Former Arsenal midfielder's lateral thinking transformed his unsung players into champions but eventually proved his undoing
When Brian McDermott was studying for his Uefa Pro Licence one of the modules required him to visit a business and examine how it worked. Most budding football managers make study trips to Barcelona or Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Milan but, ever a lateral thinker, Reading's then manager had very different ideas.
"I went to Google," he said. "I learnt a lot." Noting that Google employees were free to come and go as they pleased – the building was open 24 hours a day and people picked their hours to suit individual lives – but still proved exceptionally productive, McDermott tore up the rule book in Berkshire.
Although his Reading players were expected to be ready to train at 11am and required to be on time for away trips and team meetings, he told them to think like adults and decide when they wanted to arrive at the training ground and leave it.
That was back in 2011 and the response was so overwhelmingly positive that not only did McDermott's squad end up spending more hours doing extra training, working out in the gym and socialising at the club than before but they began overachieving on the pitch.
By this time last year Reading were in the middle of a run of 15 wins in 17 Championship games which would sweep them from virtually nowhere to automatic promotion from the Championship.
For the moment McDermott was secure – Anton Zingarevich, the club's rich new Russian owner, could hardly sack him last summer – but the former Arsenal midfielder also knew that Reading's accomplishment in escaping English football's second tier might prove his undoing.
As McDermott pointed out when his side lost at home to Aston Villa on Saturday – their fifth straight defeat and the tipping point for the owner – his entire team cost less to assemble than the £7m the visitors paid for their centre-forward Christian Benteke.
Given his modest budget it is a tribute to McDermott that Reading, joint bottom of the Premier League, still have a viable, if slim, chance of avoiding relegation and, among several other impressive results, have won away at Newcastle United and drawn at home with Chelsea in 2013.
Unable to make signings, the new manager is going to have to be some coach and motivator to inspire Reading to wins in forthcoming away trips to Manchester United and Arsenal before awkward home games against Southampton and Liverpool.
As McDermott approaches his 52nd birthday he may reflect that, having spent years regretting "underachieving" at Arsenal, where what he identifies as "a lack of self-belief because I was good" restricted him to 61 appearances, it is ironic that boldly ambitious overachievement has undone him now.
At least he is probably better psychologically equipped to deal with the blow than many peers. As he was employed on a one-year rolling contract, McDermott's pay-off may not be as extravagant as it might have been but it will still seem substantial to a man who once ran non-league Slough's Football in the Community scheme for "around £2 an hour".
After leaving Arsenal McDermott decamped to IFK Norrkoping where, in 1984, he became Sweden's player of the year, before taking his boots to several other outposts including Exeter, Oxford and Hong Kong.
"When I got back from Hong Kong I had nothing," he once recalled. "I was under pressure to pay the mortgage so I had a year selling insurance in London. It wasn't for me but it taught me an awful lot about life."
When graduation to manager followed that community work at Slough he was poached by Woking. It was there that he bumped into Alan Pardew – now managing Newcastle but then at Reading – and they talked football. A few weeks later Pardew offered him scouting work. Soon afterwards McDermott became Reading's chief scout. "I still get texts from Alan asking if I remember when I was nothing and he rescued me," he said recently. When Pardew left Reading, McDermott, by now coaching, prospered, eventually becoming manager after Brendan Rodgers was sacked in December 2009.
With good friends of the calibre of Pardew and Liverpool's Rodgers in high places, McDermott – whose Reading side played creditably swashbuckling stuff – is unlikely to be unemployed for long.
Meanwhile a man some Reading players dubbed Heston – after the Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal – will have more free time to work out alongside the real Blumenthal in the Marlow gym they both frequent.