After the Millwall loss at the weekend, the new contract issued to Mark Bowen and the general sense of our malaise being over, I felt it was a decent time to take stock and analyse where we are in a little more detail.
For the last few years, the club has been in the doldrums. Metaphorically, physically, actually: anyway you look at it, it’s been an absolute shambles on and off the pitch, where we’ve lurched from disaster to disaster. The only thing that didn’t happen, largely because there were three more awful teams than us on both occasions, was relegation. There were points last season, particularly before Christmas, where I actually welcomed the idea of being sent down to League One. Still, it didn’t happen and in hindsight, that’s probably a good thing.
The arrival of Jose Gomes halted the slump slightly: he reinvigorated the club, waved to the fans, told us all how fantastic Reading was and slowly the belief (and fans) came back. And then the board realised that, actually, alienating the two most experienced players, loading the team with attacking threat but not actually having a solid game plan to base them around and filling the backroom staff with people who had no idea where Barnsley was probably wasn’t a decent strategy in the long term.
Mark Bowen then came in, got shouted down by everyone (except me - #itoldyouso, #smugfaceemoji) and generally struggled to get the juices flowing. And then November and December happened - a whirlwind of games ending in positive results allowed us to top the form charts and have two individuals nominated for awards from the EFL (didn’t win them though, didn’t even want them!).
The optimism came flowing back, we managed to piss off those “massive” teams with huge legacies who were disgruntled that we didn’t just lie down for them and created a bit of an atmosphere at The Whitley Bowl (thanks Club 1871) and, as if by magic, replica shirts from years gone by began to spring up overnight all across the Royal County.
I myself joined/created the Mark Bowen promotion bandwagon (77 likes and 7 retweets, thank you) and things got really silly when professional arsehole David Prutton actually started predicting us to WIN games. But then the board gave Bowen a proper contract. I won’t re-hash old news, but I would suggest you read Jordan’s absolute worldy of an article to dive a bit deeper into this decision. Once the club announced the news, you knew instantly then that we’d return from The New Den with an L and nil points. It’s just how football works. Cue mass hysteria on social media regarding Bowen, his contract and the players:
- We are doomed for relegation.
- I always said he was rubbish.
- What a waste of a contract.
- The next run of games is shocking.
- The strength in depth is non existent.
- We miss Joao.
I could go on, but you get my drift. So with all this, I felt it was prudent to break it all down a bit. Some of the below will be factual, other parts purely opinion based, all of which come from a man who has been watching this club play for 28 years this April (that’s me by the way).
Current league position
As October turned into November, we were in a bit of pickle position wise but also form wise. After that heady August Sunday when we beat Cardiff City convincingly (and honestly we could have scored seven that day), things started to sour a little. The enforced exile of a group of players seemingly did nothing other than cause rifts in the camp, Jose failed to understand his best team and we had the Portuguese version of Martin ‘Mad Dog’ Allen as our assistant manager constantly derailing any attempts at composure and calmness on the touch line.
John O’Shea must have been wishing for some sort of escape route having joined as a member of the coaching staff in the summer. As bad results began to turn into a mini-crisis, Nigel Howe pulled the trigger on Gomes and most of his staff. I wouldn’t say the decision came as a massive shock personally and I could understand the upset in the fan base, but looking at it objectively, he had to go.
In came Bowen, travelling down a flight of stairs at the South Reading Arena to take his seat in the dugout. If anyone needed validation of the sacking of Jose then they only had to look at the performance at QPR in late October to realise that the team had been underperforming and players underused in the months prior. After a delicious Christmas and New Year period, we effectively consolidated our position in mid-table, a position we’d not occupied for years. With that came increased expectations...
At the start of the year, I personally predicted that we’d finish 14th. I didn’t put a bet on or anything and the prediction was made more in hope than actual expectation. We currently sit 16th, with 36 points in the bank, a whole 12 points off the drop zone and nine away from the playoffs, with a positive goal difference to boot. If those stats don’t confirm mid table, I don’t know what will. It would take a remarkable swing either way to end up in one those ‘stress zones’ and I for one would be happy to end where we are now.
That said, Christmas showed us that miracles do happen and that, on our day, we can beat anyone. A cliche I know, but I honestly believe that we have an 11 who can beat any team currently in this league. As a result, expectations have risen. People have become excited. It’s no longer a chore turning up to games. We go into them with a genuine belief we can win. That’s not a feeling that’s been felt around these parts for a while.
I don’t have access to any factual polls, but I can guarantee that half the fan base still thinks we’ll be relegated and the other half thinks we’ll be promoted. I might be wrong, but Reading fans love a drama and very few would settle for seeing the players ‘hit the beach’ come March with nothing to play for. Millwall was a sobering reminder that this league is horrible and can give you a nasty shock when you least expect it. This was felt keenly in the fan base, by Bowen and from what I’ve read and watched over the last couple of days, the players. Which takes me to my next point....
We have a settled 11. This is both a positive and negative in that they know how to play, their roles and what is expected of them. There are decent players desperate to play but through no fault of their own, aren’t. A true example of this is at right back. Previously, it was Andy Yiadom’s, hands down. Chris Gunter was resigned to kicking balls against bins down at Hogwood and was nowhere near the team. I had more chance of playing at right back. And then Yiadom got injured. Chris came in and hasn’t looked back since. Yiadom will now find it hard to get back in unless there’s a system change again.
Let’s look at the midfield: Ovie Ejaria is the best player in the Championship (this is factually accurate), John Swift is having his best season ever in a blue and white shirt and Charlie Adam... well. Top them off with Pele and Andy Rinomhota is left kicking his heels. Who would have thought that 12 months ago?!
Up top, we were spoilt for choice at one point. Yakou Meite, Lucas Joao, Sam Baldock and George Puscas are all decent players at this level, albeit a little inconsistent. We have a strong (ish) bench and one of the finest shot stoppers in the league in Rafael. The team and squad is the best it has been for at least four/five years and some of the failed experiments have either been moved on permanently, are out on loan or are about to go. The decisions the club are making are beginning to look like balanced ones and not just knee-jerk reactions (although the recent back and forth with Tyler Blackett’s contract still shows there’s room for improvement in that respect).
Despite all these positives, there are still some fundamental flaws that suggest we aren’t ready for the ‘bright lights’ just yet. For one thing, we are still battling with money. We were under a soft transfer embargo in the summer (which remains a grey area, but from what I can tell we can’t spend over a certain amount) and we can’t really recruit the players we’d ideally like.
Loans are all well and good, but we need players here for the long term and the priority needs to be securing the players we do have: Pele, Ejaria (obvs!!) and Matt Miazga. Likewise, sorting the contracts of the rest of the squad would seem a major issue and a serious conversation with some of the young players would be a good start. Moving on the higher earners that have been stealing money from us (you know who they are!) for the last few seasons has got to be the focus to free up cap space, as the Americans call it.
There’s still a mental fragility in the team that will only be eradicated by winning games and keeping the squad together, which we can do at this level. It’s improved, but still rears its ugly head every now and then. Indeed, Bowen knows this which is why he talks about resilience and character at every opportunity.
Reading are like one of those five-a-side teams that are comfortable at their level, playing in the second tier on a Wednesday night in a well-organised league. They can beat teams and turn it on, but going up to the next level would be a nightmare and so end up going for a curry instead of playing when it looks like promotion is on the cards. I’m not suggesting Bowen’s boys do this (the EFL would have an absolute hissy fit!) but they need to be careful they don’t start chasing something which may not happen in the short term and take their foot off the pedal when doing the basics long term.
The Millwall result was a cold shower for all concerned, but one which came at a crucial time both in the season and the context of the club’s ambitions. All involved would do well to aim for my pre-season prediction of 14th or thereabouts, keep the squad together (give or take a few) and then really kick on next season. 12 months is a bloody long time in football. Who knows, January 2021 might see me looking back at this article and cringing at how negative I was. I sincerely hope so.