Reading fly high on the wings of Seol
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As explanations for a good start to the season go, the fact that your ground is less than an hour’s drive from New Malden rarely features.
There can be little doubt, though, that the main reason Reading approach Saturday afternoon’s game against Chelsea sitting a happy seventh in the table is the form of Seol Ki-Hyeon, and the winger has made it clear that his adjustment to life in the Premiership has been helped by the large South Korean community in south-west London.
“You can get whatever you need for cooking there,” he said. “If I go for a haircut they don’t charge me, or if I order a meal in a restaurant they will bring three or four and not make me pay.
“The most important thing, though, is that they support me.”
When Reading spent £1.5m of their £1.85m summer budget on bringing Seol from Wolves, it is fair to say that eyebrows were raised.
He had shown the occasional flicker of quality at Molineux, but he never quite caught fire, and he seemed an odd choice as the central thrust of a tilt at the Premiership. So far, though, he has been exceptional: a tally of two goals and two assists in seven games fails to give the full indication of quite how crucial he has been.
It is not just that Reading suits him – he suits Reading. When he thrashed a 22-yard drive into the top corner against West Ham, his reaction was to jog back to his own half, one arm raised and nodding to himself.
It was all admirably understated, as befits a side whose whole ethos seems to be based around neatness and quiet over-achievement.
That they have not lost a home game since Plymouth beat them on the opening day of last season may suggest a bear pit, but the most intimidating thing about the Madejski Stadium is the motorway network that surrounds it.
Reading’s lack of summer investment led many to make the comparison with Sunderland. They won the Championship the previous season and, after being similarly cautious in their signings, were immediately relegated with a record low points tally. A win this afternoon, though, and Reading will already have surpassed the 15 points Sunderland managed.
A truer comparison is rather with the Sunderland of 1999, or the Fulham of 2001, the other two sides to be promoted to the top flight with more than 100 points.
Both survived comfortably, playing similarly attractive, attacking football, rather than having to resort to the pragmatic spoiling of a Watford or a Sheffield United. That is probably only possible with the sort of sensible sustained investment that allows players to be bedded in over time, engendering both understanding and team spirit: a bunch of mercenaries cobbled together in a few weeks tends to resemble just that.
Yet good as Reading’s long-term strategy is and wise as their spending has been, they have been aided by a kindly fixture list.
Victories over Middlesbrough, Manchester City, Sheffield United and a struggling West Ham have given them a basis and a belief.
Reading’s last home game was against Manchester United; after Chelsea, their next one is against Arsenal, and shortly after that they face a trip to Liverpool.
Had that sequence come at the beginning of the season, they could easily have found themselves adrift with morale shattered almost before they had started.
As it is, they went into the United game full of confidence, took the lead, and were perhaps unfortunate to concede a late equaliser to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Perhaps they are a touch flimsy in midfield – which might explain why the win at West Ham is the only away match so far in which they have avoided defeat – and they probably lack the top-class forward to snatch points from games their passing does not allow them to dominate.
But those are the sort of quibbles by which most newly promoted sides would love to be troubled.
Seol has suggested he finds the Premiership easier to play in than the Championship precisely because there is a fraction more time on the ball, a premium on passing. The gulf between the two is undeniable, but he and Reading are proving it is not unbridgeable.
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