In the last couple of seasons prior to 2020/21, Reading started their campaigns in a very poor fashion.
In 2018/19 Paul Clement lost his job at the start of December, and in 2019/20 his successor Jose Gomes got the sack in October, effectively ending our seasons before the start of the New Year on both occasions. From then on, it was about getting to that magic 50-point mark and ensuring we could secure our place in the Championship for the following year.
Thankfully, we were able to in both campaigns, but this season had to be different, quite frankly.
There’s only a certain number of times you can stay in and around lower mid-table season after season before you’re sucked into the relegation zone. And although Mark Bowen managed to guide us to a slightly more comfortable position (or it certainly felt that way) compared to recent campaigns, it was time for us to either: 1) change the manager straight after the Swansea City game if there was no confidence in the current man to take us forward in the long term or 2) persist with Bowen and have a settled pre-season, in what would be a shorter period of time due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the former manager, we seemed to be playing reasonably well with our 3-6-1 formation in pre-season, despite our 4-1 loss at Tottenham Hotspur. But just a couple of weeks before the season started, Bowen was removed as manager and we had no idea who would take over as manager this close to the opening league game against Derby County. We were crying out for an experienced man like Chris Hughton - but a man called Veljko Paunovic was appointed after plenty of speculation about several Serbian options.
In a nightmare scenario, Paunovic had to quarantine for two weeks in like with UK rules - and after seeing his players for the first time out in Portugal - the former Chicago Fire manager was forced to miss the first competitive game of the season against Colchester United in the Carabao Cup, leaving Eddie Niedzwiecki in charge of first-team affairs.
At this point, I think most Reading fans were racking their brains thinking: what an earth is Mr Dai doing? Fortunately, we just about managed to get through to the next round - but then our attentions turned to Derby.
And normally, I would be buzzing for the first league game of the season. 2020/21 was different though - I was dreading it. How can the Championship opener be our new manager’s first game on the touchline? It was not exactly a smooth transition from Bowen to Paunovic either. We had been playing a 3-6-1 formation in pre-season as I said, before switching to the current system – but now it was time to see how we would get on against Derby County, a team we had lost 2-1 against at the end of last season.
Surely it would be worse in this campaign under the circumstances?
Well, I could not have been any more wrong. The Royals were solid in defence, effective in midfield and clinical in attack and from that 2-0 win, we would win seven of our first eight Championship games despite injuries early on. Some of our opponents were very strong as well as we beat Barnsley, Cardiff City, Watford, Wycombe Wanderers, Rotherham United and Blackburn Rovers in that remarkable run. As well as this, Reading had conceded just one goal in over 630 minutes of second tier action as well - that is an unbelievable stat.
Contrasting that to recent results, we have taken just 14 points from our last 13 games which, in all fairness, isn’t great form. We are however still just inside the playoff zone with 33 points, which just goes to show how impressive our results were at the start of the campaign.
Our recent form also shows just how important that start was. If we had made an average start to the season and then gone on the run in recent times, some fans would be calling for the gaffer’s head, especially with initial fan scepticism and the way that pre-season period was handled. But if we can do fairly well, if not spectacularly for the remainder of the season, this form will be forgotten about by more realistic supporters.
And let’s be clear, finishing above last season’s position of 14th would represent progress, and as long as Paunovic can guide us to a decent finish, I think he will be given another season by the owners to build on the foundations set behind the scenes.
In all fairness, the club has needed a manager to stay for the long term ever since Brian McDermott’s first departure in 2013. And while it’s too early to say whether Paunovic is likely to take us forward for the next few years or not, I remain hopeful about how he progresses as Reading manager. The ‘fresh start’ approach adopted by Paunovic is a promising sign for me despite my initial scepticism about his appointment - and I hope he will go on to build something fantastic both on and off the pitch in the absence of a director of football.
If he does succeed, I think we will all look back and consider that eight-game run as a vital part of his journey, as this could potentially save his job when it comes to the end of season review. And where we finish this season will be vital in Mr Dai’s eyes. The start of the season was simply sensational, especially with the quarantine shenanigans he had to endure and the little time he had with the first-team squad before the start of the campaign.
Maybe I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but perhaps we should thank the likes of Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki for their work with the players in pre-season - and in a rare case - the old coaching staff may have just teed Paunovic up nicely to go on and make this a successful, long-lasting project at the club which gave him the chance to make an impression in English football.
Our form does need to improve though if the boss is to guide us to a respectable finish - and he certainly doesn’t want to experience a disappointing end to the season Mark Bowen did in 2019/20. Now is the time to build for the long term after years of instability since our Championship playoff final loss in 2017.
Can we do it? We will have to wait and see.