2020 - where do we start?
It’s a year that has been bizarre and unpredictable in all walks of life, let alone for Reading Football Club, but also profoundly testing and tragic for far too many people across the globe. There’s no real way to sum it up succinctly; 2020 was for large spells boringly tedious but at other times dramatically eventful. On the pitch we’ve had exhilarating highs and debilitating lows, moments of brilliance and ineptitude, and everything in between.
On balance, 2020 was a year of progress for Reading - as 2019 was too. Although the club still has some way to go, the Royals now appear to be in a healthier state on and off the pitch than 12 months ago, and the future looks bright. Much of the credit for Reading’s advances will go to Veljko Paunovic, but that would be overlooking the way the whole club, rejuvenated in recent months, has pulled together.
That progress wasn’t inevitable, certainly hasn’t been easy to predict, and has often been shrouded by the grim realities of everyday life. Public safety measures prompted by coronavirus have shut Reading fans out almost completely since March, meaning that football’s existed in a bizarre state halfway between reality and fiction: you can still follow its highs and lows over the internet, on the radio or television, but without the familiar quirks and habits that we associate with matchday.
For three home games in late 2020 - Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City and Norwich City - a lucky few were able to rediscover them. Although the changing tier system later ended the return of fans, the fact that any supporters at all managed to get back into the Mad Stad is testament to the hard work of those that made it possible. Club officials, stewards, health and safety personnel and everyone else behind those matches: thank you.
It’ll be quite some time before the return of football as we know it though: stadiums packed with home and away fans, with neither hand sanitisers nor face masks anywhere to be seen. Getting to that point relies on public health to improve but, with infection and mortality rates tragically high, things may well get worse before they get better. As important as football is in our lives, public health has to be the ultimate concern, and football may have to go on pause once more in 2021 because of that.
Things will get better though. One day we’ll be at a stage when the hardship of 2020 is in the rear-view mirror and we can just talk about football - not a global pandemic. In such spirit, that’s what I’ll do below.
Reading began 2020 with a perfect New Year’s Day: beating promotion contenders on their own patch in front of a packed away end, putting in a top performance to cap off a four-match winning run. But, for Mark Bowen, that was as good as 2020 got.
His inability to build on that result is usually explained with just two words: Lucas Joao. The striker was conspicuous by his absence in the second half of Reading’s protracted 2019/20 season, and the Royals’ limp finish to the campaign can largely be put down to the lack of a player that made the side tick and provided its cutting edge.
But Bowen had more than his own share of failings too. The Welshman couldn’t find a decisive solution to Joao’s absence, develop a playing system to be taken forward or make the most out of promising young talents like Ovie Ejaria, George Puscas or Michael Olise - although he did give the latter his first taste of regular first-team football.
There was a distinct lack of progress in the league too, with a 2020 record under Bowen of six wins, six draws and 10 defeats meaning Reading started the year in 14th... and finished the season in 14th. The decision to hand him a new contract in mid-January was deserved at the time, but aged poorly.
On the flipside, Reading rediscovered their old knack for a cup run, reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup, where they took then-Premier League high flyers Sheffield United to extra time. Along the way there was time for a young, makeshift side to see off Blackpool over two legs and earn a draw with Cardiff City before fringe players Sone Aluko and Sam Walker played crucial roles in a penalty shoot-out win in South Wales.
Reading’s best moments under Bowen in 2020 almost exclusively came outside Berkshire; five of the Royals’ six league wins, including a 5-0 rout of Luton Town, were on the road. The Royals were particularly bad at home though, winning just once at the Mad Stad in 2020 under Bowen: a scrappy 2-0 victory over Barnsley.
There were some real horror moments on our own patch. The 3-0 home defeat to Wigan Athletic was a perfect storm of sh*t for Reading and, in hindsight, it’s a result that Bowen never really recovered from - his apparent refusal to take blame probably decisively weakened his position at the club. It all culminated in a dire final-day defeat with a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Swansea City.
On the whole though, the season ended in mediocrity. Reading were still way below where they needed to be as a club, but a comfortable mid-table finish was eminently better than the back-to-back relegation dogfights of 2017/18 and 2018/19. As I explored in this piece attempting to make sense of the 2019/20 campaign, Reading had in some ways moved forwards, but in others stayed still or gone backwards.
The off-season period between 2019/20 and 2020/21 may have been the shortest break Reading have had, but it was also one of the busiest. A squad clear-out was long overdue but finally came in the summer. Included in it was the release of nine players who had at one stage been in Reading’s first team, the sale of Modou Barrow, four loanees returning to parent clubs and a host of academy players being let go.
Only four new players (plus the returning Ovie Ejaria) coming the other way had its advantages and disadvantages. The squad became leaner and more focused than it had been in quite some time, but it also had much less depth - those factors have helped and hindered Reading at different stages this season.
It looked inevitable that the man taking charge of that squad would be Bowen. Despite some fans’ frustrations over the lack of identity and long-term thinking under him in the second half of last season, he’d still decisively achieved his number-one goal: leading Reading away from the bottom three. Given that he’d only been appointed in October 2019, it was only fair that he’d get a proper chance in 2020/21.
One minute Bowen was developing a new possession-based 3-5-1-1 system, the next his position was part of a “strategic review”. That process began with the completely unexpected removal of Nigel Howe on Monday August 24 and, seven days later, ended with Bowen turning down the prospect of returning to his director of football position to leave the club entirely.
That week left a bitter taste in the mouth. Besides the ineptitude (apparent at the time at least) of conducting a “strategic review” on the verge of a new season, Bowen’s removal felt harsh, undeserved and - given that he wasn’t referenced in the announcement of his successor - poorly handled by the club. Then again, as Olly pointed out, there was more a bit of irony to the whole episode.
Reading seemed to be intent on giving themselves no chance of success in 2020/21. New man Veljko Paunovic, who had a poor record with previous employers Chicago Fire in the MLS, had a matter of days to prepare his side for the new season. He couldn’t even be in attendance for the League Cup tie against Colchester United; his arrival was so rushed and last minute that he was in quarantine at that point.
Morale was low going into the Championship opener at Derby County, but that’s when it all changed. Reading put in a performance that was impressive both offensively and defensively to comfortably win at Pride Park. Then, not content with just the one win, the Royals followed it up with six more in their next seven matches.
Seven wins in eight, no losses and just three goals conceded - this was as perfect a start to the campaign as any of us could have hoped for. It was all the more impressive as Reading were far from the finished article. How could they be? Pauno hadn’t been given the luxury of a proper pre-season before taking charge of the side, so he had to develop the side week by week.
What Reading were fantastic at in the opening eight games of the season was to nail the basics: defensive organisation, team spirit and ruthlessness in front of goal. They’re not qualities that easily show up in xG stats, but they were crucial to that brilliant run of form. The fact that Reading managed them so well is testament to Pauno’s immediate impact and the way in which the squad responded to his arrival.
Reading needed to evolve if they were to kick on, developing Pauno’s 4-2-3-1 system so that more chances from open play could be created. Somewhat ironically, the Royals managed to do that to a good extent in the next four games, but avoidable defensive errors and an uncharacteristic inability to convert chances meant Reading lost each of those games and plunged from first to sixth.
Mixing early-season resilience with more threat going forwards has been Reading’s chief task since that losing streak, and we’ve seen glimpses of that, particularly in a dazzling performance at home to Bristol City. But impressing on a consistent basis has been hugely undermined by an incessant string of injuries. At its worst, the absentee list extended to around nine players, with Reading particularly weakened up front after injuries to Joao, Puscas and Yakou Meite. As a result, Reading’s form has been stop and start in the last 10 games: four wins, three draws and three defeats.
It’s fitting though that Reading ended the year on a positive note, finishing 2020 in sixth after a hard-earned 0-0 draw at Swansea City. That league position alone demonstrates the progress that’s been made in the last 12 months. Hopefully 2021 can bring us even better times, with fans there to watch them as soon as possible.