Thursday, August 14, 2008
Hahnemann looking to return to the Premier League
Bradford, Leicester, Coventry and Wolves.
Marcus Hahnemann and Reading will strive once more for promotion to the Premier League. (David Rogers/GettyImages)
"Don't forget Leeds and Ipswich," added Reading's Marcus Hahnemann. The list of clubs that drop out of England's lucrative Premier League and struggle to resurface is almost endless, despite forecasts of swift returns.
Wisconsin's Jay DeMerit discovered that last season. His Watford, booted from the top division in 2006-2007, was the bookmakers' favorite to win the second-tier Championship. The Hornets were stung instead, collapsing in the second half and doing barely enough to reach the playoffs, where surprising Hull knocked them out and ultimately earned promotion to the Promised Land.
Reading, which endured a mini-collapse in April and May to suffer the dreaded drop, is, at worst, being picked by the oddsmakers to claim the third and final promotion spot. Birmingham, relegated, too, and Queens Park Rangers, the Chelsea of the division and also based in west London, are tipped for the top two.
The Championship has become even more competitive in recent campaigns, evidenced by the gap between third-to-last, the final relegation place, and sixth, the final playoff spot -- just 18 points last season. It was the smallest margin in England's top four divisions.
As a result, teams that ultimately earn promotion have fewer points, or at least since Hahnemann and teammates amassed a record 106 in 2005-2006, tallying a whopping 99 goals in the 46 league games.
"Maybe the teams that get promoted from [League One] are getting stronger," said Hahnemann, the undisputed No. 1 keeper in his seventh year with the Royals. "Regardless, we just have to focus on every game. It's important to have a solid season."
"Solid" isn't a word one would use to describe the squad's second season in the top flight. Among other lows, Hahnemann conceded seven goals against Portsmouth, then six against Tottenham as the defense leaked. The 36-year-old had a much publicized on-field spat with Senegalese teammate Ibrahima Sonko, and prior to thrashing woeful Derby 4-0 on the road on the final day, Reading went scoreless in six straight fixtures. A second American with the Royals, winger Bobby Convey, struggled to recover from a knee injury.
Fulham and so-called Team America at Craven Cottage, now down to two with the departures of Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride and Kasey Keller, edged Reading for 17th on goal difference thanks to winning four of its last five games.
Hahnemann didn't dwell on the negative in the offseason. For one, he finally had more surgery to his right hand -- he broke three bones in the hand at the end of the 2006-2007 campaign -- in May.
Not long after, he retreated to his mountain cabin in Washington State.
Much fishing was done but there was no TV, to the dismay of his dad, itching to catch as many matches from the European Championships as possible.
"I came back really refreshed," Hahnemann said. "As a team, we haven't brought [relegation] up, but it's something you don't forget."
Speculation surrounded the future of much respected -- and experienced -- manager Steve Coppell in the days following demotion, although the former Manchester United and England midfielder eventually decided to stay at Reading, a stone's throw west of London.
"To be effective in this division and have success we are going to have to be strong over the next nine months," Coppell, at the helm since 2003, told reporters this month. "That can take its toll and we need strong characters. But if we start thinking we are too good to be playing at this level, that we belong somewhere else, then we will be in major trouble."
Hahnemann suggested a few players weren't as devastated as they should have been in the wake of relegation. Since then, striker Dave Kitson, who hit the target a team-leading 10 times, and England fullback Nicky Shorey have left, for new arrival Stoke and Aston Villa, respectively.
Irish winger Stephen Hunt, new captain James Harper, and Irish striker Kevin Doyle, a revelation two seasons ago, have all been linked with moves elsewhere. Coppell, unsurprisingly, wants to keep hold of the trio.
"Everybody who's here wants to be here,"Hahnemann said.
So far, not so bad.
Faced with a tricky start Sunday at once mighty Nottingham Forest, the home team suitably pumped due to its recent promotion, Reading earned a 0-0 draw. The visitors were denied all three points when Paul Smith somehow kept out Doyle's header. Convey played all 90 minutes as Hunt filled in at fullback.
A year ago, Reading opened the season at a somewhat larger club -- Manchester United. That one also ended scoreless, Hahnemann making 10 saves. Reading hosts Plymouth, which narrowly missed the playoffs in May, on Saturday.
"I was more nervous for the Forest game than I was against Manchester United," Hahnemann said. "It was a big game for us, and our approach was good. We have to work our socks off every game."
Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.