No win in the league since New Year’s Day, the news that Lucas Joao was out for two to three months, not replacing the Portuguese striker in the transfer window and, all in all, just failing to back up an extremely positive December with any real success meant January was a pretty deflating month for Reading fans. But I’m here to try and lighten the mood just a little...
Yes, we dropped away from the play-off spots, picking up six points from as many league games, but let’s be honest, reaching the top six would have been (and still would be) almost a miracle. When Mark Bowen took the reins back in October, I don’t think any of us would’ve been even thinking about potentially finishing in the top six. Having the chance to even discuss doing just that, albeit with our tongues firmly lodged in our cheeks, is an achievement in itself.
As supporters, we tend to get drawn into any kind of hype surrounding our team due to emotion involved - myself very much included in that. When we were on that nine-game unbeaten run, I was thinking to myself: ‘Why can’t we finish in the play-offs?’. I know I wasn’t the only one. However, sometimes we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture - which is a hard thing to do when you’re so emotionally invested in the here and now.
Bar that freak season in 2016/2017 when we finished third (yep, I still don’t know what happened that year either), we have been hovering around the relegation zone for far too long. This season, we look like we’re about to break that torturous run *touch wood* which, in itself, shows we are heading in the right direction and our performances have improved.
The last two campaigns in particular have mentally drained almost every fan at the club. They may have all ended with us scraping ourselves to safety, but we couldn’t have another season like that again - and Bowen’s making sure that that kind of run-in isn’t going to happen this time around.
In regards to our January transfer window activity, I’m sure we were all expecting and hoping for more. We saw the arrivals of midfielder Felipe Araruna and Kenyan winger Ayub Masika, but the striker we were all craving never appeared. After Joao was ruled out for around two to three months, a centre forward was put to the top of the shopping list. When one didn’t end up coming in, some fans saw that as a disappointment, and potentially gave up on the play-off dream.
Firstly, we were spoiled in the summer with the influx of players - George Puscas, Joao, Ovie Ejaria and Lucas Boye were all brought in to bolster our attacking options. The fact that Puscas has as yet failed to really find his feet, Boye hasn’t stamped his authority on the team and Joao has torn his hamstring are all things the owners couldn’t foresee and have no control over.
They backed the club in the summer, and with the ongoing profit and sustainability guidelines we have to abide by, we have to look at the bigger picture once again. We have panic-bought in the past, and it hasn’t worked (a la Chris Martin, Tommy Elphick, Jordan Mutch, Reece Oxford etc) and in hindsight, it fills me with positivity that we haven’t done that this time. It’s fair to say the owners, Nigel Howe and Bowen have put their heads in front of their hearts.
Although frustrating at first, it’s really not the end of the world that we haven’t found a striker. We still have more than enough firepower to get the results we need to 1) secure our status in the league for another season and 2) have a strong finish and see where we could end up.
Last night’s FA Cup win was also very promising. Two players who have received criticism throughout their time at the club, Sam Walker and Sone Aluko, both stepped up to the plate to become Reading’s heroes last night in front of the travelling support. It was a brilliant night for those loyal away fans who made the long journey to Wales. After being 2-0, to get back to 2-2 and then 3-3 was something a bit special. To then go on and win on penalties? My word!
Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that we are moving in the right direction. We are a team in transition (yet again) so we need to patient, which I know is extremely hard, but I’m sure we will reap the rewards if we do that.
We have a good set of players who have proven to us in the past few months that they are willing to leave everything out on the pitch to get a result - something we haven’t seen on a consistent basis for a very long time. We have a young manager who has proved that he knows what he is doing, and we have a club that’s on the up - shown by the improving matchday atmosphere.
This may sound like things not worth shouting about, but if you compare it to what we’ve been used to in the past few years, anything is worth shouting about really.
There is positivity when we win, but there is also frustration when we lose. That to me shows that we as a fanbase are beginning to expect results, rather than hope for them like we have been doing since Jaap Stam’s second season. I see that as a good thing; only good teams are expected to get results - another sign of the direction we are going in.
Don’t let missing out on the play-offs - which is more than likely going to happen - distract us from the fact that we are improving, and we’re a very good team in this league when it clicks. Let’s just give it time, support the boys, and see where it takes us. This is football, and in football, anything can happen.