The last two seasons have been a pretty bleak time to be a Reading supporter.
From a Championship play-off final in 2017, and being one kick away from the bright lights of the Premier League, not many Royals fans would have envisaged the sheer collapse and downfall that has materialised after the defeat that day at Wembley.
Two consecutive 20th placed finishes in the Championship have followed. It’s been a turbulent period which has seen players, managers, chief executives come and go.
One Reading player who has been involved in the rollercoaster last few years at Reading is goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola.
The Finnish keeper joined Reading back in the summer of 2016, and many Royals fans would have been forgiven for not knowing much about him.
Jaakkola had an interesting career path before his big switch to Berkshire, enjoying playing spells with clubs like Siena, Slavia Prague and Kilmarnock, and then South African side Ajax Cape Town.
Speaking exclusively to Football League World’s Sam Rourke, Jaakkola gives us an insight into the last few years of his playing career.
After 78 appearances for Ajax Cape Town, Reading manager Jaap Stam decided to take a punt on the 6ft 5 goalkeeper as he eyed goalkeeping reinforcements.
The 32-year-old admits he was looking forward to the challenge that Jaap Stam had offered him at Reading: “I was excited, it was a big move.
“I went to South Africa first to revive my career to get game-time and my plan was always to play as many games as possible and then come back to Europe in a good league, that was my aim.
“Luckily Reading came in for me, and I was really excited and happy that my original move to South Africa paid off.”
It’s clear just looking at Jaakkola’s playing stats, that his spell in South Africa was his most fruitful, but it wasn’t just on the pitch that the goalkeeper enjoyed his time there, he said:
“It was brilliant, I would say football wise, and off the pitch it was the best three years of my life, I really enjoyed living there, my son was born there, so it’s a place I really hold close to my heart, In a way it’s a second home for me, I have a lot of friends there.”
It’s easy to create a stereotype before you meet someone, and when looking at a man like Jaap Stam, you could quite easily create a mental image as to what he’s like as a person, but Jaakkola admits he got it all wrong, he said: “I knew Jaap from watching him when I was younger, he looks like a big, scary guy, he has this look on his face that makes him look angry all the time, but he’s completely the opposite.
“He’s really calm, likes to talk with the players and he hardly gets angry or loses his composure, he really was like nothing i’d expected in my head before I moved there.
“He’s probably the best coach i’ve ever worked with.”
As Jaakkola joined Reading he knew it wouldn’t be easy to nail down a starting spot week in, week out and he knew he had to oust Ali Al-Habsi for that number one shirt, and it proved hard, Jaakkola said:
“I was hoping to get more game-time in my first season and I was hoping to challenge Ali more for the number one spot, but it never really happened, Ali had a great season, he was the player of the season for us that year.
“I had a few injuries myself, but when I look back I’m disappointed I couldn’t push Ali more, I wanted to challenge for the number one shirt, but even if I was fit and training as hard as I could, i’d have struggled to get in over Ali, he was that good during that season.”
After Jaap Stam was relieved from his duties at the Madejski Stadium, the club decided to appoint former Derby manager Paul Clement, it offered the Finnish keeper an opportunity to launch himself into the forefront of the new manager’s starting eleven plans, but it proved to be difficult initially, Jaakkola said:
“When Paul Clement came in I was playing just before he took over and I was away with the national team at the time he came, he made the decision to drop me and put Vito Mannone back in goal, Vito played the last eight or nine games of the season and nothing really changed when the pre-season began.
“I knew I had one year left on my contract so I knew I had to show Clement what I could offer, but unfortunately I got injured in the pre-season and Reading ended up signing Sam Walker when I was out, so basically when I came back from my injury I was the third choice, so I was like oh s**t, I’m f****d here.
“But football is a strange game, and a few months down the line I was playing, and I was playing well so it’s strange how things changed, it wasn’t like it was the manager’s decision to play me, the other two keepers had little injuries and I came in to play.”
After just surviving in the 2017/18 season on the last day against Cardiff City, the Royals opted to keep Clement on for the new season, but in hindsight, it appeared to be the wrong move.
A disastrous run of form saw the Royals slumped firmly in the lower echelons of the Championship table, and the big decision was made to sack him, with a relative unknown to English football, Jose Gomes coming in.
This offered Anssi another chance to cement the starting spot, and after a promising spell in the team, he was dealt a frustrating blow when playing Derby County in January.
“It was a week before the January transfer window closed, I had already played 7 or 8 games under Jose Gomes and I felt like I was improving and adapting to how the manager wanted us to play.
“It was the game against Derby, I injured my achilles for the second time and then I went to do the scan, I found out it was a small tear on my achilles, meaning I was out for six weeks.”
This damaging blow meant Jose Gomes had to respond, so the club went and secured a loan deal for Arsenal goalkeeper Emi Martinez until the end of the season, it almost proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the Finnish shot-stopper at the Royals.
Jaakkola said: “The club reacted and brought in Emi, Emi’s a great goalkeeper, so I knew when I was going to return from my injury I was not going to get a chance, it was a really difficult and frustrating last few months. It was really hard for me personally, I knew I was not going to get a second chance.”
It’s fair to say Gomes galvanised the Royals and was fundamental reason behind them retaining their Championship status, and Jaakkola was clear on his stance on the Portuguese manager, he said:
“I think he’s a good coach, he had a difficult job ahead of him when he took over, he had some big decisions to make, he straight away wanted to reduce the amount of first-team players in the squad, he basically told five or six players that you need to go.
“It took some time for the players to adapt to Gomes’ style of play, we were in a bad period at the point he took over, but slowly the team started to adapt to the manager’s ways and we put some results together.
“He’s very passionate, you could see especially in the last few games of the season the whole club was united, he helped change the feeling around the club.”
On Reading’s chances of a better season next time round, Jaakkola thinks it is possible, he said:
“I hope so, it’s going to be difficult, they have some financial issues that the club have to deal with, they need to continue to reduce the number of first-team players, it’ll be an interesting summer, if they can work it out, bring in some quality loan signings again, i’m confident that Reading can have a good season.”
The Royals decided to release Jaakkola at the end of the 2018/19 season, meaning he is a free-agent at present, but the goalkeeper is unsure on the next step in his career, he said:
“At the moment, I haven’t decided anything so everything is open, there are a few clubs that have shown interest so we’re talking to them, hopefully as soon as possible we can set something up.
“You never know in football, it’s a strange business, it would be easier for me to stay in England because my daughter’s in school here, and my wife is Scottish, it would be the easiest option, but i’m open to anything that comes.”