Never meet your heroes, they say. Whilst I’ve only known him/been aware of him for a few mere months, I can honestly say that Pauno is rapidly becoming a new hero of mine. When I finally get my campaign to get a statue of Steve Coppell outside the Fanstore up and running, I will swiftly move on to something Pauno-related, maybe a pie sold in the concourse or something.
Although I didn’t technically meet him, I was lucky enough to be on the STAR Fans’ Forum Zoom call with our new(ish) manager as he answered various questions put to him by the chair of the organisation itself. Whilst I won’t script word for word what he said, I have picked out some key points (in my opinion) that I think are worth signposting.
He appeared resplendent in the incredibly fetching new training wear (it’s on my Crimbo list) and was jovial and polite before the official start time of 6pm. A Serbian-speaking chap had a brief conversation in their native tongue - it was all very pleasant and splendid and set those in attendance up for a real insight into how he thinks.
Paula Martin began by explaining that she’d blocked the questions (expertly I might add) into categories and that there were quite a few. I cracked open a Heineken 0% and settled down. He began by explaining that working in England and the Championship had been his dream and that everyone around the club had been supportive of him so far.
The first controversial-ish moment came when he touched upon his predecessors. Now, before I go on, I’ve been in the football game a long time and rarely now do I listen to people who are able to make me see things in a different way in terms of football. That’s not me being arrogant or an expert, but aside from the controversial pundits who are deliberately being controversial for controversy’s sake, I find that modern football people aren’t really worth listening to, even if I mildly like them.
When Pauno mentioned those before him (not by name) he said something that made me really take notice. “I value the people before me”, he explained. That is such an interesting way of looking at the previous managers. When you think about it, they’ve all contributed to get the team to this point, some more successfully than others, whether that’s on the pitch or off it. It’s so easy for players and new managers to criticise the previous incumbents but actually, that comment says a lot about him as a professional and a person. I immediately went about ordering a life-size cardboard cut-out of him to put in my office at work.
The questions moved onto the current assessment of the squad. One of the questions (my question) asked him about his first impressions of the team. His answer was to say there was confusion (which tends to happen when a manager you thought you were playing for is shown the exit unexpectedly) but also desire and “fire in their eyes”, a metaphor that he (or rather an opposition manager) used to describe his World Cup-winning Serbian team of a few years ago. He explained that you can do anything with fire in your eyes. That would make a great tattoo, actually.
As a back-up question, he was asked what he expected of his team. He wanted enthusiasm, both in terms of the workload but also enthusiasm to interact with colleagues, respect and responsibility. In another manager’s mouth, these would be throwaway words, but he was incredibly sincere when he spoke about this element of the squad. Effectively happy, knowledgeable players who are comfortable in their roles and are good at what they do.
The questions moved to darker territory with the rumoured unrest in the squad last season. He was asked how he went about correcting this and his answer was simple: make everyone feel appreciated and involved, while at the same time making sure that the players he did have wanted to be there. This was emphasised further when he talked about the breakthrough sensation (my words, no one else’s) that is Tom Holmes, which I will talk about now in the next paragraph...
Paula asked about Holmes’ role this season, shifting from centre back to right back. Pauno explained that the first thing the coaching staff did was ask Tom if he wanted the change and that, to me, is outstanding man management. There is no point putting square pegs in round holes if they actually want to be triangles (or any other shape, actually).
And I think, as a club over the years, we have been guilty of that: trying to transform players that don’t want to be transformed and basically setting them up to fail. Pauno is cut from a different cloth. He made it clear throughout the chat that he wants the players to know what to expect from him daily and that the dialogue between the different components at the club is vital.
The questioning then shifted to the “all sorts” section. He was asked his views on VAR (likes it, but it needs time), his boyhood football club (Partizan Belgrade), how mental health is managed at the club in the current climate (“the players and their families are happy in the knowledge that they are safe and protected”) and how his appointment came about (clearly there is a lot that went on there...).
He made the very clear point towards the end of the session that the players do check social media. I’m not sure if this was a warning to those in attendance about criticism but it was interesting to hear. I think fans tend to imagine players in a bubble where they don’t read social media, but just because they don’t respond to something doesn’t mean they haven’t seen it, I guess.
He just came across very well throughout the hour or so. He was comfortable and authentic in his answers and I genuinely felt happy listening to him. I’ve been to forums with previous managers before and I’ve felt a range of emotions during and after them - some positive, some not. The key point is he has a drive that will only be satisfied by his team winning and playing well. He has a clear vision about how he wants to play and how he wants the players to behave and react.
As fans, we’ve all got very excited with our start and have begun to dream again. I’m sure some of you reading this were on the Zoom call too and I’m hoping you felt the same sense of positivity and warmth from him as I did. Whether he and the team earn promotion at the end of this season or not, I honestly feel that we have a manager that might last longer than 12 months. His attributes, skills and authenticity lead me to think that he will soon be every Reading fan’s new hero. If he isn’t already, of course.
Until next time.