Making an accurate prediction about how a season in the Championship will go is almost always a fool’s errand - even if some things are safer bets than others. At least one unfancied team will come from nowhere to claim promotion, a banker for the top six will struggle, and Leeds United will fall apart.
Even at the best of times, doing the same for Reading is similarly foolhardy. This club has a tendency to surprise you - although that’s as often for the worse as it is for the better. Who could have known Jaap Stam’s first season as a manager in English football would end with him consoling his distraught players after penalty shoot-out heartbreak, or that his his second would conclude with Reading scrambling to stay in the division?
In contrast, last season was - at least initially - depressingly predictable. A glum mood in the summer of 2018 was extrapolated into a glum first few months of the season. Reading’s inability to rejuvenate itself after Stam’s sacking led to another - avoidable - relegation battle.
Those first few months, defined largely by the incompetence and unpopularity of Paul Clement and Ron Gourlay, seemed to be the first act of a play that was destined to play out as a tragedy. But, true to expectation-subverting norm, Jose Gomes and Nigel Howe arrived in the nick of time to save the day - helped in no small part by Ovie Ejaria, Lewis Baker, Nelson Oliveira, Emiliano Martinez and Matt Miazga.
Predicting the plot of the sequel - Jose and Nigel’s first full season in charge at the Madejski Stadium - isn’t easy. For all the hype that their impressive debut performance generated, the follow-up can end anywhere between the farcical and the sublime.
For one thing, the cast of this coming season is set to be vastly different to the one that preceded it. Going into the opening match of the season, a huge number of those who’ve featured for the first team have moved on and won’t be back: five loanees (six if you include Josh Sims), seven players released, two sold and another two loaned out.
Just five have been added: Joao Virginia, Matt Miazga and Lucas Boye loaned in, with Michael Morrison and Charlie Adam snapped up on frees. Those signings are testament to just how inventive Reading have had to be - not paying a penny in transfer fees, with Morrison’s two-year deal the closest we’ve come to a long-term signing.
Reading have certainly been left with a young squad - only eight men available to Jose Gomes are 27 or older, but that includes the frozen-out Chris Gunter, Garath McCleary and Adrian Popa. Just one of the eight - Andy Yiadom (27) - is likely to be a regular starter, so he’ll need all the help he can get from captain Liam Moore, Modou Barrow (both 26), John Swift, Matt Miazga (both 24) and others in setting a good example to junior players.
Instead, out of necessity youth will get its chance to shine, although seeing the next generation put their mark on this squad will be an exciting sub-plot of the coming campaign. Michael Olise, Danny Loader, Tom McIntyre and the rest of the gang will need to learn how to express themselves in the unforgiving game of Championship football - and do so quickly.
Fortunately, they have a manager who’ll give them a great opportunity to do so. Jose Gomes’ mixture of faith in young talent and infectious optimism aren’t just optional extras - they were exactly what the club needed to arrest last season’s decline and also to turn our fortunes around in the long term. The academy, club as a whole and indeed us as fans are lucky to have him.
But he faces new challenges of his own. Having steered Reading away from the bottom three in his first campaign, Gomes has more difficult job requirements going forwards: keeping the Royals away from the danger zone, pushing them ever closer to the top six, bedding youth into the first team, and continuing the overhaul of our playing style.
Last season, he was happy to be pragmatic to ensure we won the points needed to survive, but in 2019/20 the tactics are set to evolve. There’ll be fewer games in which Gomes will let his team sit back, absorb pressure and attack on the break, and far more that he’ll try to win by dominating possession. How well he’ll manage that - in his first full season in English management, while being hamstrung by Financial Fair Play and the now-expired soft transfer embargo - is anyone’s guess.
It all makes for what will surely be a fascinating season, but how will it end? If you believe the pundits - many of whom are unconvinced by this Royals side - it won’t end well, and a safe mid-table finish is the best we can hope for. But being written off by others is a hallmark of Reading Football Club.
We’re not to be underestimated.