In the summer of 2014 one word was being bandied about by Reading fans: transition. This was the summer of uncertainty when new owners, not new players, were the talk of the town. After missing out on the play-offs, and with no new signings on the horizon, fans seemed to be lowering their expectations. A season or two of mid-table football as the club underwent change with players from the academy getting plenty of game time.
18 months later and that buzz word has been prophetic. For two seasons in a row Reading's season has virtually ended with the turn of the year. Too far from the play-offs but far enough from the bottom three to be safe from a relegation battle, barring a complete collapse.
Last summer saw a high turnover of players and all signs point to a similar situation at the end of this season. All very transitional. So why does it feel like the last 18 months have been wasted?
Perhaps because, despite the results and a huge turnover in playing staff giving a feeling of transition, it is actually hard to see what changes have been made during this period. There was an expectation that the club might have to regroup before once again trying to get back into the Premier League. Instead the club seemed to make a half-hearted attempt at a promotion challenge with Steve Clarke and now find themselves in the same position as this time last year. Going nowhere.
Fans might be a bit more tolerant of poor results if there was a feeling that there was a plan in action. Mid-table mediocrity may be unexciting but it is the perfect chance to blood youngsters. Instead we have a squad littered with loan players, some of whom have shown little to suggest they are better than our own home-grown players.
The players brought into the club in the last year or so looked good on paper but have also been very much about the here and now. Few have been up-and-coming and most have possibly been the opposite, joining the club because their careers elsewhere have suffered a setback.
Short-term signings and managers not given time is a not a good combination when there is little leadership from above. This all makes Reading FC in 2016 feel directionless. It's hard to work out what the club's identity and ambition is.
What sort of club do we want Reading FC to be?
Of course the club might well be making big changes behind the scenes that we fans cannot see. In a few years we might look back and see that the club deserved more trust. However, you cannot analyse the future. At the moment we seem to be at a crossroads and unsure what direction we should be taking. What sort of club do we want Reading FC to be? What should our ambitions be?
The obvious answer is in the Premier League. That though is not an ambition. That is a given. At least 20 clubs outside the Premier League have realistic ambitions to get there.
For me the real question of ambition is how we want Reading FC to get to the Premier League and what sort of club do we want to be when we get there. I'm not sure you can be successful if your desire is so narrowed to focus solely on the exact same goal as nearly every other team in your division.
A well run Reading FC will have a better chance of sustained success, but no masterplan can guarantee a lengthy stay in the top flight. Sometimes we'll be in the Premier League, sometimes we won't; that's the way it is for all but six clubs in the country. It might be time for those running the club and the supporters to accept that. The club need to move away from the short-term thinking that we need to get back into the Premier League as quickly as possible.
That doesn't mean we should stop trying. It means the club should start to build proper foundations. In the last two years it has felt like the club has tried to paper over the cracks. It’s appointed a new manager and let him make wholesale changes to the playing squad without looking at the bigger picture. Add in that it’s becoming clear that the Thai owners have sensibly decided they cannot match the huge spending of some Championship clubs, or perhaps are unable to, and it is not surprising that on and off the pitch it feels like we're standing still.
No one seems to be in charge of player recruitment. We are told the academy is churning out exciting prospects but then their paths are blocked with stop-gap loans. There is no identity or strategy on the pitch.
The club has been run on autopilot
This is because since Steve Coppell left, the club has seemingly been run on autopilot. With John Madejski looking to sell no long term planning was evident. This continued under Anton Zingarevich's ownership. No one took responsibility except the managers, who were expected to deliver instant results.
It's time to put in place a structure and playing identity that is not dependent on the manager. The modern day high turnover of managers may seem short sighted and even unpleasant but that is the reality of football in 2016. The club should either give a manager a few years to implement proper change or make sure the manager fits the club not the other way round.
No clubs perhaps showcase that better than Southampton and Swansea City. Since the turn of the decade they have both had five permanent managers. Southampton have a renowned academy while Swansea have a clear footballing identity. Both have bought well and seem to know how to bring in new players and managers that fit in and can continue the good work from predecessors who have moved on. Swansea's recent troubles only underline how clubs of a certain size, even when successful, can never take Premier League football for granted.
Reading should be ambitious, but we cannot define the club's identity by merely saying we want to be in the top flight. Let's put more thought into squad recruitment, a proper pathway to the first team for academy players and perhaps most importantly an identity on the pitch. Some clubs are known for their passing football, others for counter attacking or playing the long ball. Can anyone think how Reading’s playing style for the last few years could be defined? For too long now Reading have had no identity on or off the pitch.
There is more to being an ambitious club than just trying to get into or being in the Premier League. We need a long term strategy, be it for the type of players we want playing for the club or a clear playing style. Something that gives an identity, because talking of ambition without identity is just a mirage.