You can often tell a lot about how a club is run by its transfer activity. It’s the clearest, most direct link between decisions made behind the scenes and what happens on the pitch. Which players are being signed, how much they cost, where they come from, how much experience they have and what they could offer the first team in both the short and long terms are among the factors we should be looking at.
Take the Reading Football Club of 2009-2011 as an example. Without the same wealthy backing that other clubs could rely on, and with the need to stay in the black as much as possible after relegation from the Premier League, the Royals pursued relatively low-cost, well-scouted targets. Think of Ian Harte and Adam Le Fondre being snapped up from the lower leagues for small change as two particularly good examples.
So what about the Reading Football Club of 2020? The Royals’ most recent transfer business (Felipe Araruna from Sao Paulo and Ayub Timbe from Beijing Renhe) is certainly very different to what we’ve seen in previous years, but it too gives revealing clues about Reading’s current outlook and its strategy for the future.
Those two signings feel quite important to me for one key reason. For the first time (as far as I can tell), all of Reading’s signings in one transfer window have come not only from outside Europe, but from two different continents: South America and Asia. It’s a clear sign of a truly global approach.
Of course, it’d be inaccurate to say that Reading looking outside Europe is completely new; we were previously owned by a consortium from Thailand, and they were succeeded by Chinese siblings Dai Yongge and Xiu Li Dai all the way back in May 2017. But the difference in approach between that of the Thais between 2014 and 2017, and the one we’ve started to see from the Dais - particularly since Nigel Howe’s return in late 2018 - is a significant one.
Attempts by the Thais to ‘internationalise’ Reading Football Club felt like relatively isolated ideas that didn’t match up to a long-term strategy for fundamentally changing the club. Yes, the squad went on one pre-season tour to Thailand in the summer of 2015 (without returning), Carabao and Thai Airways were signed up as sponsors, and attempts were made to recruit dual-nationality Thai players - with one, Tommy Stevens, brought into the academy before later being released.
What’s the lasting legacy of any of those initiatives though? There isn’t one really.
Granted, there was a big change in approach to transfers in 2016. The so-called ‘Dutch Revolution’ not only brought Jaap Stam and Brian Tevreden to prominence, but it also prompted signings that season from across Europe - Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Romania - and even one from South Africa.
But that strategy was intertwined with a raft of domestic signings in 2016/17, before arrivals came almost exclusively from English clubs in 2017/18. So, again, no long-term legacy. Of the nine players brought in from overseas in 2016/17, only two are still on the club’s books: Yakou Meite and Adrian Popa (remember him?).
That brings us to the present - or rather the last 14 months since the return of Nigel Howe as CEO, during which time there have been three key developments in Reading’s global expansion:
- The ongoing interchange of players with Reading’s two sister clubs (KSV Roeselare in Belgium and Beijing Renhe in China)
- Kia Joorabchian’s apparent increasing influence behind the scenes
- Alexandre Mattos’ upcoming appointment as Director of Football - reportedly made possible by Joorabchian
Of course, the first of those points didn’t start in the last 14 months, as Danzell Gravenberch and Sandro Wieser both went on loan to KSV Roeselare in the summer of 2017, a matter of months after the Dais’ takeover. But not only has the practice continued with Sone Aluko and Tom Holmes joining Beijing Renhe and KSV Roeselare respectively, but Ayub Timbe recently became the first player to join Reading from a sister club.
In fact, the plan to bring Timbe to Berkshire is nothing new. He himself teased the possibility of a transfer all the way back in January 2019, essentially saying it was only a matter of time before he joined Reading. This is significant because the interchange of players is now very much a two-way street. We’re no longer just talking about fringe players being sent out on loan to help the finances - Reading have used their network of clubs overseas to strengthen their own squad.
If Timbe’s move is a successful one, there’s no reason to believe that it’ll be an isolated incident. His transfer may be made permanent in the summer, and he could even be joined by more signings from KSV or Renhe. Remember that, due to the Dais owning these clubs, the terms of these transfers can be closely controlled.
The second point in that list, Joorabchian’s influence, is directly related to Nigel Howe’s return in December 2018. The Iranian-born businessman is believed to have a good working relationship with Howe, having initially gained influence at the club in 2015 - during Howe’s first period in charge - and then again in late 2018 following Howe’s succession of Ron Gourlay.
In the summer of 2015, Reading’s recruitment strategy was fairly focused on the English market, although there were signs of a more international approach, particularly towards the Iberian peninsular where Joorabchian is said to have strong links. Indeed, according to former GetReading reporter Charles Watts, Joorabchian was behind the moves for Benfica’s Ola John, Pacos Ferreira’s Paolo Hurtado, and Portuguese striker Orlando Sa. The Royals also brought in Espanyol’s Alex Fernandez and Sporting Lisbon’s Lisandro Semedo, although they’re not mentioned in the piece.
Those deals may not have had a lasting impact on the club - none made an appearance for Reading beyond the end of that season - but it established how internationalist Reading could be at a time when Joorabchian was reportedly involved. Indeed, we returned to that region in late 2018 when Joorabchian was believed to have played a key role in the search for Paul Clement’s successor as manager. Vitória de Guimarães boss Luis Castro almost accepted the job before Rio Ave’s Jose Gomes took it not long after.
Ascertaining Joorabchian’s exact role at Reading isn’t easy to do; it’s worth remembering that Reading have never officially acknowledged the Iranian’s involvement at the Madejski Stadium, official or otherwise, so we’re going off media reports. Those reports are certain of Joorabchian’s influence though, with Watts describing the businessman’s status in December 2018 like so:
“His influence has grown so much that sporting director Gianluca Nani agreed to leave as he felt his position had become untenable.”
According to a recent article from Yahoo Sports, Joorabchian’s influence at the Madejski Stadium is still going strong. In fact, it’s developed to the point that not only is Joorabchian the “right-hand man” of Howe, but he was also instrumental in bringing in Mattos as director of football - an ambitious appointment that marks a fresh direction for the club due to Mattos’ global credentials.
The Brazilian has an impressive CV after prolonged success in his home country, and naturally has contacts to match. Of course, those contacts have apparently already been used, with Araruna signed from Sao Paulo and numerous reports from Brazil linking Reading with a move for compatriot Igor Liziero. Expect to see the Royals return to the Brazilian market in the summer.
I’d previously wondered if Joorabchian’s reported ongoing involvement at Reading meant we wouldn’t bother to get a new director of football at all. If he really was so influential at the club, might Reading simply use Joorabchian as some kind of footballing correspondent going forwards? But the appointment of Mattos is, besides being a win for Joorabchian, a sign that Reading are publicly committed to an ever more global strategy.
None of the above is to say that Reading having a more internationalist outlook is necessarily a bad thing; there is quite literally a world of footballing talent out there and Reading would be wise to tap into it. Nor is this piece meant as criticism of the reported involvement of Joorabchian or of the soon-to-be-confirmed appointment of Mattos; that’s another discussion for another time.
The key thing is that Reading Football Club is changing in its outlook, quickly and decisively, if not absolutely. After all, there’ll still be plenty of signings from English clubs, probably even from the lower leagues in a fashion that’s quintessentially ‘Readingish’. But the Royals’ hierarchy are committed to looking beyond these shores in numerous ways to make this club as competitive as possible.