Mannone, Yiadom, Ilori, McShane, Richards, Meyler, Kelly, Aluko, Swift, Barrow, Bodvarsson
This was how Reading lined up for the Championship’s curtain-raiser clash against Frank Lampard’s Derby County™ on Friday 3rd August 2018. When the campaign came to an end on Sunday 5th May, four of that XI had departed the Madejski Stadium, with just one starting the final game against Birmingham City.
It shows the transition that has occurred in RG2 in 2018/19, Reading Football Club’s 148th year in existence. 10 wins, 17 draws and 19 defeats under three different managers resulting in a second successive 20th place finish will be how the history books look back on the season that was, but that doesn’t cover half of the despair, distress and eventual elation that Royals fans have felt in the last nine months.
This is the story of Reading’s season.
Breaking All The Wrong Records
It’s easy to forget that Reading topped the Championship for eight minutes on that summer evening against Derby when Jon Dadi Bodvarsson headed home from Mo Barrow’s cross. It was all downhill from there though. Tom Lawrence’s 94th-minute winning goal set the tone for the season ahead - the Royals would lose their opening three league games and throw away a 2-0 lead in the fourth, ultimately having to wait until game number seven in mid-September to claim three points for the first time - emerging 3-2 victors at Preston North End, one of just two away wins all season.
Following a 4-1 thrashing at West Bromwich Albion in early October, it was official. This was Reading’s worst start to a league season outside of the top flight in the post-war period. No other Royals side had picked up fewer points after 12 games than Paul Clement’s uninspiring mob, who sat on a tally of just nine.
Understandably, fans were losing patience. Attendances were decreasing as apathy increased, the disconnect between the club and its supporters was at an all-time high. We saw nothing on a Saturday afternoon that we could relate to. Here was a manager who looked out of his depth in charge of a group of players who were showing little hunger or desire when they stepped out on the pitch. Few supporters could see any other conclusion than relegation.
Too Little, Too Late
In amongst the calamity there were the occasional glimpses of hope. The 3-0 win over Hull in September, which was our first clean sheet of the season, would prove to be our biggest winning margin of the entire campaign. Victories over Millwall (3-1) and Bristol City (3-2) showed that there were goals in the side, and good ones too. Yakou Meite had begun proving his worth, netting six times in five games.
Had Marc McNulty not missed an 89th-minute penalty at Elland Road, Reading would have taken a point off Leeds, while an entertaining 2-2 draw with Stoke was another step in the right direction. These were encouraging signs, but not enough to save Paul Clement. The 46 year-old was sacked after the Stoke draw, leaving after just over eight months in charge, with the worst win percentage of any Reading manager in history (23.3%). It was a tenure that few will remember fondly, characterised by dreary performances, a loss of hope and conceding straight after half-time without fail.
We don’t miss you Paul.
A Step Into The Unknown
It was clear that the next appointment would be one of the biggest in the club’s recent history. With the team only outside of the relegation zone on goal difference at the time of Clement’s departure, before slipping into the bottom three during Scott Marshall’s less than impressive caretaker spell, Reading needed a saviour from somewhere.
It soon became clear that this managerial search would be a little different. In addition to the usual suspects, we saw names such as Luis Castro and Vitor Pereira - more familiar to fans of Portuguese football - linked with a move to Berkshire. In the end it was José Manuel Martins Teixeira Gomes, the Rio Ave manager, who was the unknown entity that got the job. A man who had coached in Spain, Greece, Hungary, Saudi Arabia and the UAE but never stayed anywhere for very long, he arrived in Berkshire to high levels of scepticism.
Two defeats in his opening three games - a 1-0 loss at Millwall in which Reading had two players sent off, and an embarrassing 4-1 thrashing at home to Swansea - showed just what a mammoth task Gomes had on his hands.
That’s Howe You Do It
There was change off the pitch too. Ron Gourlay stepped down as CEO after a 16-month reign that saw Reading go from the play-off final to battling relegation, multiple staff departures and a general feeling that the club had lost its way. Gourlay, a man more suited to the commercial giants of Chelsea and Manchester United, didn’t understand the Reading ethos and was in the process of tearing the club apart.
Enter Nigel Howe, the antithesis of Gourlay. Reading through and through, he put the Royals back on the right path, reconnected with the fanbase and brought the feel good factor back to RG2, all while trying to fix the financial mess he inherited.
Howe (and Gomes) set to work straight away in the January transfer window. While Gourlay’s tenure was characterised by poor recruitment with the arrival of duds such as Sone Aluko, David Meyler and Marc McNulty, Howe transformed Reading’s team for the better. Not only did he act quickly to get rid of many of Gourlay’s signings, he added quality to the side, using the loan market effectively. Ovie Ejaria, Lewis Baker, Nelson Oliveira, Emi Martinez and Matt Miazga arrived on short-term deals and would all go on to play key roles in the remainder of the campaign.
“The Royals’ home form will cost them in the run-in”
These the words of Scott Minto, one of five Sky Sports pundits to predict Reading would go down in early April. It's a claim that Gomes’ side would go on to prove very wrong indeed. After the defeat to Swansea on New Year’s Day, the Royals would lose just one of their remaining 10 games in Berkshire, picking up more points at home than half of the Championship.
The 3-2 win over Wigan, which had seen Reading trail with one minute of normal time remaining, was one of the greatest Madejski Stadium moments in recent years, while 2-1 victories against Blackburn (also secured late on), Preston and Brentford ensured we edged closer to survival.
There were crucial points earned on the road in dramatic fashion as well. Mo Barrow’s 90th-minute goal at Ipswich secured just a second away win of the season. Back in East Anglia a month later, Andy Rinomhota scored his first senior goal in the 97th minute to equalise against eventual champions Norwich City. This was a Reading team that would never give up. They had spirit and courage inside them, and with the fans back onside, everyone was fighting on a united front.
In the end, survival was far more comfortable than anticipated. Championship status was all but secured following Easter Monday’s 0-0 draw with West Brom, before being officially confirmed a week later. Reading would end the campaign seven points clear of the relegation zone. It’s not a scenario that many fans would have envisaged five months ago when the club were sitting in 23rd and five points adrift of safety.
It is credit to José Gomes and Nigel Howe that we’re not talking about Reading as a League One club right now. The transformation that has occurred under the pair has been nothing short of remarkable. This might sound strange considering we’ve only moved up one place between Gomes’s arrival and the end of the season, but that connotation is far too one dimensional. There’s more passion and commitment in the team, while games are enjoyable to go to again. Personally, I was disappointed that the season had to end. It feels like a totally different club - like the club we all fell in love with.
Of course, the hard work has only just begun and a big summer is ahead of us. With the five January loanees returning to their parent clubs, the gaps they leave will need to be filled as a priority, as arguably without that quintet relegation would have been a certainty. Whether those same players return to Berkshire on permanent deals (or loans again) remains to be seen, but what will be at the forefront of everyone’s minds will be keeping the finances in check. Close attention is being paid to FFP regulations which the club appear to be on the edge of, and it’s clear we'll need to sell before we can buy. With the transfer window shutting in early August for the second year in a row, it’s sure to be a busy few weeks.
Finally, a discussion on the future would not be complete without touching upon those who are literally ‘the future’ of the football club. Five academy players made their senior debuts in 2018/19 in addition to Andy Rinomhota becoming the fifth graduate to win the Player of the Season award and Danny Loader becoming the youngest Royal in the modern era to reach 20 games for the club. Reading has a fantastic tradition of producing talented youngsters, and with an honours board now celebrating the 52 players who have risen through the ranks and played for the first team, there’s huge inspiration for many more to follow next season under a manager more than willing to give youth a chance.
It’s sure to be an exciting ride.