Yesterday Mark Bowen signed a new, extended contract to be our manager through until the end of next season. Anyone that I talked to or tweeted with probably thought I was being very negative about that yesterday. It might have had something to do with being stranded at a motorway services for three hours waiting for the AA... but either way I wasn’t as enthused about the news as lots of other fans. I thought it would be good to put my thoughts out more coherently so here we go:
I have no problem with Bowen. I think he has done a really good job since taking over in October. We’ve picked up more points in that short time than I could really have hoped for and the fact that we are even talking about play-off possibilities is remarkable. The team is playing well, not always beautifully, but with a fight and determination that we haven’t seen all that much over the last few years. Mark Bowen is certainly the person I want in charge of this team right now and I am genuinely excited to see what this team does over the next few months. So why the negativity?
My problem is a growing, nagging doubt about the decision makers at the club. Not their intentions, because I truly believe they do want what is best for the club, just their execution. We’ve seen some strange decisions over the last few years and the recent news about Tyler Blackett and Bowen’s contracts have cemented my belief that there is no real plan or strategy at the club.
Bowen was given a brilliant opportunity to start his managerial career here in October. I think it’s a safe assumption that without us he would still be a coach/technical consultant or starting his managerial career at much lower level. We took a gamble on him and, so far, it is paying off brilliantly for both parties. Bowen’s reputation has shot up just as we have shot up the table. Everyone should be happy with the arrangement so why change it now with roughly three months left of the season?
Bowen has started brilliantly but, as Nigel Howe acknowledges, “Mark would be the first to modestly highlight that this has been a good start… but only that; there is much more to achieve with this group of players”. Just a start, a very good one but just a start.
When Bowen was given the role, he would been set a target of getting this team up the table. Given the ambition of our owners and the money spent this summer I would think that target was more than just save us from relegation. Without disparaging his tenure so far, ‘saving us from relegation’ is just about the only thing has actually been accomplished and even that isn’t mathematically certain.
So, either he hasn’t met his targets yet, his targets were pretty low or he wasn’t set any targets at all. None of those options fill me with confidence that we have a long-term strategy in place. Given there is no hurry to get Bowen on a longer contract it just feels odd to give him one when we’ve got less than half season of work to judge him on.
Away from whether Bowen deserves a new contract or not is what impact it will have on the team. I am not superstitious. I don’t have lucky underwear or wear the same football shirt every week, but I do think ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. In a transfer window where lots of us are cautious about too much business upsetting the dynamic in the group, why change something that doesn’t need changing now? We might need a new striker because Lucas Joao is injured but Bowen’s not going anywhere for the next few months. What’s the rush?
I’m sure the players are keen for Bowen to stay. He’s getting the best out of a lot of them and they seem to respond well to what he wants them to do. However, this set of players have let managers down before. Liam Moore has said himself he is sick putting the same messages on social media every time a manager is shown the door. I’m going to need some convincing that this group has turned a corner in that regard.
What impact will it have on Bowen? He will want to win games just as much as he did last week (I have no doubt about that) but motivation is a funny thing. We’ve seen plenty of examples over the years of players playing out of their skins when they are fighting for a new contract. Hal Robson-Kanu routinely became a world beater for a couple of months every few years. Inevitably they tend to return to their former selves once that contract is secured.
That is not to say they aren’t trying as hard, it’s just when they are playing for their future there seems to be a desperation in their intensity that can give them an edge on the pitch. Who’s to say the same won’t happen with Bowen? He will have come into this role wanting the best for Reading and wanting to get this group of players playing well, but no doubt he will also have desperately wanted to make this work for him. Who knows when his next shot as manager would have come if this hadn’t worked out - so of course part of what has been driving him this season is his own ambition.
I’m not suggesting that drive will now disappear, but he can rightly pat himself on the back for hitting one of his personal goals of securing a new contract. He won’t rest on his laurels because he doesn’t seem like that sort of character, but I just don’t understand the timing. We had a manager incredibly driven to succeed for the team as well as for himself and we’ve potentially taken some of that drive away - for what? In case he got poached in the summer? I just don’t see it.
I like Bowen. He speaks well and his team is winning. We have some of the same grit and determination that our most successful teams have had and we do still play some nice, interesting football. I hope this new contract drives the team on to even better things and that this season can provide the building blocks for the next few years. Even if all that happens, I will still have my concerns about the short-termism of whoever is currently making the decisions at the club.
Come to think of it, who is making the decisions at the club?
I guess my main take away from all these thoughts is... don’t accidentally put petrol in your diesel engine at the Oxford motorway services.
Come on URZZZ