I love the feeling of pre-season – it gives us supporters a chance to recuperate ahead of the new season. But this feels nothing like it. This is just… well, it just feels so weird. The main question I must ask is: where are we currently? And where does this uncertainty leave us, as coronavirus causes widespread disruption throughout the football pyramid?
Even though we have all but secured our Championship safety for another season after our 3-1 win at St Andrews against Birmingham City in our last league game, the remaining nine matches are going to be so important.
Everyone who has read my match previews knows that I’m a Mark Bowen sceptic. Not quite Nigel Farage’s feelings towards the EU level of scepticism, but sufficiently sceptic to question whether Bowen is the right man to take us forward. I used an analogy earlier on in the season when previewing the Leeds United match at Elland Road:
“New Reading managers have seemingly become like new relationships. You’re desperate for it to work, you have high hopes that it’ll last but the trust issues remain from the previous managerial appointments/relationships that haven’t worked out. That’s the best way I can describe my thoughts towards Mark Bowen.”
I hold the same viewpoint to this day. As a club, we can’t afford, perhaps even literally, to experience the same rate of managerial turnover that we have had over the past few years. However, the remaining games of this season may tell us a lot about whether he should continue to manage the Royals next season.
We’ve had some promising performances under him, but also some equally poor ones. His lack of managerial experience is a worry, but with more experience, hopefully he can help lift the club in to a much better position.
Player turnover has also been vast since our relegation from the Premier League back in 2013. Having a manager at the helm for a number of years can also help with not only bringing academy graduates through, but getting them to fit as an effective piece of Reading’s puzzle and making them the first players on the team sheet.
How many times have I mentioned Reading’s identity and how important it is to have one? Getting to the Premier League and competing with some of the best teams in England is one thing, but establishing a clear identity that fans can relate to and get on board with is also vital.
This is especially applicable at this moment in time, considering our position in the Championship right now. We are a million miles away from the top flight – let’s get to work on building something that supporters can get behind.
The 2011/12 promotion season was very much about team spirit, the 2005/06 season was about keeping the same lineup consistently and tearing the league apart. When did we last have a clear path forward and an identity? Probably the 2016/17 Dutch revolution. We made some shrewd signings that summer. Liam Moore for £1m? What a bargain. John Swift on a free from Chelsea? Now we’re talking.
We can use the academy to our advantage – something I mentioned earlier on. Seeing the likes of Omar Richards and Andy Rinomhota get on the scoresheet against Cardiff City in the fourth round replay of the FA Cup, with Gabriel Osho and Jordan Obita scoring in the shootout, was very heartening.
The academy graduates must be good enough to play in the first team and compete at a high level in the Championship. I’m under no illusion about that – it’s so important considering our downward trajectory in the previous couple of seasons.
A mix of academy graduates, with experience, and then adding a sprinkling of flair could really put us in a good position to go and attack the Championship next season, if not sounding a bit like an exotic Gordon Ramsay recipe.
Personally, I don’t think we can have another rebuild in the next transfer window. It seems like we’ve been rebuilding ever since Orlando Sa joined in the summer of 2015. I remember being in Sorrento when the announcement of his signing was made – as an eager year-ten Geography student studying Mount Vesuvius. I’m now approaching the end of my second year at university, and we have not made any major progress since then. That says a lot.
No wonder attendances are dropping, but the club can fix this. Nigel Howe has done a great job since coming back with engaging with the local community. When the next set of financial accounts come out in 2021, I also trust that we will be in a much better position financially.
Right now, we need a period of consistency. Maybe I’m contradicting myself when I say that we need to ensure whether Mark Bowen is the right man for the job, but the one thing we need even more is a solid core of players that will stay with the Royals in the long term to provide stability.
Our hand may be forced if we receive attractive offers for some of our players, or we may need to sell on/release a few players that are on inflated wages. Despite this, we should look to retain most of the squad and add a few players to strengthen the first team, as well as filling in any gaps that may be created from releasing and selling existing squad members.
Once we do have a pre-season of stability under our belt with a few new fresh additions, we can approach the new season with optimism.
An appointment of a sporting director will also be crucial. They now seem to be responsible for the direction that a club goes in. With Alexandre Mattos reversing his decision to join the Royals, as well as Mark Bowen’s move to the managerial role, the job is currently vacant.
Appointing someone with vast experience in the English leagues could pay dividends. Kia Joorabchian may have a major role in the search for candidates, if reports are anything to go by, but we should not allow him to exert influence behind the scenes excessively. As CEO, Nigel Howe should be trusted with this appointment, and I would trust him to get the right man in. It could be vital to our future.
Overall, the most important thing is decision making, something that has been vital over the past couple of years. The club has suffered from poor decisions ever since our play-off final defeat back in 2017, and our downward spiral, that has been halted this season by our slightly improved league position, should be a reminder that this could be a vital time in the Royals’ history.
Let’s start working towards a brighter future at the Madejski Stadium – we have no time to waste.