Annus horribilis (noun): A year of disaster or misfortune.
Origin: Modern Latin.
See also: Reading Football Club, 2018
The Latin phrase annus mirabilis, thought to have been coined in 1666, translates literally as ‘wonderful year’. When everything has gone wonderfully for you in a 12-month period from January 1 to December 31, you’ve had an annus mirabilis. Think Reading in 2006 for example - winning promotion to the Premier League for the first time, and then giving top tier clubs a bloody nose.
The phrase also has a darker opposite, annus horribilis - horrible year - which I can’t help but think sums up where Reading Football Club find themselves at this moment in time.
Seemingly everything that could have gone wrong in 2018 - bar relegation to League One or the club ceasing to exist - has gone wrong. Reading’s post-2013 fall from grace has accelerated, becoming a depressing medley of dire performances on the pitch, reported mismanagement behind-the-scenes, and growing apathy in the fanbase.
Our results say it all: just seven league wins in the last 12 months is the club’s worst return in its Football League history. The previous worst total was 10, coming in 1923. To misquote former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, “let us be frank about it - Reading fans have never had it so bad.”
That is, of course, the fans who have turned up. Average attendances for last season plummeted to below 17,000 for the first time in 14 years, with a home crowd of just over 6,000 present for the freezing cold 3-1 defeat to Sheffield United in February. Loyal Royals had enough of a poor team, and who can blame them?
Putting the blame for our annus horribilis on any one person or group would be unfair. The foundations for 2018 were laid across multiple years, and by many people; owners, board members, players, managers and more. Reading Football Club has been losing its way for a long time, perhaps as far back as its sale to Anton Zingarevich in 2012. The Reading Way was always hard to define, but whatever it was, it’s gone.
What’s clear is that is that there has not only been mismanagement of the club over a number of years, but also a lack of anyone taking responsibility for clearing up the mess. When Reading have needed a saviour to step up, put its house in order and lead the club forward, no-one has raised their hand.
That was particularly true in 2018, when we vented our frustrations not only at managers and players, but also at those behind-the-scenes. The deeply unpopular former CEO Ron Gourlay will take most of the flak, but the truth is that Reading’s power structure has - or at least had - never seemed more distant from the average match-going punter.
It took until the very end of November - after Gourlay’s departure - for Xiu Li Dai to address the fans, and even then it was in the form of an update on the search for a new chief executive. Credit where it’s due though - that direct communication was much-needed, and is appreciated.
The owners also got it right with their decision to (re)hire Nigel Howe as the club’s CEO; a move that went down well with supporters and indicates that the Dais do indeed want to repair the broken club-supporter link. But that takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Reading can’t be rebuilt with one new chief executive.
Of course, the crucial thing is that Reading improve on the pitch. The current group of players may be a talented bunch, but its attitude and morale have been questionable at best and outright shattered at worst for quite some time now. Gone are the days of Reading’s ‘never say die’ attitude that saw us win two Championship titles, finish eighth in the Premier League and reach the semi-final of the FA Cup.
It speaks volumes that Reading end 2018 having had twice as many managers as away wins (four to two) - also reaching a paltry total of five home league wins. This squad may have ability and experience, but its basic capacity to, on match-day, score more goals than the opposition and see the game out, is borderline non-existent.
Jaap Stam tried to turn that around, and failed, as did Paul Clement and Scott Marshall (albeit briefly). Now it’s on Jose Gomes, a manager with no prior experience in English football, to succeed where his predecessors didn’t. Good luck to him. What’s more, he brings a distinctively different style of play to Berkshire to the three that came before him, who were all unique in their own way. Reading may have no clear philosophy off the pitch, but they’re even even less coherent on it.
One of Gomes’ main tasks will be to make the Madejski Stadium entertaining again. Even when Reading have won games, they’ve edged them rather than comfortably bettering their opposition. The 3-0 victory over Hull City is the only example of the Royals sticking a few goals past another team, keeping good control of the game and going home comfortable winners.
The fact is that watching Reading Football Club in 2018 far too often felt like a chore rather than a pleasure. What was once a very Mad Stad has become somewhat more tame.