Is it time to ask tough questions about what's going on behind the scenes at Reading Football Club, or should we sit back and just enjoy the ride?
I've been lucky enough to follow this fine club for 22 years, and while that time has seen plenty of highs and lows, I struggle to remember a period when things felt so uncertain on or off the pitch for Reading.
One the one hand you've got a team that's defying all expectations, full of hungry young players who've got a genuine promotion chance while trying to play good football. Above them are Jaap Stam and Brian Tevreden, two men both excelling in their roles as Manager and Director of Football and each seemingly capable of taking this club to the next level.
Yet there's the other side, that nagging feeling that something just isn't right behind the scenes at the club, at least among those at the very top.
The Thai Owners So Far
The current owners have had a confusing and mixed tenure during the nearly three seasons they've been in charge. Their arrival saved the club from having to be totally gutted to pay the wage bill. Without their investment, the club could have easily sunk under the types of financial pressure that's crippled the likes of Bolton, Charlton, Bradford, Sheffield United and plenty of other seeming top-two tier mainstays in recent years.
Investment was slow to follow, perhaps due to Financial Fair Play rules, but the club then lurched the other way under Steve Clarke, splashing out on a giant wage bill and sanctioning big fees for loans players like Matej Vydra and Ola John. Of course the gamble backfired, after initial success, Clarke went and suddenly Brian McDermott was back.
Brian's stay was brief, as once again things changed behind the scenes. One third of our ownership trio, 'Tiger', took up control from Lady Sasima and promised to get things right.
Finally we had a truly public face, a bloke I sat in a room with last summer and really believed had the best interests of the club at heart. He knew the squad, knew what had to be done and seemed to have a plan to get us there. Yes, he was part of group who also had eyes on land around the stadium, but if that was the cost for stability at the football club, you could just about look the other way.
Jaap Stam's revolution followed, albeit done on a much smaller, but sensible budget than perhaps he'd have liked. The smarts of Brian Tevreden has helped make up for a lack of financial power and no fan should scoff at good Championship signings including Liam Moore, John Swift and Roy Beerens.
A Fresh Takeover?
The picture once again got shaken up in November when news of an approach from a Chinese consortium came to light. Things seemed to be moving quickly towards a conclusion, with the pair of Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li even going up to meet EFL Officials in mid-December.
Then, things kind of just... stopped. At first you put it down to the usual paperwork and due diligence, but four months later we've heard next to nothing from the club, the league, or anyone for that matter about what's going on.
We have heard whispers. Some outlets reported that it's the Premier League holding up the deal, perhaps concerned by the pair's involvement in a failed bid for Hull.
Further complicating the picture was news of a £10.4 million pound loan from a Hong Kong based holding company to the club in January, a development that came just weeks after Reading released some worrying financial figures, that showed big losses, a growing debt total and a warning from the accountants that the club only remained a going concern thanks to injections of cash from its owners. In other words, if the Thais get bored, the club is stuffed.
Thai Interest Waning?
Those last points brings me to the reason I'm writing this piece. Are the current owners bored and if so, do the club have a backup plan? If the Thai's still have plenty of cash why do they need to take a loan, especially in January? Likewise, why did the club seemingly waste £1m on 'arranging finance' in the last set of accounts?
For me, there are three answers to those questions.
- They don't want to put any more of their own cash in right now
- They don't have the cash to put in
- They're really wasteful with money and don't mind racking up interest.
Given the fact all are successful in the business world, I'm going to rule number three out, which leaves an uncomfortable choice between one and two.
Which one is it? We have no idea—and that's the worrying part.
You only have to go back to an article I wrote for TTE back in June, to see quotes that point to what the answer is. Re-quoted here is what majority shareholder Nurin Niruttinanon told the media in 2015.
"The objective is for the club to have more stable revenue income. It is no secret that most teams in the Championship don't make money and if the financial performance of Reading continues in the way it has been, then you are looking at a change of ownership once we feel that we can not continue to support the team.
All in all the goal of the club must be to get to the Premier League, there is nothing else."
We've Had Some Good Signs Though Right?
Some will say 'Wimb you're putting two and two together and getting five' and I'll admit that sometimes worrying about something leads you to focus on details that just aren't important. On the surface things remain fine, we're signing players up to new contracts and brought in five new signings in January, four of whom came from the Premier League, hardly signs of a club struggling for cash.
There's also been some really positive steps forward from those working day-to-day for the club. There are some very talented and hard working people giving everything they've got to get the best for fans and run a club we can be proud of.
To counter that, you've got the aforementioned loan and an argument that the club is going for broke this year to make it to the Premier League pot of gold. A summer that saw no loan players brought in and Tiger saying he didn't like loans, suddenly saw a January window with three major loan signings brought in and none of them are yet to really show they're slam dunk improving the side.
Likewise, and if all is rosy, just why have the owners gone so quiet? With the club in the thick of a promotion charge, wouldn't you expect a proud Tiger to be front and centre, proudly talking up his club and maybe being in with the fans again? Yes, he's a busy man, but he's been virtually silent for months. Neither of his partners have been visible either and while I'll buy each being happy and enjoying the club doing well, it's concerning that none are showing their face and making comments to ease supporters' concerns.
Even Jaap himself is in the dark, with the Dutchman forced to admit he is thinking about his long-term future given the uncertainty. It's one thing keeping the fans guessing but the most important man at the club? Not so clever.
If you needed any further reason to worry, I give you exhibit A.
Yes him, the one that was a big part of a previous ownership regime that left the club on the verge of catastrophe in the first place. Why on Earth is he back in the picture? I can't believe Nigel Howe just invited him along for the s**ts and giggles, especially not front and centre in the directors box.
Samuelson is a money man, someone that helps arrange deals, takeovers and investments in return for earning a few quid himself. There's nothing wrong with that legally and if it benefits the club in the long run then again, you grudgingly let him take a bit of dough even if it still leaves a bitter taste.
So is he part of the current bid, or is he part of a plan B?
Where Do We Go Next?
Who knows? Tomorrow could see the Chinese takeover confirmed, or it could see news that the deal has officially collapsed. Likewise, Samuelson might have delivered another buyer, or the Thais could re-affirm their financial support for the club.
The only thing we can do as fans is to back the club as much as we can, to give Jaap and the team every ounce of support and backing, because it'll be much easier to sort out a financial mess in the Premier League than it will be if we're still a Championship club.
Is it the time to panic? I say no, simply because there's not an awful lot we can do about it. I'm almost certain we'll still have a club to support but anyone who thinks we're immune to a fall similar to the clubs I've mentioned earlier needs a bit of a reality check. We're a smallish club, with a large wage bill, growing debts and shrinking income streams.
Something has to change and soon but what that change will be and whether it'll be a positive one, we just don't know.