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Can Coppell master escapology?

As one of the three Championship clubs promoted to the lionised promised land of the Premiership Reading have, of course, been automatically installed as one of the three favourites to go straight back whence the came.

But is this fair?

After all they Royals were promoted as Championship champions and enjoyed a season of distinction last term; with 33 games the club hold the record for the longest unbeaten run in the second tier of the English game, and in amassing 106 points they also hold the record for the most points in single season in any English professional league.

Well, unfortunately for Reading and despite last season's achievements, looking back on the past performances of clubs recently promoted to the top flight as champions, their chances don't look too good.

Taking the last two seasons as examples both Norwich and Sunderland came a cropper against the big boys, with Sunderland gaining the unwanted distinction of breaking their own record for the lowest-ever Premiership points total.

So, regardless of the strength of a team's showing in the Championship the ever-increasing gap in quality between the two leagues means that previous achievements or successes effectively count for nought.

However, there are examples of success against the odds.

Fulham, Manchester City and Portsmouth all reached the Premiership as champions and still boast their Premiership status, while last season the pluck of Wigan gave every dewy-eyed football fan the sense, however misguided, that even the most unlikely club can hold their own in the upper echelons.

So, Reading don't face a completely impossible task but history shows that if they are to be successful in attaining 17th place it will have been an act of the utmost sporting escapology.

The question must be is Reading manager Steve Coppell capable of pulling off such a miraculous magic trick.

The former England and Manchester United winger is a popular figure amongst football fans and the media alike but while he has enjoyed a long and relatively successful managerial career his best achievements have not come in the highly-pressurised environment of the Premiership.

While taking Crystal Palace to the FA Cup final in 1990 and guiding them to a top three finish in the old first division back in 1991 are creditable successes over the last 15 years the scrutiny and pressure associated with top-flight football have grown exponentially, and pressure has not always been a Coppell ally.

In a departure from what had until then been an entirely London-based managerial career Coppell joined Manchester City in 1996-97. Six short weeks later chairman Franny Lee was explaining that Coppell had quit due to ill health. The general consensus was that the pressure had proved too much.

Fast forward ten years to the billion pound global behemoth that is the Premiership in 2006, add into the equation bombastic millionaire Reading chairman John Madejski and it becomes clear why Coppell is in the top half of most bookmaker selections for the Premiership sack race.

If Reading are to stand any chance of maintaining their top-flight status goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann will need to recapture the form that saw him keep 21 clean sheets last season and included in the US World Cup squad.

Reading will also have to perform at the other end of the pitch, an area in which they excelled last season. Reading will look to Dave Kitson and promising 22-year-old Irishman Kevin Doyle, both of whom bagged 18 goals each last season, to transfer their scoring touch in the Championship to the Premiership.

Like Doyle, who Coppell plucked from the obscurity of the Irish League, another highly-rated striker who could prove to be invaluable in the coming season is Leroy Lita.

After joining the Berkshire club in July 2005 from Bristol City Lita proved to be a revelation scoring six goals in his first nine games. The England Under-21 international increased his Championship goal haul to 11 before suffering a broken leg in March which brought a premature end to his season.

Happily for the Royals Lita has made a full recovery and been on target during pre-season.

Another key player for Reading will be central midfielder Steve Sidwell, who is arguably the best of an energetic midfield set-up which also features the talented, if limited, Bobby Convey and Glen Little.

Unsuccessful bids have been tabled by Charlton and Manchester City for the skilful ball-winner and Middlesbrough are reportedly interested, but Reading are unwilling to sell and Sidwell appears to be just as reluctant to move.

So far the 23-year-old has shunned the opportunity to sign a lucrative new deal, seemingly preferring to put himself in the shop window this season and move on a free transfer when his current deal expires at the end of the season.

To give Sidwell credit he has moved to draw a line under the speculation surrounding his future. Sadly until there is a conclusion to the saga the rumours will persist and Coppell must hope that the uncertainty does not harm team spirit.

As well as difficulty in trying to hold onto existing players Coppell has also been finding it tough to attract new players to the club.

'A newly promoted side without a history in the top flight is not an attractive proposition for a lot of players. They want to sign for clubs who are guaranteed to stay there,' points out frustrated though realistic Coppell.

Reading have been linked with World Cup stars including Ivory Coast's Emerse Fae and Ghana's John Mensah, but despite the financial backing of chairman Madejski (at the time of writing) the club have been unable to agree fees for either player.

Like Wigan before them Reading go into their first Premier League season un-fancied and without any household names, but if they can come close to emulating Wigan's achievements Steve Coppell will have achieved a marvellous feat.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Phil Holland.