It’s certainly been an interesting week at the Madejski Stadium. Reading sacked Jose Gomes last Wednesday, taking their time before eventually unveiling his successor, Mark Bowen, on Monday morning. The Welshman arrived to a furore in the Reading fanbase, with many supporters angry at what appeared to be a case of the Royals’ former sporting director removing Gomes and taking his job.
Coupled with the fact that this is Bowen’s very first job as a first-team manager - leaving supporters disappointed at the lack of an experienced candidate to take the helm - his first press conference (on Tuesday afternoon at Hogwood) was set up as an intriguing event. It was not only the Welshman’s first chance to address concerns over his appointment, but also tell us more about what we can expect from his time in charge.
On Tuesday morning I outlined some of the key topics that should have been covered in the press conference. So which ones were answered properly, where are there still lingering doubts, and what else have we learned about Bowen?
You can read a full write-up of his comments at Berkshire Live here, but this audio interview between Bowen and BBC Radio Berkshire’s Tim Dellor is also well worth a listen.
Who made the decision to sack Gomes and hire Bowen?
The question on seemingly every fan’s lips, and the one that Bowen had to decisively answer in this press conference. To his credit, Bowen didn’t duck away from the topic, and came across as honest and open - which is particularly evident when listening to the audio interview.
He answered the first part of that question by explaining that his role as sporting director was never to be Gomes’ boss: “That was never how it worked day to day and it wasn’t my remit”. He instead portrayed his position as “running alongside” Gomes, with his duties largely confined to scouting, transfers and the academy.
Bowen added that his authority didn’t allow him to remove his predecessor, saying: “People say I’m sporting director so I decide who’s coming in and who’s manager - that’s not true.” That’s certainly a blunt denial of any involvement on his part.
As for the hiring process, Bowen does say that he was initially involved in looking for Gomes’ replacement: “I was asked to bring a list of managers to the table which I did and I was going through the process of talking to them. Initially it was touching base with those people and seeing if there was an interest there.”
On the audio interview with Dellor he refused to give any details on who those candidates were, or even any information about them such as what kind of manager the club were looking for. However, we know from Berkshire Live that Nigel Adkins and Graeme Murty were interested in the position, while Ian Holloway spoke about his own interest to TalkSport after Bowen’s appointment.
So how did Bowen get the gig? He describes the process like this:
“I hardly thought the job was going to come to me. Then I got a phone call over the weekend, along the lines of the owner’s had a look at things and wants as little disruption as possible.
“Jose had six staff here and only he and his assistant have gone. It was put to me the least intrusive way of doing things as if I’d like the job and I could bring in an assistant. I was stunned to be offered the job but the owner asked me if I wanted to take up the position and straight away I thought ‘yes, absolutely.’”
Side note: this also answers my question on whether or not Bowen was the only candidate.
This gives the impression that Dai Yongge had a sudden change of heart midway through the appointment process and decided to make a quick appointment. I can only guess, but the owner may well have burned by his last search for a manager after Paul Clement was sacked. Reading had no-one immediately lined up, with reported first choice Luis Castro turning down a move to Berkshire, before Gomes came in more than two weeks after Clement’s departure.
Presumably, Yongge didn’t want that to happen again, so went for someone with a lot of coaching experience (albeit not as a manager) and a good knowledge of the club behind the scenes. Otherwise you’d be looking at taking a punt on John O’Shea as a first-time manager.
Then again, you have to ask why Reading hadn’t lined up a manager to come in immediately after Gomes’ departure. Although it didn’t work out well, Ron Gourlay’s appointment of Clement did at least happen quickly and decisively - which should have been repeated this time around.
How will Bowen get the fans back onside?
Going by the transcript, this topic wasn’t discussed as extensively in the press conference as others, with most of the focus around the manner of his arrival, relationship with Gomes and similar topics. But when he did cover this, he made it clear that he was aware of what public opinion was like - “I’m very much aware of my situation and how people view me” - and even directly referenced social media in the BBC Berks interview.
Looking to the future, he put the emphasis on the supporters backing the team and referred to the great home atmosphere at the end of last season. On himself, he admitted that the top priority is to get results.
“Our fans have got to get behind the team and take us forward. I thought when I came in in March, this club is not in a bad shape. It’s got a group of fans who are passionate and yes they will be asking questions of me and the only way I can change that is to get results for them.”
Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t appear to want the focus to be about his own relationship with the fans - as quite clearly it’s not very good at the moment. As he himself says, his 40-year reputation in the game has seemingly “burnt down in one swoop” due to the nature of his appointment. It’ll take time for him to win the respect of the bulk of Reading’s supporters, and he’ll almost certainly not manage to replicate Gomes’ popularity due to the manner of his arrival.
Will getting results change that? Sure, if he oversees an extended run of great form and Reading charge up the table sooner rather than later, the fans will deeply appreciate that. But having a strong relationship with them is often about more than just results - for example, Clement managed to keep Reading in the Championship but never really built that emotional connection with the supporters. Bowen can’t just rely on results.
What does Bowen offer from a footballing point of view?
In other words, what can we expect to see on the pitch now that Bowen’s in the Madejski Stadium dugout? He said the following (via The Wokingham Paper):
“I want to play fast, attacking football that entertains the crowd. I know the squads I’ve got and the way I want to play is winning football, get the ball forward quickly and give our talented strikers chances to start banging in goals.”
Annoyingly, that’s lacking in specifics, although as with fan relations it’s not a topic that was going to be covered as extensively as some of the more pressing ones. It’s certainly encouraging on paper, but then again there aren’t many new managers promising the opposite: slow, defensive football that bores the crowd to death.
Where we do get more information is when he talks about continuity from Gomes. Bowen explains that the owner didn’t want a lot of “disruption” after his predecessor’s sacking, and although that doesn’t necessarily refer to tactics, I get the impression that Bowen will largely continue Gomes’ ideas. That’s likely given that four of Gomes’ backroom staff are due to stay on (Jorge Mendonca is the only one to leave).
“You don’t want maximum disruption to the club and the squad. We’ve got a very good squad of players and my focus will be on taking them forward and taking them to the play offs. For any group of players, every manager or coach is different so maybe a coach with a different method, philosophy or way of speaking to them is the idea behind it - that I can make a difference.”
Although he drops the term “philosophy” in there, he uses it quite loosely and doesn’t expand on it, so I don’t think that means he’s got an idealistic notion of how The Beautiful Game should be played. I could well be wrong though - we’ll see in the coming weeks.
His emphasis is seemingly much more on the work he can do with the current squad. Naturally, as a long-term coach he will have built up plenty of experience in developing players and getting the most out of them, and that appears to be his focus here.
Bowen answered my final pre-interview question by saying that he doesn’t know if the club is replacing him by getting a new sporting director, noting that it’s not his decision. He also clarified that his contract is due to run until the end of the season.
He’ll be helped out as manager by assistant Eddie Niedzwiecki, who was at Reading in the 1990s, otherwise keeping the rest of the coaching staff on (Gomes and Mendonca being the only two to leave. Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary are now back in the first-team fold and training with the rest of the squad.