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The Story Of Reading’s 2019: Slow But Steady Progress

It’s been a year of gradual but positive change at the Madejski Stadium.

Reading v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

Exactly one year ago, we published our review of 2018. I chose to sum up those 12 months with the Latin phrase ‘annus horribilis’ (horrible year) - it was a pretty apt way of summing up just how badly things had gone wrong for Reading Football Club on the pitch, in the dugout, behind the scenes and even in the stands too.

But, 365 days later, it’s safe to say that this club is in a much better place, rounded off wonderfully by a 2-0 win at Preston North End - arguably our best result of the year. We certainly haven’t got it all right, particularly shown by stubbornly poor league form that’s until recently kept Reading locked into the bottom third of the Championship, but the progress made all over shouldn’t be overlooked or understated.

Back in December 2018, general mismanagement had taken its toll over months and years, leaving relatively new figures like Jose Gomes and Nigel Howe with poor inheritances and the fans feeling more apathetic than they had been in quite some time. Reading was very much a club in decline, not just with regards to the ever-growing threat of relegation to League One, but also the erosion of the status and pride which had taken so much hard work to build up earlier in the century.

What followed though was slow but steady progress.

On the face of it, just six league wins in 21 matches in the back half of the season wasn’t much. However, coupled with only losing six times and picking up nine draws, Reading did enough to keep their heads above water and stay in the division. Simply put, job done.

It’s worth remembering that, by the point Jose Gomes was appointed just before Christmas 2018, the team had got into some seriously bad habits, some stretching back into the abysmal first half of the year. No league wins since early November 2018, no back-to-back victories since early 2 December 2017 and no unbeaten run of more than three games since 11 December 2017.

Reading v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

Gomes’ first win - a 2-0 victory over a desperately poor Nottingham Forest side in mid-January, felt like a huge relief. Back-to-back victories came a few months later with crucial triumphs over Ipswich Town and Wigan Athletic, while two four-match unbeaten runs (one ending in mid-February, the other in late April) also showed that Reading had remembered what it meant to be hard to beat.

Could any of that have been done without the January transfer business? With the reported help of one Kia Joorabchian, Reading added the first-team quality they’d so badly lacked with five crucial loan signings: Ovie Ejaria, Lewis Baker, Nelson Oliveira, Emiliano Martinez and Matt Miazga. All can be counted as some of the more individually talented players we’ve had since relegation from the Premier League in 2013, and their contributions all over the pitch proved crucial in keeping Reading up.

But the outgoings were important too. Reading had long suffered from a bloated squad, not least in the back half of 2018, and Gomes brutally addressed that by exiling a number of first-team players: Dave Edwards, Vito Mannone, Marc McNulty and David Meyler - all of whom left the club in January or February. It’s a trick that Gomes would repeat in the summer, albeit more controversially, completely excluding long-term servants Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary.

On the pitch, it didn’t pay off in a sudden, decisive turnaround to catapult Reading away from the bottom three, but the team rediscovered what it was like to be competitive, showing a level of grit and determination that had slipped away under Clement. That was best shown at Carrow Road when Reading held onto an unlikely 1-0 lead for much of the game then fought back from 2-1 down to rescue a vital point. But, just as tellingly, of the six teams to beat the Royals from New Year’s Day onwards, only two finished outside the top six: Swansea City and Hull City.

Gomes’ impact played a big part in keeping Reading in the division, and the supporters rightly thanked him for that with a Portugal Day celebration for the season finale against Birmingham City. It was the first match after safety had been mathematically confirmed, and the Mad Stad crowd took the opportunity to finally enjoy a game without the looming threat of relegation in the background.

The fact that fans would so wholeheartedly get involved in an occasion like that spoke volumes about the changing landscape for the club’s support. After fans had grown increasingly apathetic and disconnected throughout 2017 and 2018, morale was on the up, shown especially by the success of Club 1871 in the South Stand.

Although it started in Spring 2018, poor results and performances on the pitch meant that the singing section took another 12 months or so to really hit its stride. The home match against Wigan Athletic proved to be the game changer: Heineken giving out free beer naturally brought plenty of punters in, boosting Club 1871’s attendance to around 800, and Yakou Meite’s late winner ensured they all went home happy.

By the end of the season, those 800 had become 1500 - a huge achievement given that there were only around 40 of us in there to see a scrappy 1-0 win over Preston North End in Paul Clement’s second home match in charge. Despite the slow start to this season, Club 1871 has carried on strongly, and the matchday Mad Stad atmosphere has hugely improved as a result.

But that wasn’t all. The club became noticeably more open and eager to engage with supporters, allowing players and staff to be interviewed by fan outlets - ourselves with Jose Gomes and Jordan Obita, Elm Park Royals twice with Liam Moore and Living The Dream with Tom McIntyre. This season, the matchday programme features regular columns from TTE and Club 1871.

All in all, by the summer the club felt like a much healthier, happier one than at the end of 2018. Optimism was high of Reading at least putting recent relegation battles to bed or perhaps even pushing for the top six, but those ambitions were given a sharp dose of reality partway through the transfer window when it emerged that the club had been put under a ‘soft transfer embargo’ that restricted - but didn’t completely prevent - new signings.

It took until mid-July for new faces to start arriving. First Joao Virginia on loan, then Michael Morrison and Charlie Adam on frees, before Matt Miazga and Lucas Boye rounded off our pre-season business. So far, so low key, and although the last two additions had nudged up expectations for the season, we all knew that Reading badly needed more reinforcements if we were to make a success of 2019/20.

What followed next - in the days after a dispiriting 3-1 defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday - was quite something. Reading went for it on Tuesday August 6, completing a trio of signings - Rafael, Pele and Lucas Joao - and edging towards a club-record purchase of Inter Milan forward George Puscas. He arrived the next day, and a few minutes before the transfer window closed on Thursday at 5pm, he was joined by Ovie Ejaria - on loan for this season but with the obligation of being bought for around £3m the following summer.

On the pitch though, Reading never got going - bar an impressive week in which the Royals beat recently relegated Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town and drew with high-flying West Bromwich Albion. But those three games proved to be the exception to the rule for Jose Gomes. In fact, excluding those matches, Reading only picked up one point in the league, courtesy of a late 1-1 draw at Swansea City.

Huddersfield Town v Reading - Sky Bet Championship
Reading’s last win under Jose Gomes came on the road at Huddersfield Town
Photo by Luke Nickerson/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Although the Royals were often easy on the eye under him going forwards, and were towards the top of the table for chance creation, the basics evaded them and so too did results. The defence was frequently left too open and made sloppy mistakes, Reading didn’t show enough intensity or work rate off the ball, and all too often let golden chances go begging - record signing Puscas being the main culprit.

Despite that, the majority feeling in the fanbase at the time of Gomes’ dismissal in early October was that he’d been harshly treated and should have been given more time to turn things around. But Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li saw things differently and, having that big call, followed it up with an even more controversial one: appointing Mark Bowen as first-team manager.

Reading’s former sporting director, who’d worked behind the scenes at the club in different capacities since being made a technical assistant for the final eight games of the 2018/19 campaign, had a rough reception. Accusations flew around that he’d effectively sacked Gomes himself and taken his job, and there was a very real feeling of outright anger in a significant part of the fanbase.

However, having firmly denied that version of events, Bowen set about doing the one thing he needed to do to win the supporters over: getting results.

Reading started off in scrappy fashion under their new boss, grinding out a last-gasp 1-0 win over promotion hopefuls Preston in a dull game at the Mad Stad, before matching up high-flyers Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road in a 2-2 draw a few days later. Two more home wins followed over Millwall and Luton Town, giving Bowen a dream start of four matches played (another postponed at late notice), three wins and one draw.

Until his first international break, Bowen had taken a sensible approach. Rather than ripping up his predecessor’s ideas and starting again, he lifted Gomes’ 3-5-2 (one of many formations Gomes had tried out this season), made a few tweaks to it such as playing John Swift deeper and Ejaria further forwards, and stuck to it constantly.

Preston North End v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Kevin Barnes - CameraSport via Getty Images

His wider squad management paid dividends too. Sam Baldock, Garath McCleary and Chris Gunter all came in from the cold after being either partly or completely excluded by Gomes, and the first two made an immediate impression. It was McCleary’s near-post flick, converted by Baldock, that earned Reading a point at QPR. Gunter eventually got his chance too, initially covering for Yiadom when the Ghanaian was suspended against Leeds United, then replacing him in the first team regularly when Yiadom picked up an injury against Birmingham City.

Other injuries came about too, and the absences of Baldock, Ejaria and Swift played a big part in a mini slump: back-to-back poor performances against Wigan Athletic (saved by a remarkable Puscas hat trick) and Birmingham City as Reading’s work rate and creativity suddenly dropped.

However, Reading bounced back from those games to be even stronger than they were before. A Cauley Woodrow tap-in after a howler at the back from Michael Morrison on 11th December was the last goal the Royals conceded in 2019; four games and four clean sheets followed.

With Ejaria and Swift eventually restored to the starting lineup, Reading looking more comfortable with a new-look ‘four at the back’ system and Charlie ‘Scottish Pirlo’ Adam rolling back the years to become a vital cog in the midfield, the Royals ended 2019 in impressive fashion. 3-0 winners over Derby County before Swift’s screamer earned a 1-0 victory over QPR on Boxing Day, we saved the best for last: a dream all-around away performance and 2-0 triumph at Deepdale to topple Preston North End - the best home side in the division.

As we head into 2020, the future finally looks bright. We may not have completely put all our worries behind us, but slow, steady progress for a club like this one that’s been so poorly mismanaged in recent years shouldn’t be undervalued. Reading Football Club is at last moving in the right direction.

Here’s to an even better year ahead.