When the final whistle blew at around 5pm at St Andrews on March 7, those in attendance in the away end, and those picking up the good news at home after a 3-1 win for the Royals, would not have believed that it would be almost three and a half months until Mark Bowen’s men would be in competitive league action again. Compound that with the fact that it will also be behind closed doors, and you really do have one of the most bizarre situations in living memory.
Indeed, after the Stoke City home game was called off a week after the triumph over Birmingham, no one really knew what would happen in the interim and, moreover, whether this current season would ever end. I’m used to writing fairly light-hearted articles which at least three people have told me are funny, but because of the range and depth of the circumstances that have surrounded the club over the past few months, I wanted to - for my own sanity I suppose - try and sum up what has happened while the Mitre balls have stayed still.
I suppose really the first place to start is the finances. A report (so to speak) was published not long after lockdown began which detailed the club’s finances for the 2018/19 season - or at least the details that the club wanted us to see. Since Nigel Howe has come back, there has been stability, but also a morbid realisation that the current spending cannot continue. I’m not going to bore you with the same information (it’s not an economics lesson): the details are easy to Google. But in a nutshell, it’s not great:
- The club’s revenue mix (what they get from matchday revenue, broadcast fees and commercial enterprises) puts them seventh bottom of the table in the Championship, fifth if you take out the two clubs who are no longer in the Championship itself (Ipswich Town and Rotherham United, although the latter have bounced back again).
- Reading’s revenue-to-wages ratio puts them top of an unwanted table, coming in at a whopping 214%. Effectively, the club spent £42 million on wages and got £20 million back in revenue. The two clubs directly below them in that table (Sheff United and Aston Villa) are of course now in the Premier League. All of this means that Reading were (as of those accounts) operating at a loss of £38 million per season. £38 million. Just let that sink in.
One could (and would) argue that this season’s loss will be even greater for two reasons as:
a) Reading have lost a large chunk of their £5/6 million matchday revenue because of Covid-19.
b) Attendances have yet again dropped off this season with an average of around 14.5k. More on that later.
We all knew that a clear-out of players was coming and well overdue. The out-of-contract players will surely leave now and it would seem that most of the loan players, unless they come on loan again next season, would be out of the picture. On the plus side, Reading do have assets they could (key word) sell (John Swift, George Puscas, Liam Moore), but whether clubs have the ability to buy them remains another kettle of fish.
Olly recently published an article in which he asked the question: Are Reading bad at selling players? Yes, yes they are. They have also been bad historically at spending “big” money on players (Emerse Fae anyone?). Not since the departures of Dave Kitson and Kevin Doyle have we really had a big influx of cash, save for Siggy. This all adds up to a financial shambles that will hang over the club for years to come and one that the prolonged season will do nothing to help with.
Bowen the Saviour
Speaking of help, one of the more heartwarming stories of the lockdown was brought about by an act of quite incredible self sacrifice and generosity. Bowen and the other prominent staff members at the club (so prominent I can’t name them) decided early on to defer what was labelled as a “significant portion” of their salary.
Now, people will argue their reduced salaries are probably more than most people earn in a year, but that’s not the point. Once you are told you are earning a certain amount of money, you build your lifestyle around that. To have someone give that up voluntarily (ie not because of forced furlough) is very telling of the nature of that person. For a man who hasn’t been in the hot seat long, it shows his commitment to the cause and he should have received more plaudits than he did. Not that he’d want them or expect them, but again that’s not the point.
The players came round to this way of thinking too in May when it was announced they would also be deferring their wages or at least portions of them. I’m not going to go down the road of criticising the timeline of this, as others have. In my eyes, if you sign a contract, you are expected to fulfil those roles as an employee and, as such, get paid what is agreed - regardless of the profession. Importantly, this will give the club some breathing space and allow them time to plan a bit more moving forward.
Empty stadium syndrome
One of the largest questions around the restart is how players will cope in empty stadiums. Our home form in recent years reads really quite horrifically; at times, the Mad Stad has become a seated bowl of negativity, fear and downright apprehension. The players feel this, which affects the performance and, in most cases, the result. Aside from the blip (and what a lovely blip it was) of reaching the playoff final under Jaap Stam, the last few years have been a real chore.
Having no fans in stadiums will eliminate the home advantage (look at the Bundesliga since their restart for confirmation of this) and will allow teams to play with more freedom and relax into the game without fear of negativity from the crowd. Looking at the run of fixtures we have to play - they are very kind. Sure, we play bloody Brentford and we have some games against teams scrapping lower down (Luton Town, Charlton Athletic), but we also have games against teams with little to play for (Stoke City, Derby County).
Mathematically, we can still make the play offs. Realistically, it can be done until it can’t mathematically be done. I haven’t gone crazy, but what I’m saying is that with the pressure off and the team looking up rather than down, coupled with the reasonably favourable fixture list and the fact that the squad is healthy, why not give it a go? With the attendances dwindling in recent years anyway, an empty stadium won’t be a massive shock to the players. As some of my so-called mates have told me, the club should receive an award for modelling social distancing in the ground before it was even a thing. Idiots.
Looking at Twitter over the last few weeks, it was clear that Reading fans were entertaining themselves during lockdown. I myself leant my dad my collection of Reading season review DVDs and undertook the massive (and it was massive) job of going through, cataloguing and boxing up my 27 years’ worth of Reading programmes.
Having counted them all up, I can officially announce that I have attended 526 games over the years (shameless plug alert: if you want to see pictures, follow me on Twitter, @mrblthomas). I cannot wait to attend my 527th game, whenever that may be. Until then, I’ll have to settle for watching the games on iFollow.
Come on URZZZZZ!