As we head towards the big kick-off on Saturday, I'm feeling different to usual. Normally as the season's about to get underway, I'm swept by a wave of positivity; an inkling that we might sneak into a play-off race, or somehow defy all expectations and charge our way into the Premier League via the top two. But this year... this year, I can't see any scenario where that's a remote possibility. I'd love to be proven wrong, of course. Perhaps I'm just setting myself a low target so I can be surprised by the end of the campaign. But frankly, the way I see Reading now is as a club in rebuilding; lying dormant for now, with no idea when we're likely to erupt again.
Oh, the euphoria when Steve Clarke was given the green light last year. Loan after exciting loan - the goals of Matej Vydra, the excitement of Ola John, the potential creativity of Lucas Piazon, the solid cover provided by Andrew Taylor, amongst others. The arrivals of Paul McShane and Stephen Quinn on free transfers, two proven Championship players, along with Orlando Sa's decent record - everything looked set for a tilt at the top. Of course, that was all going so well... for a while.
Just three of those first-teamers who arrived last summer (McShane, Quinn and Ali Al-Habsi) are still here. George Evans, Yann Kermorgant and Deniss Rakels arrived in January, of course, but that's still a big chunk of the squad that has been and gone, leaving us without making a big impression and obviously failing to deliver on the early promise they showed.
This off-season has seen activity, but it's largely unknown quantities that have arrived at Hogwood Park. John Swift and Roy Beerens are the two standout names, two players who have shown enough to assure you they'll be up to the task. Joey van den Berg, a midfielder who's been plying his trade in the Eredivisie, should have a positive impact too. But Joseph Mendes, Danzell Gravenberch, Anssi Jaakkola and Yakou Meite arrive with far bigger question marks.
You've got to look at the two big transfers out of the club as well, for Reading's current status. Aaron Tshibola, with all his potential, decided to make the move to Aston Villa and rejoin Steve Clarke. Oliver Norwood, meanwhile, after a decent showing at Euro 2016, has made the move to Brighton and Hove Albion, the Seagulls having missed out on promotion by the finest of margins last campaign. Two Championship clubs, yes. But two promotion-chasing Championship clubs. We're no longer being pecked off by the Premier League giants. Both Tshibola and Norwood will see their moves as steps up - despite Villa and Brighton being in the same division as the Royals, perhaps they're both in that top tier, and we're looking up.
Here's the ins and outs of the first-team squad (as of Thursday) as we head into the new campaign. I've tried to match them up by position, as far as possible.
|Joey van den Berg
On the raw table, for me, it doesn't look good. I can't see that any of the players we've brought in are obvious upgrades on those that have left. More are rumoured to be leaving too, the likes of Chris Gunter, Danny Williams and Jake Cooper having had tabloid columns speculating about their futures all too often this summer. I'm sure replacements are being lined up but until we know what we've got, that squad doesn't fill me with the confidence of recent years.
You might argue that many of those players didn't start regularly, or were simply there to fill the squad out. But isn't it a squad game now? Depth is another issue I see at Reading at the moment, especially in the back line. What happens if Gunter (assuming he stays), McShane or Jordan Obita are forced to miss a couple of months? We'd be down to the bare bones. Luckily Reading have an exceptional Academy with a number of young prospects willing and able to step in - but are they ready?
I'm all for giving youth a chance, but the important thing with these players is to ease them in, not to throw them to the sharks and expect them to deliver. I'm sure Jaap Stam will try to introduce youth prospects into the first team fold campaign this season, with his experience working at Jong Ajax. But there's a difference between giving players the odd game, and naming them on the teamsheet week-in week-out. There's a reason they aren't already in the first-team squad - because they're not ready.
And the final word goes on the manager. An exciting appointment, a legend of the game, a man who knows it inside out. But this is his first proper, senior management role. Is he ready? It's the great mystery, and people looking for precedents have pointed to previous successes and failures like Aitor Karanka and Sami Hyypia. The simple answer? We don't know. Much has been made of the long-term plan, and some of the signings this off-season have certainly pointed towards that strategy. Stam will need much of the same patience - it's impossible to know how he will fare in the Championship. But with so much experience around, and so many sides believing they can reach the promised land, Stam - and his new recruits - will need to hit the ground running.
Are we really ready to rise again? In my opinion, we need to take a realistic view of this season. Reading are in rebuilding mode at every level, from the ownership through the manager to the players. Perhaps I'm massively underplaying the manager and the new recruits, but I don't see this team anywhere near the top six in 2016/17; rather, I fear it'll be even more of a struggle than the last two campaigns. There's too much uncertainty, too many unknown factors to me to feel positive about our prospects this season. I'm desperate to be proven wrong.
Agree with Jonny's pessimism? Or do you think Reading are in a good position to challenge this campaign? Let us know your thoughts below...