani’s implications in front of the nation’s press yesterday. We had put out a statement condemning Emiliani’s conduct and before the hour was out, Gazzetto Dello Sport had done the same thing. They really didn’t have much choice.

However, Jill has opened a personal can of worms due to her emotional reaction. In front of the newspaper’s counsel, she opined that she felt her personal honor and integrity had been damaged by a false statement.

Her credibility has been damaged. There’s no question about that. And in a business as fiercely parochial and as intensely personal as the English press, there is no telling what kind of damage that might do.

The Italian publication’s statement didn’t stop me from doing what I needed to do. I pulled Emiliani’s media credential for the United match, which is going to make some people at his publication pretty upset. Tough turkey. He started it, not me.

I wanted it known that I wasn’t trying to influence the coverage of the local paper – hence my request to have counsel present on both sides. It actually was the friendliest meeting I’ve ever been a part of that involved more than one attorney.

“Jill, you know I respect your work, I want to get that out in the open right away,” I said.

“Thank you, Rob. I’m just spitting mad at the moment and I know you are too.”

“I want to get that out in the open as well, Jill,” I answered. “In front of counsel, I want your agreement that the comments we heard today were without foundation in any respect.”

“Gladly,” she said. “I won’t have him treating me like some two-bit tart who wants a story.”

“For the record, Jill, I have never thought of you as anything other than a hard-working reporter who tries her best to do her job as she sees it. I can’t always say that I have agreed with what you’ve written, but I can say that I have always known you to be a professional who tries her best.”

“And, I want it on the record that even though we work well together, I have no interest in a relationship with you,” she said. “Honestly, that comment made me want to spit nails. His implication is that because I’m a woman I should sleep around to get a story. I won’t tolerate that.”

“Nor should you,” I said, as the club’s general counsel sat beside me taking notes. “I will take appropriate action from the club’s point of view. I’ve pulled Stefano’s media credential in the past and have done so again today.”

# # #

I also talked with Jill regarding Beckham – off the record – when the attorneys had left the room.

“The story Stefano wrote has hurt the team,” I said. “Players fear for their positions and places, and they know that if David comes in, the team becomes his whether we like it or not. As good a player as he has been in the past and as good a player as he still is, we can’t have that.”

“I understand, Rob,” she answered. “That’s why I didn’t write it. You know Sidney Richmond has my phone number too, and he’s not afraid to use it.”

I reacted sharply. “You mean you had this story too, and you spiked it?”

“I consulted with my editors, but yes, we decided not to print it,” she said. “We were fully aware that we were giving away a world exclusive but we did not feel the ensuing reaction would be appropriate. So we decided to follow the story – unless you have something to add.”

I read between her lines. I now owe Jill a huge favor. She had the chance to get a world byline right alongside Stefano, but saw through the story as simple rabble-rousing because she knew and understood the character of her ultimate source – Rob Ridgway.

That said, common sense more often than not takes a back seat in the footballing press.

Jill, however, is different. She, and evidently her editors, care about the club even as they report upon it. I have to protect that relationship, and without saying so, she reminded me of another obligation I hold as manager of this club.

Somehow, though, I suspect the matter of Weatherby v Emiliani is far from finished.

# # #

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This story SERIOUSLY needs a thirteenth page. I'm tired of scrolling down so much. Good job as always, though. Can't wait for the start of the season!

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This story SERIOUSLY needs a thirteenth page. I'm tired of scrolling down so much. Good job as always, though. Can't wait for the start of the season!

You can use the 'view first unread' button at the top. Much less hassle.

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Thanks for the comments, fellows ... MokBull, if your page settings are set to 30 posts, this'll turn over again soon. LocoMosquito, welcome to the Rat Pack and thanks for giving me your first post on the boards. You should know, though, that last year this story was fortunate enough to win just about everything it was eligible to win, so the field's wide open for you this year :D

__

Thursday, August 6

The transfer wheels are still turning around the Premiership, and I’ve gotten another surprising response from Spain.

First things first. We have heard from dos Santos’ representation, inviting us to make a hard offer for their client. Barcelona is dragging its feet on a contract extension and I have no problem sticking my nose into that situation provided the negotiations are conducted in a serious manner.

So, I am heading to Spain – on the absolute and utter QT – to play a personal role in that process before flying to Moscow. We play CSKA in the away leg of our Champions League qualifier next Wednesday, and since the team has been well prepared by video for the match, I’m going to attend to a vital portion of club business while the squad is in transit.

It’s something I never tried to do before with either Gúti or Júlio Baptista, the two players I negotiated with last year from Real Madrid. We’ll have just faced Manchester United the previous day, and I hope I fly to the Iberian Peninsula in a good mood.

This trip is important, due to the youth and immense potential of the player. Gúti and Baptista are veterans, but Dos Santos is just 21, and I’ve already spoken of his talent. I plan to bring one person with me on the trip – dos Santos’ fellow Mexican international, Magallón. I’ll take any advantage I can get.

The player is available on a free so there is no reason for anyone to accuse us of tampering, but for whatever reason, Barca have been dragging their feet. I’d like to take advantage.

Of course, to make it all work and above all keep everything quiet, I need to get to Spain and then to Moscow without anyone finding out my side trip. That’s going to be an interesting trick.

Meanwhile, Newcastle has a new central defender, splashing out £10 million to PSV for Carlos Salcido to shore up their back line. Spurs are out one of their better defenders as well, letting Michael Dawson go to Everton for £8.5 million.

Yet as the squad dressed for training, I thought about the pace and explosiveness dos Santos would bring to us, and dared to think big. We’ve got the money to spend in the salary budget and even though his replica shirt wouldn’t sell as much as Beckham’s might, dos Santos would make us a better team than Beckham would. That is all that matters to me.

# # #

Manchester United never seems to change, and that is not a good thing for the rest of us.

Their great players are ageless. Ryan Giggs still patrols the wing from time to time, Paul Scholes still finds ways to score huge goals from deep, and even Gary Neville gets a game from time to time.

Yet their very best players are young, so they’ll be a headache for years to come. As I have mentioned earlier, Wayne Rooney is their new captain. He’s taken to playing for United with a kind of fierce glee you don’t see often this side of Hannibal Lecter.

So while he’s certainly not a ruthless killer, Rooney has the assassin’s mentality in front of goal and is absolutely, completely dedicated to club. That’s a fearsome combination and that combination now wears Coppell’s armband.

So, our VEGA analysis of Wazza is a bit frightening. He’s turning into a complete player. He’ll be the personal responsibility of Huth in his first official game in our shirt. Robert, to put it mildly, is taking the challenge seriously.

The old central defender in me wanted to make sure Robert is comfortable with his assignment. During the morning break at training today, I took him aside and we conversed in his native tongue.

Undoubtedly, he appreciates the fact that I speak German. So our lines of communication are good, even if he laughingly corrects my usage from time to time. He knows I’m trying, and that’s the point of it all.

He also knows he’s here to do a job, which is of course to give us a dominating, physical man-marking presence in the center of our box. I have other things in mind for him as well, that include getting forward on set pieces and corners to take advantage of his tremendous leaping ability – but for Sunday, it’s first things first.

That means defense. Robert has had success in dealing with pacey forwards in the past, which is one reason I was willing to break Reading’s transfer record to bring him here. We’ve lacked that element of having an über-defender, if you will, and while he may not be the prototype, I think he’s closer to it than either Sonko or Bikey.

My conversation with the ‘Berlin Wall’ centered around Rooney. Sonko is set to get the start as Huth’s partner and he’ll get to handle Carlos Tévez, which is no mean feat in itself.

For me, the whole issue to playing United is possession. They are a lot like Chelsea or especially Arsenal in that regard – let them have the ball for long stretches and you’re asking to get buried. While the Gunners are different for us because we’ve shown on several occasions that they have a lot of trouble with our counter game, United is a horse of a completely different color.

Robert knows that. He’s been on enough Boro teams that have had their hands full with United to understand that devising a scheme to play them and making it work are two different things. We have different personnel, we have a good scheme, and he understands his role in it.

For Sunday, that role will be to act as Rooney’s second skin. He’s relishing the challenge and I’m looking forward to seeing him take it on.

# # #

Also today, Gazzetto Dello Sport announced the one-week suspension of columnist/reporter Stefano Emiliani.

That is actually a convenient way out for the publication – they can apply for and receive a credential for the United match with a different reporter, and we haven’t a leg to stand on.

So, he’s going to sit at home and watch the match while Weatherby works. Somehow, I suspect that’s fine with Jill and I know it’s fine with me.

# # #

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Finally got all the way through the story. Actually, was sad to get here because now I have to wait for updates like all the others. Excellent work!

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JayR, thank you for starting from the beginning and welcome to the Rat Pack! Glad to have you along!

___

Friday, August 7

Tonight I had a wonderful experience with our fans. That is frankly something I have missed over the last few months.

We had a public gathering and reception at the Megastore in the Oracle mall, with attendance mandatory for the players. We made it an eight-hour event so we weren’t overwhelmed by visitors and so players could come and go without huge impact on their schedules. It’s safe to say that right now, interest in Reading Football Club is as high as it’s ever been.

I thought back to the night last winter when we had run into Peter McGuire at this very spot, and Patty had drawn blood with a slap to his face when he opened his mouth once too often. It had been a confrontational and emotional night, and my wife’s action had capped the raw hatred both sides felt toward the other.

I also remembered him leaving the Madejski Stadium after receiving a personal invitation to cease his employment with the club from its owner. That was a very satisfying moment, but tonight was all about erasing bad memories of my sworn adversary.

Patty didn’t go – she didn’t think it would be a good idea to intrude upon a club event such as this so she stayed home curled up with a good book. Too, she has some bad memories of the last time she was at the place and I certainly understood that.

This was my night, anyway, so off I went with a desire to finally have a good night with the fans of our club.

And, we did. Most of the car park at the center was roped off and reserved for supporters and players, behind the back entrance to the store. It was a very nice summer evening and it was a very nice way to connect with the folks who pay the bills.

Fans wanted to hear from the new arrivals and they wanted to hear from the new captain. Lobont is already gaining something of a cult following here and for any player with an ego, that’s important. Be honest – everyone in this business has an ego or else they wouldn’t be in the business. I have one, and sometimes it gets in my way.

But Bogdan was quiet, which was certainly in keeping with his character. He is happy to be where he is, he knows he’s the unquestioned number one goalkeeper, and he doesn’t need to be vocal about either fact to get his point across.

So he leads quietly. When he needs to be emotional he can certainly do that – what goalkeeper isn’t emotional when he’s tearing strips off his defenders? Yet, for the most part, he leads by example. That is the kind of captain I want, because in my experience I’ve learned that those sorts of captains more readily generate results the fans expect.

Winthrop ran the show tonight and I kept my distance as a result. He handed the microphone to my choice as Reading captain, and Lobont said what the fans wanted to hear. Meanwhile, Winthrop stood to one side, looking every inch the organizer and power player.

Playing power politics last spring saw him get his hand slapped along with his benefactor, Richmond, but for some reason Sir John didn’t see fit to hand him a P45 along with McGuire. So if he’s really a power player, he’s had to improve his game over the summer.

I personally didn’t understand the reasons behind Sir John’s decision to keep Winthrop in his job, but then that’s not my role to understand. Marketers can be a dime a dozen. So why not make a change to replace an individual who went out of his way to get on the manager’s bad side?

Why, indeed?

# # #

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Saturday, August 8

We got some very good financial news today. The stadium expansion coming online has had the desired effect from a financial standpoint.

Winthrop issued a media release today announcing that Reading has set an all-time record by selling 23,600 season passes. A capacity crowd for the new Mad Stad is expected tomorrow, with nearly 31,000 tickets already sold for United’s visit.

Obviously, some of the lure for season ticket sales is European football and the rest is the prospect of real success in the Premiership. Nobody is yet picking us to challenge Chelsea for the title, but if we can show another season of solid growth maybe we can surprise a few people down the road.

The goal for this season is to show that last season wasn’t a fluke. Considering all the last-minute heroics we got last season from Lita, to name just one player, that task might be a more difficult proposition than anyone had anticipated.

I’m not saying we were lucky last season. Far from it. The late American baseball executive Branch Rickey once said that “luck is the residue of design”. There’s an element of truth to that.

Lita’s goals were fortunate, but they came after he was put in a position to succeed. He was there because we had enough depth to put him there, and our tactical plan took advantage of his skills. He then took his chances, and he was a big reason we finished third.

This season, though, we’ll have to come up with something different. We aren’t going to sneak up on anyone, we aren’t going to surprise anyone, and we’ll need to be better in every facet of our game if we are to have a hope of success. That is the challenge we face, and I go back to my question of yesterday when I think of it.

Why would Sir John keep an individual who has knowingly attempted to disrupt the football side of the operation on the payroll during the most important season this club has ever played? If his goal is to keep me cooped up in my office in response, he may well succeed. If it’s not, I’m wondering what Sir John is playing at.

Yet, as I sat in my office this afternoon putting together the final match plan for United tomorrow, I had to force all those thoughts out of my mind. They are dangerous and they are deadly to a club with ambition. It has to be full speed ahead on the football front. Nothing else will do.

# # #

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Gentlemen, thank you ... the season is under way, but Reading is watching on the first day!

___

The first matches of the season are in the books. Our attention was on Everton, our second opponent of the season, and from the looks of things my friend David Moyes has a little work to do.

The Toffees fell 3-1 to ten-man Aston Villa away from home this afternoon and to say it was disappointing for them would be an understatement. James Vaughan scored the first goal of the season on 23 minutes, but Gabriel Agbonlahor had picked up a brace by halftime to give the Villans a lead they wouldn’t lose. Juan Manuel Mata scored just after the hour before Zat Knight got himself sent off for a second bookable offense with 21 minutes to play. With that much time against ten men, Everton did absolutely nothing. That’s just one of the disappointments for Moyes.

Meanwhile, champions Chelsea had their hands full at Portsmouth this afternoon, both with the home team and in dealing with adversity.

Avram Grant had to use all three of his substitutions in the first half due to three injuries. Ben Sahar, Andres Guardado and Joe Cole all went off with dead legs. Cole himself was one of the substitutes, coming on for Guardado.

The Blues overcame all that frustration through Michael Ballack on 62 minutes, but my countryman Landon Donovan gave Pompey a split in the points two minutes into second half injury time. So, the champions have been held in their first match defending the title.

Draws ruled the day for the Big Four, as Liverpool drew 1-1 at home to newly promoted Wigan Athletic. Former Red Harry Kewell scored his side’s goal and was named man of the match at Anfield, certainly no mean feat. His goal on 17 minutes was countered by Steven Gerrard just before halftime, but Liverpool couldn’t find the second breakthrough they craved.

After the match, the Reds celebrated by selling Mohammed Sissoko to Fiorentina for £23.5 million, so I expect Rafa will have a couple of new names on the dotted line by the end of the month.

Bolton handled newly-promoted Sunderland 3-1 at the Reebok, with Abdoulaye Meite, Martin Caceres and Ricardo Vaz Te all finding the range for Wanderers with Dean Whitehead scoring Sunderland’s goal.

The third new kid on the Premiership block, Fulham, fell 2-1 at Craven Cottage to West Ham. Collins John, who led them in scoring last season in the Championship, cancelled out Bobby Zamora’s second-minute flyer for the Hammers, and Craig Bellamy finished the job for the visitors just before the hour.

Middlesbrough, who escaped the drop thanks to Harry Redknapp’s magic late last season, dismissed a poor Blackburn side 2-0 at Ewood Park behind strikes from Lee Cattermole and Darren Bent. The way Rovers played at times last season, one wonders whether Mark Hughes will be the first manager under pressure this season.

Spurs and Newcastle played a pulsating 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane, with Ashley Young and Yakubu staking Martin Jol’s side to the early lead only to see Alan Smith and Christopher Samba pull it back in the second half for the Magpies.

Manchester City played a snore match at home against West Brom, but were the lesser of two evils thanks to Vedran Corluka’s goal, providing a 1-0 win. That pretty well summed everything up. Derby hosts Arsenal tomorrow while we’re playing United.

This evening, as Patty relaxed at home and I paced the floor, she tried to get me to calm down.

“Rob, you’re going to wear out the carpet,” she teased, putting down her book as I turned for my hundredth lap of our sitting room. “But before you do that, you’re going to drive me nuts. Please sit down.”

Blushing, I did as she asked. She then set me straight.

“You’ve done all you can do,” she said. “You can’t train any more before the match, your bags are packed for Spain and you need a night’s rest. So relax. Come here and snuggle me. Let the match take care of itself.”

“I can’t stop thinking about it,” I said. “United was beatable for Coppell when he was here and they’re a team I couldn’t beat last season. This one means something to me.”

“They all mean something to you, that’s why you’re in the business you’re in,” she said. “But sitting here letting all this fester is going to give you an ulcer.”

“I need a good start,” I said. “With all the stuff going on, with Winthrop sitting in the wings, Richmond still on the board at Sir John’s request, and a lot of European matches hopefully ahead of us, we need to get off to a good start. And I confess, that’s got me nervous.”

“You mean you’re feeling pressure?” she asked. “After what you did last season?”

“It was last season,” I said, as she leaned against my chest. “Last season means nothing now. I’m only as good as my last match and that process starts tomorrow.”

# # #

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Sunday, August 9

Reading v Manchester United – EPL Match Day #1

More improvements have been made to the Madejski Stadium ground than just in the stands.

Since the stadium expansion was completed, as I’ve mentioned the capacity of the place is increased by about eight thousand more paying customers. According to the Law of Unintended Consequences, that also means transportation and parking issues are more important now than they have ever been.

Getting inside the ground today took twenty extra minutes. For the meticulous match-day routine planner in me, adjustment to that new fact of life will mean change. And I hate change.

The added time was just enough to throw me into a bit of a funk as I finally made my way to the players’ entrance to prepare for today’s match. The crowd outside the gateway was bigger than normal, reflecting our illustrious visitors, our own new standing in the English game, and the fact that a lot more people now have access to the inside of the stadium on match day.

Of those three facts, somehow I think United is going to keep its luster. I have to make sure we keep our standing, so the people will keep coming back.

I arrived in my office to find Dillon already there. Gone was my aw-shucks approach of a year ago, when I waited at the door to personally greet Avram Grant when Chelsea arrived to start my managerial career. Now, with Coppell the visitor, I let others handle the pleasantries while I figured out how I was going to beat him.

The permutations of our tactic percolated in my mind as the players filed in, one by one, to dress for the match. Huth and Dica, the new kids on the block, had the most intense expressions as they entered.

The German got the warmest reception from our faithful on the way in. Despite the gravity of his assignment, he had time to sign a few autographs and chat up a few fans. Dica, though, seemed not to want to be bothered, at least not today.

As one of the new arrivals, Huth’s gesture was appreciated by the faithful. He had put in the mandatory appearance on Friday at the team’s public rally, but the day to day interaction with fans is one thing that will make his adjustment easier and his transition more effective.

Finally, though, I had everyone in the room. It was still ninety minutes before kickoff, with the entire squad dressed, wrapped, taped, and otherwise prepared for play. Wordlessly, I entered the room and wrote the first XI of the season on the wipeboard outside my office door.

Lobont

Ferreira

Pogatetz

Huth

Sonko

Dica

Magallón

Maloney

Kalou

Kitson

Dagoberto

I couldn’t help but notice that of the eleven players in the lineup, for the first time in my tenure more than half of them were players I had brought in. For the first time, a Reading team that was more Rob Ridgway’s than Steve Coppell’s would take the pitch, and that brought a measure of satisfaction.

“I wonder if Richmond knows that?” I thought, not necessarily to myself, as I returned to my desk.

I didn’t really care about the answer. All I wanted was for these players to win, regardless of who was responsible for them wearing blue and white hoops.

In the main room, Dillon was reviewing the day’s tactical assignments. None of it should have come as news to any of the players, but I suppose it never hurts to remind them. I was due for the main team talk in a few minutes. An alarm bell went off in the main room, signifying five minutes to lineup. It was time.

I stepped out of the office again and the room came to a respectful silence as I took my place.

“Okay, fellows, let me have your attention,” I began. “Short talk today. You’ve got the chance to get your season off to a flying start but what I really want to see out of you today is a solid, winning performance. Clearly, you’ve got it within you to do that, and you’ve clearly got it within you to compete against today’s opponent. The day we show we have truly arrived on the scene is the day we beat the club we face today. So make today the day. Play hard for your shirt and play hard for each other. Good luck.”

The professionalism I saw in the changing room almost made me shiver. The team looked ready to get out there and get after it, and after the friendly schedule we had zoomed through, I didn’t think we were lacking for confidence.

The teams met in the narrow hallway leading to the pitch and there was barely room for the Sky Sports cameraman to squeeze between them to get the dramatic entrance shot so common on today’s Premiership television broadcasts. We had spent millions of pounds expanding the stadium but evidently not a shilling on making the hallway leading to the pitch a foot and a half wider.

It was close quarters, in the same manner the matches between the clubs had been last season.

Finally, the lines started to move, Coppell received polite applause from the Royals faithful, and we shook hands before heading to our respective dugouts.

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I suppose the time may well arrive when Coppell doesn’t get the reception he got today – after all, he did leave the club to take the United position – but at least for now, that time is still in the future. His face betrayed no emotion as he took his place, which is certainly typical of the man.

I have no such issue, though, and almost as soon as Rooney and Tevez had kicked off, I was on the touchline urging my players on. I was watching especially for Dica and Huth to show how they’re blending in. Both have vital roles, and with Maloney now shifted to the left side both to take advantage of his crossing skill and to allow Dica to prowl the box, I was watching for signs of tentative play.

Unfortunately, they weren’t long in coming. Rooney, in his first match as United captain, was determined to win the match all by himself, and though Huth thankfully had him well measured, the match of Sonko against Tevez soon took on most of the day’s drama.

The Argentine picked up the ball outside our area to the left with just a sliver of space to work with. He cut sharply to the inside and would have left most defenders I could name for dead. Yet, Sonko simply wheeled in the opposite direction and re-inserted himself between the striker and goal, sliding right at the edge of the area to dispossess the United man with skill, aplomb and evidently great enthusiasm. As Magallón countered, Sonko thrust a fist in the air to rile the crowd and send a message at the same time.

The display of emotion, while understandable and gratifying, was premature. We were only a few minutes into the match, but Sonko wanted to make his point. I wasn’t sure goading Manchester United was the best way to do it, but Ibrahima thought differently.

So as he headed back up the pitch, I reminded him who was boss. “Only eighty minutes to go,” I snapped, and the defender got the message. “Keep yourself under control!”

Sonko had offended my sense of bulletin-board motivation. I hate it. I haven’t generally been one to remind my players about what someone else said in the press, and I’m loathe to listen to anyone on my team bumping his gums about an opponent. I want the talking done on the pitch and nowhere else.

So Sonko’s actions, while they took place on the pitch, were still annoying. And if I thought they were annoying to me, it was nothing compared to how they annoyed Tevez.

The forward turned and approached Sonko, waving his arms. Ibrahima is about five inches taller than Carlos, and if the two of them tangled my money would have been on my defender. Yet, that was absolutely the last thing I wanted to see, for obvious reasons.

Referee Phil Dowd thought the same, and got between the players before they could get too close to each other. The suddenly aroused crowd of just over 30,000 made more noise than usual, mainly because there were eight thousand more of them in the place than had ever been in there before, but the referee and both managers quickly restored order. Dowd did it from the field and Coppell and I did it by yelling from our respective technical areas.

Neither of us wanted to see the match reach a flash point – at least, not yet. There are times in a match when such moments are useful, but Steve and I both knew that this was not one of those times.

It’s rare for him to get up during the first half of a match and in that regard he is hardly unique among managers. Yet now he did, trying to restore some sense of calm in his team.

We didn’t look at each other. I knew instinctively that if I did, things might well boil over. Steve knew it too – it wasn’t until after the players had been separated and play resumed that we finally exchanged glances.

There was no malice in his eyes, even though it was clearly my player that had turned up the pressure. I don’t think there’s ever much expression there while a match is going on, which is as unnerving as it is consistent.

Sonko’s goal was to rally the troops, and he certainly did that. Our lethargic play improved and the end result was that when United’s superior possession brought the ball into a scoring position, they were met by the ‘blue and white wall’ that had so frustrated Liverpool in last year’s FA Cup.

As a result, United flailed away, sometimes from ridiculously long range, because they couldn’t get close enough to our goal to generate a decent scoring chance. Our problem was different. We couldn’t get close to their goal because they wouldn’t let us have the ball.

Being the home side, and the higher placed team from a year ago, I found that particularly annoying. Dowd finally blew for halftime and as well as we had played at times, I still considered us lucky to get to the changing room with a goalless draw.

# # #

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“Calm down,” I urged the team during the break. “They aren’t penetrating, they aren’t getting good shots at goal and it’s going to take something special for them to beat you today. Yet I’m seeing you playing tentatively and there’s no reason for that.”

The looks I got in return showed I still have some work to do to get this team to believe in itself. This is useful information to have from the point of view of squad development, but still news I’d rather not have received at halftime against Manchester United.

“Look, you can do it,” I said, searching for and finally finding Maloney’s eyes as I tried to light a spark under my team. “Who did you beat last year in the table to get where you are now? Are you honestly going to sit here and tell me you can’t do that again? You can, and you know you can. Relax, stay within our match plan, and use the second half to bring home a win.”

Dillon stepped forward and was quite public in his congratulation of both our centre halves for their play against Rooney and Tévez. He should have been – when United gets the ball forward to those gentlemen they are obviously very hard to live with.

The general mood was upbeat as we headed out for the second half. Stuttering though our play was in the first half, we felt we could handle them.

# # #

The problem with halftime adjustments is, of course, that both teams get to make them. Our defensive work on their forwards continued apace, but we found our own routes to goal now cut off by an aggressive United defense that was taking a much higher line than we saw in the first half.

Given our known ability on the counter, Coppell was taking a calculated risk. He was counting on his defenders to outpace my forwards, particularly Dagoberto. Seeing this, I got Lita off the bench and warming up ten minutes earlier than I otherwise might have.

“Pace against pace,” I told him as he asked for his instructions prior to warmup. “I want you in there to run right at them. We need space in the middle and we need you to find it for us.”

He nodded. I’m sure he’d have preferred to be in the starting eleven as he always does, but Leroy does know his role and he prepares for it like a true professional. He’s just too valuable to me coming off the bench. His goals last season were a key reason we finished where we did, so his value to the club is unquestioned.

Meanwhile, United’s new signing, Cavalieri, was standing between the sticks with nearly nothing to do. We just weren’t putting meaningful pressure on him.

I hoped Lita would change that, and as I sent him on for Kitson just after the hour, the home faithful began to sit up and take some notice. I wanted energy out of Leroy but the result of the substitution was to get some energy out of the capacity crowd as well.

Soon after the substitution, Cavalieri got his test. It wasn’t from Lita, though. It was from Dica, which was indirectly one of the reasons I sent Leroy on in the first place. United had to respect his pace and right after Maloney immediately tested the United high line with a searching ball for the run of Lita in the left channel, we had the space we needed.

Lita easily outpaced a suddenly frantic Rio Ferdinand, and though the lead ball was just a hair long, we had shown we could break United’s high line.

That opened space for the Romanian in the midfield and Dica made his bid for a debut goal a few minutes later. With the back line now dropped back a bit to respect Lita, Dica put a little drop-shoulder move on Darren Fletcher and spun past the Scotsman on 66 minutes to free up space at the top of United’s area.

His shot was a rocket, aimed precisely for Cavalieri’s top right corner. Yet the keeper anticipated beautifully, launching himself to the right and putting the palm of his hand against the ball to tip it against his right hand post.

The crowd screamed with anticipation but was soon cruelly disappointed as Ferdinand arrived to slam the rebound into touch an instant before Lita’s arrival on the scene.

It had easily been our best chance of the match, but the tactical change momentarily gave us the upper hand. We had made United react to us and I thought that was a good sign.

Now our tempo picked up again, and we started to see Reading football the way I want to see it played. It had taken over an hour, but we finally had mighty United on their heels.

Dagoberto won a corner moments later by striking a bullet that John O’Shea deflected behind. Maloney went to take the corner, and Huth came forward to challenge the keeper.

Maloney’s effort was true and as Cavalieri came to collect, he ran headlong into our ‘Berlin Wall’. Huth got there first, and his header was true to the lower left corner – where it was hacked off the line by the alert O’Shea.

Again, the crowd howled with disappointment, but our ascendancy was now proven. The lethargy of the first half was gone and we settled in for a thrilling finish.

Unfortunately for us, that was as good as it got. Our defense stood tall but United’s did as well. The rest of the game degenerated into a midfield struggle that was soon encased in cement.

I was also looking for a late winner, as we let United come to us so we could play to our strengths and counter. Inviting a United attack might have led some to question my sanity, but my confidence in Huth and Sonko made the risk worth taking. Arsenal learned last season what happens when we’re allowed to counter, and I gambled that Coppell had watched that match video as well.

He had. United probed, but not as aggressively as you’d expect. In the end, we settled for a goalless draw that satisfied no one.

Reading 0

Manchester United 0

A – 30,784, Madejski Stadium, Reading

Man of the Match – Ibrahima Sonko, Reading

# # #

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“You really took Ronaldo out of the match.”

The first statement, from a fellow wearing Gazzetto Dello Sport’s credential and worn by a middle-aged man who compared to Emiliani looked like Julio Iglesias, was something of a surprise.

I smiled. “Your publication isn’t supposed to say nice things about my team,” I said, drawing smiles from those reporters who know of my history with Emilani. “But yes, we did a nice job today on the three United players we had to account for – Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez. We didn’t give them supply, we didn’t let them find space, and I’m very proud of our defensive effort today.”

“In attack, though, you left quite a bit to be desired.” This was Weatherby, and I wondered if someone had declared a “Backwards Day” in the media room. The normally supportive Evening Post journalist was criticizing a solid effort, while the Italians were praising it.

“It’s not as though you can simply walk onto the pitch and expect to break down Manchester United,” I explained. “They are an excellent side, one trying to get into the Champions League just as we are. I’m pleased with this effort and any time you can get a result against a Big Four side, you have to be pleased.”

“Isn’t it the Big Five now?” This was Setanta’s Bobby Hopkins asking a very dangerous question.

“We earned third place last year on the quality of our play,” I said, measuring my words carefully. “This year we have to show that finish was not a fluke. When we are able to do that, then we can talk about a Big Four or a Big Five or whatever else you want to call it. One season does not a superpower make.”

I knew I had written Emiliani’s next column, whenever he returns to the beat. So be it. I don’t care what he writes about my team when keeping that team’s collective feet on the ground is my absolute priority.

# # #

Arsenal is going to be a huge pain this season. Without much effort, they brushed Derby aside 2-0 at Pride Park this afternoon in a match where they could, and did, name their score.

I thought Arsene would have chosen to use his fingers instead of his hands to count the goals, though. They could easily have scored half a dozen or more today, slicing and dicing the Rams’ back line at will. Emanuel Eboué and Robin van Persie took care of the perfunctory duty of stretching the twine, and the Gunners headed back to London with three points they hardly had to break a sweat to earn.

That’s troubling to me. Seeing them in form this early, when we have to play them right before our return match against CSKA to get into the Champions League, gives me pause. However, I guess I’d rather play them earlier instead of later.

After the match, the players took their treatments and kit was packed for the trip to the airport. They were flying out immediately, heading east on the long trip to Moscow for a night’s rest before late afternoon training tomorrow.

Finally, the only player left in the room was Magallón. I emerged from my office and he nodded to me. We spoke in Spanish.

“Ready, Jonny?” I asked, and the Mexican midfielder nodded.

“Good. Grab your luggage and let’s go. I’ll drive.”

With that, we were off to the airport. We were right behind the team coach, but were headed in quite a different direction.

# # #

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