On the eve of the Royals’ return, it would be easy for fans to lack enthusiasm. After all, Reading are 14th in the Championship, nine points off the drop and eight off the play-offs. They surely will not get relegated and likely cannot get promoted. So why bother redeeming your iFollow code?
This is the ultimate pre-season test. There are nine games, all competitive against fellow Championship sides. This is Mark Bowen’s opportunity to prove he deserves control of the summer budget, especially if the suspension of FFP leads to a loosening of the purse strings. If anything, he is running a downhill race. The average position of Reading’s final opponents is 15.1, with only one fixture against a top-nine team. It is unlikely Bowen will ever get a better chance to cement himself in a Championship hot seat.
Welcome to Mark Bowen: The Scorch Trials
Nevertheless, these are unprecedented times in football. You would be forgiven for thinking that this is the first time a global pandemic has forced the most athletic individuals of a generation into performing in an empty arena while the world watches on. However, you would be incredibly mistaken. You, my dear friend, have forgotten about the 2014 box-office hit, The Maze Runner.
Quick PSA for all those who have yet to see this cinematic masterpiece: A bunch of athletic youths have been trapped inside The Maze by the evil adults before a newcomer leads them all to safety. Sound familiar? That is because it is Reading FC 2019/20. The athletic youths are Reading, the evil adults are the EFL and The Maze is a punishment for failing FFP.
Bowen with his heroic, defensively solid mentality saves the day. You won’t believe this, but the film ends with the shocking realisation that a deadly virus has wiped out most of the earth’s population. That leads onto the sequel, The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, where our plucky heroes must navigate a post-pandemic wasteland, also known as Project Restart.
Back to the football – why is this relevant?
It is all relevant because I could have made this bizarre allegory with Paul Clement or Jose Gomes. Making a great film or escape from relegation is commendable, but far from special. So far Bowen has landed the hit debut release, but will the sequel flop?
The real challenge in football is proactivity. With over 100 days since the win at St Andrews, there have been ample Zoom calls to innovate fresh tactics or perfect new routines. There can be no excuse for antiquated ideas. Whether Bowen has been reading Marcelo Bielsa’s biography or Neil Warnock’s The Gaffer is immaterial to most fans, provided they see success when they log into iFollow this Saturday.
As vital as it is to avoid relegation from the Championship, Dai Yongge has made no secret of his loftier ambitions. Second-tier teams do not sign George Pușcaș or Ovie Ejaria to scrape their way to safety. The hierarchy wants promotion, and Bowen has yet to prove his long-term capabilities. At The Tilehurst End, we cannot confirm whether Yongge fires up his Netflix every evening to get his fix of young-adult dystopian movies, but we can confirm that each performance will be studied meticulously, right here, on this website.
If Bowen fails to maintain the momentum of his managerial debut, he won’t be the only one getting burnt. Reading could be looking at a fifth manager in four years before the end of the year and yet another year away from success. But if Ejaria and John Swift can lead him through The Scorch Trials, there might finally be an end in sight for Reading’s dystopian detainment in the EFL Championship.