With Albion now mathematically unable to reach the play-offs and Reading mathematically safe, this Saturday’s fixture at the Madejski Stadium, or the Select Car Leasing Stadium is the sponsors would like us to call it, is very much a dead rubber for the teams as a whole, but some of the players may have something to play for.
The Express and Star have been releasing stories this week that are clearly focused on Steve Bruce’s plans for next season, not least his requirement that his players must have a home within an hour of Albion’s Walsall training ground. I personally think that this is a positive step, although it may be difficult to enforce for those already under contract.
As anyone who has commuted for long periods will know, excessive travelling does have a physical impact and, for professional athletes, their physical wellbeing should be near the top of their list of priorities. Furthermore, as Ally Robertson pointed out in his E&S column, players are more likely to foster camaraderie with their teammates if they don’t have to rush off to make a long journey home after each training session and match.
The counter-point to the argument is that those with children may be unwilling to uproot their families where they are settled in school and, while a second home locally would be acceptable for Bruce, it would have an impact on family life with the player needing to stay away several days a week. Nonetheless, that is one of the sacrifices that you would expect a professional footballer to be prepared to make.
Up until now, the Albion boss hasn’t made too many drastic changes to the starting line up, perhaps because there was still a chance, however small, of a top six spot. Now that has been completely extinguished, will we see chances given to some other young players in the last two games of the season?
Caleb Taylor was one of three centre backs on the bench for the Coventry City match, suggesting that he is in Bruce’s thoughts. My gut feel is that Kyle Bartley is one of the senior players that Bruce will look to move on given his age, his home location in Yorkshire and his senior position in a failing squad. He may not have been prepared to exclude the Stockport-born man from the squad while there was still a chance of the play-offs, but his omission from Saturday’s squad may be an indicator. Then again, perhaps Bruce doesn’t want to show his hand in that way.
Other youngsters that have been in and around the first team squad this season are Tom Fellows and Rayhaan Tulloch. Tulloch seems to have been on the verge of a breakthrough for a couple of years but has made just two substitute appearances this season and hasn’t been involved in the first team since his last appearance against Middlesbrough in February. He also hasn’t featured for the PL2 side since the end of March. His contract is up at the end of the season and there are rumours that Rangers amongst a few other clubs are interested in signing him – his absence could be down to injury, or it could be that he has confirmed that he will not be signing a new contract.
Tom Fellows, on the other hand, has been a regular in the PL2 side and has made six first team appearances this season with an impressive spell off the bench at Derby County in December earning him a start in the next match, at home to Cardiff City. His last appearance was in January but he has made the bench a couple of times since Bruce was appointed.
Steve Bruce has been willing to play young players in the past and has been very complimentary about Taylor Gardner-Hickman, so it could be that he just doesn’t feel any of the others are ready for Championship football. Maybe one or two will be in the squad at the weekend, but I’m not holding my breath.
Another player who might be eager to impress is Reading midfielder, John Swift. He is a free agent this summer and has reportedly been scouted by Albion during the season. He is likely to be one of the top targets for top level Championship and even some Premier League clubs this summer – the Baggies may not be “top level” in terms of their league position this season, but they will still be one of the better payers with only the three relegated clubs receiving more broadcasting income next season. If Swift is keen on a move to the Hawthorns, he may be eager to put in a good performance.
There is little else to talk about when it comes to the match itself. It is a venue that Albion have won at only once, on their last visit, but Reading have conceded more goals at home (43) than any other Championship side this season. Having said that, only Preston North End and the bottom three have scored fewer on the road than the Baggies!
A sign of the apathy for this fixture is that I can’t remember the last time that tickets for Albion’s last away game of the season went on general sale, particularly disappointing when they are priced at just £20.
Perhaps those in attendance will be in for a rare treat, but I doubt it.
Saturday’s match will be the 45th meeting between Albion and Reading with the first taking place at Elm Park in September 1927. The visitors won 4-1 thanks to goals from Arthur Fitton, Tommy Glidden, Charlie Wilson and Jimmy Cookson, a result that remains the Baggies biggest win away to the Biscuitmen.
Albion returned to Elm Park on a further three occasions before the Second World War losing 5-3 in November 1928, a result that is still the Royals’ biggest win over the Baggies, drawing in November 1929 and recording their second victory at the venue in April 1931 when W.G. Richardson (2) and Teddy Sandford were on the mark in a 3-0 victory as they closed in on a return to the top flight.
The Baggies would not return to Elm Park for a league fixture for another 55 years when Ron Saunders’ team needed a late goal from Craig Madden to earn a point in a Division Two fixture in September 1986. Albion recorded away victories over Reading in 1991 and 1995 but, when the Royals moved to the Madejski Stadium in 1998, their home record over the Baggies improved markedly.
In fact, not until their ninth visit, their last one in February 2020, did Albion win at Reading’s new home, a 2-1 victory thanks to goals from Matheus Pereira and Kyle Bartley.
The Madejski Stadium was also the venue for what was originally scheduled as Albion’s last away game in the 2003/04 campaign. It was a much happier occasion than it will be this season with Gary Megson’s side having already confirmed their return to the Premier League and the visiting supporters celebrated the excellent contribution of Danish centre-back Tommy Gaardsøe by dressing up as Vikings. The result didn’t go Albion’s way as they lost 1-0, and a rescheduled visit to Stoke City a few days later ended up being their last away trip.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
11 Dec 2021 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Robinson)
Last meeting at Reading
12 Feb 2020 – League Championship
Reading 1 (Pușcaș)
West Brom 2 (Pereira, Bartley)
Albion’s Record against Reading
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