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The Evolution Of Reading’s Transfer Strategy

An extensive look into how the Royals’ approach to the transfer market has changed under different owners since relegation in 2008.

Reading v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship Play Off: Second Leg Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

Reading Football Club has gone through a huge amount of upheaval in recent years. Promotions, relegations, ownership changes and a managerial merry-go-round - you name it, we’ve seen it. There are many ways of visualising and analysing those changes, but I thought I’d try it by looking through one specific lens: the transfer market.

I’ve done that by primarily assessing one statistical trend: the number of signings Reading have made in each transfer window over the last 12 years. On the face of it, that appears pretty basic, but for me it’s an effective way of putting transfer activity into a long-term context.

I picked summer 2008 as a starting point because, for me, it feels like the clear beginning of a time period in Reading’s history (having followed the 106 side’s relegation from the Premier League). The Royals also had a higher stature from this point, which set the club apart from how it was before promotion in 2006, and strongly influences transfer strategy.

Reading was now a former Premier League club, in receipt of parachute payments, trying to get back into the top tier. Although there was obviously a decline from 2014, Reading is still a bigger club than it was when it had never been in the Premier League.

In the data, I’ve included all players Reading signed from another club (permanent or loan, unless otherwise stated) to go into the first team - ie rather than the academy - and then made a first-team appearance. For example, Rowan Liburd (Billericay Town, 2015) gets in due to making his debut a few months after signing, while Andy Rinomhota (AFC Portchester, 2015) doesn’t as it took him a couple of years to play for the first team. Similarly, Cedric Baseya and Sandro Wieser (zero appearances) are out.

As for time frame, I’ve divided signings up by summer/winter transfer windows. Where players don’t neatly fit into a window, eg Billy Sharp arriving on loan in late September 2013, or Zat Knight joining on a free in March 2015, I’ve put them with the window just before. Sharp is a summer signing, Knight is a winter signing.

So, without further ado, here’s the data:

The first two periods that jump out at you are of course the two extremes: winter 2014 and summer 2015, when Reading brought in the fewest and most number of players respectively since 2008. Going from zero signings in the first case, to 13 in the latter, shows a remarkable turnaround in Reading’s financial state. Midway through the 2013/14 season, the Royals were so lacking in cash due to ongoing ownership problems that signings were always unlikely, but 18 months later we were splashing the cash on a huge overhaul of the squad.

There’s another interesting quirk hidden between those two windows. You can see that Reading ramped up their transfer activity before summer 2015 with a window in winter 2015 that was uniquely busy for a few reasons.

Firstly, with six signings, Reading brought in more players at this point than during any other winter window: Jure Travner, Yakubu, Zat Knight, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake and Kwesi Appiah (NB: Yakubu and Knight arrived on free transfers in February and March, but I think it’s fair to include them with Reading’s other mid-season signings).

Secondly, it’s the only case over the last 12 years in which one season’s winter window has been busier than the preceding one at the start of the campaign. Clubs usually do most of their business over the summer, then tweak the squad midway through the season, but on this occasion Reading were far less restrained.

Lastly, and perhaps most concerningly, none of the six players who joined midway through the 2014/15 season played for the club after that campaign. Chalobah, Ake and Appiah all returned to their parent clubs, while Travner, Yakubu and Knight only had deals until the end of the season.

Put it all together and you get a window that was a case of remarkably short-term thinking. If you’re looking for one point at which Reading stopped using the transfer market to lay down long-term foundations, and instead adopted a patchy approach, it’s winter 2015. Six short-term signings that bloated the squad and wage bill for the rest of the season, not to mention blocking the pathway for younger players at the time, with little payoff in the long run.

It is, sadly, a theme that Reading were defined by far too much in the coming years.

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Watford v Reading - Vicarage Road
Mid-season signings Travner and Knight are flanked by academy graduates Ryan Edwards and Jem Karacan at Vicarage Road

We can see that same issue of short term-ism when contrasting Reading’s transfer activity before and after the 2014/15 season. In the earlier period, the number of signings is remarkably stable, hovering around four per window and rarely getting out of that three-to-five range.

It’s certainly affected by Reading having less money to spend during Sir John Madejski’s ownership, but I’d argue that factor doesn’t account for quantity of signings as loans and frees were available if the Royals wanted to bring in more players. Instead, that low figure is the hallmark of a club with well-considered, long-term planning; Reading only needed to add a few new faces each window, rather than laying new foundations every year.

The only times Reading made more than half a dozen signings before 2014 were when Brendan Rodgers remoulded the squad after Steve Coppell’s departure in summer 2009 and Reading geared up for Premier League football in 2012. Both those periods necessitated more transfer activity, but even then, seven signings in each case really isn’t that much, and is certainly modest when you consider what was to come from 2015 onwards.

In the first five years of this data, Reading’s transfer activity ranged from two to seven signings per window. In the last five years, it ranged from two to 13.

The most important thing about that stark upper figure - 13 signings in summer 2015 - is that it wasn’t a one off. Instead, as with the winter 2015 window setting a precedent for a short-term approach, the summer 2015 window was the start of Reading being far busier in the market, regardless of ownership, CEO or manager. In the preceding years, Reading hadn’t got particularly close to double figures for signings in any one transfer window, but in the half decade between 2015 and now, it’s happened three times.

Basically, radical overhauls of the squad have become normalised.

Across those three summer transfer windows (2015, 2016 and 2019), Reading brought in a combined total of 33 players. For context, the club added 33 players across the first six summer transfer windows of this study. The rate at which Reading signed players in summer transfer windows essentially doubled from pre-2015 to post-2015.

Why did Reading get so much busier in the transfer market?

Of course, signing a lot of players isn’t an inherently bad thing in itself, just as signing fewer players isn’t automatically good, but being so much busier in the transfer market over an extended period can be the hallmark of a club that’s lost its way. After all, it’s surely no coincidence that Reading made signings more sparingly during a successful 2008-2012 period, but needed various radical rebuilds from 2015 onwards.

No single explanation accounts for that abrupt shift; instead, I’d highlight four main factors that we should consider collectively.

The first of those - personnel - is hugely important. Transfer strategy is of course set by specific individuals behind the scenes, many of whom have come and gone over the last 12 years. One way of examining that is to chop the signings chart up according to who’s in charge of Reading at any one time, so that’s what I’ve done.

NB: I defined ‘periods of ownership’ at Reading by using the official takeover date. Annoyingly though, we’ve seen numerous examples in recent years of owners becoming involved at the club (and its transfers) before officially completing their takeover. Think of financial injections from Zingarevich and the Dai siblings in winter windows (2012 and 2017 respectively) to help Reading get promoted.

Also, Reading’s ownership in summer 2014 was, to put it mildly, a mess. Zingarevich left the board in June, but the club was only officially sold to the Thai consortium in September. Complications like these mean takeovers don’t in reality happen overnight, so they’re worth bearing in mind when assessing transfers.

With all that in mind, segmenting that graph gives us a helpful, albeit broad, outline of what Reading were like in the transfer market under each owner. Madejski’s time was stable, Zingarevich’s period seemed to be the same at first but abruptly nosedived, and Reading’s approach became erratic under the Thai consortium.

That ownership group was itself inconsistent as different members gained/lost interest in the football club at different points; Sasima Srivikorn was more influential in 2015/16, but after her song They Call Us The Royals went down like a tonne of bricks, Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth became more prominent. He even sat in Y26 for Jaap Stam’s first game, a 1-0 home win over Preston North End. The least visible of the three, Narin Niruttinanon, only gave one interview to the club (an unconvincing attempt at persuading us that he was interested in football, which you can see here) but he still owns part of Reading.

Anyway, I digress. The important point is that that period of Thai ownership wasn’t particularly steady and coherent in terms of behind-the-scenes planning, and for me that explains the increased number of signings. After all, Sasima’s rebuild in summer 2015 didn’t last long, and was essentially overwritten by another one a year later, rather than being built on.

The current regime looks comparatively more stable (or at least less erratic), but it’s still much busier in the transfer market than Reading were before 2014. Although the Dais have much more cash to burn in the transfer market than all three preceding dynasties, we should also be aware that the club’s parachute payments stopped before the Dais’ first transfer window.

It’s also worth noting four non-ownership personnel: Nicky Hammond, Kia Joorabchian, Brian Tevreden and Ron Gourlay. The former was Reading’s director of football until early 2016, and a key figure in the Madejski years when the club was much savvier in the transfer market, although the Royals’ strategy changed after Zingarevich’s takeover, despite Hammond staying on for a few more years.

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Reading v Birmingham City - Madejski Stadium

In contrast, Joorabchian has never had an official role at the club, but is reported to have been heavily influential in not one but two of Reading’s busiest summer transfer windows: 2015 and 2019. I don’t think that’s just a coincidence. After all, Reading are probably more likely to bring in a few extra players if they’re of a higher quality - which can be attained by Joorabchian’s apparent influence.

The so-called ‘Dutch Revolution’ under Brian Tevreden in 2016, when Reading remoulded its squad for the arrival of Jaap Stam’s attempt at total football, accounts for the final summer window when signings went into double digits. Although the signings at the start of 2016/17 were relatively cheap, there were still a lot of them, which left the club with a bloated squad for a few years to come.

The final two summer windows in this period, 2017 and 2018, were muted in contrast; seven and eight signings respectively across those two periods is closer to the pre-2015 period, albeit not quite there. They were also Gourlay’s only two summer windows, with Joorabchian reportedly uninvolved and Tevreden sidelined. I don’t think Gourlay’s tenure is long enough to properly judge his intentions in the transfer market (did he deliberately want fewer signings coming in?), but the contrast to other summer windows is still interesting.

That brings us to the second factor, which I’ve already alluded to: the short-term thinking that came from that personnel - and indeed also from the regular churn of that personnel. Short-term thinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself - permanent or loan signings to address the immediate problems facing the club can be the sensible thing to do. Winter 2019 is a great case in point; Reading needed first-team quality, couldn’t afford to buy it outright, so made five very good loan additions that kept the team in the Championship.

But too much short-term thinking over an extended period means the club not only isn’t laying down roots with players that will improve and become key assets further down the line, it’s also undermining itself by creating an unstable squad. Contrast the settled, experienced 2011/12 squad, much of which had been developing at the club in the preceding years, with the constant churn of talent we’ve had more recently.

One obvious example of this is, again, winter 2015, when none of Reading’s six mid-season signings went on to play for the club in 2015/16 or beyond. But we can see the same problem in the expanded use of the loan market from 2014 onwards.

Reading used the loan market fairly modestly before 2014, with just 15 from 2008/09 through 2013/14. But that figure shot up in the next couple of years, amounting to 11 in just three windows over 2014/15 and 2015/16, with almost half of the 13 summer 2015 additions coming in on temporary deals. The amount of loans subsided again under Tevreden and Gourlay through 2016-18, with just two summer loan signings in that period (Josh Sims and Saeid Ezatolahi), but soon shot up once more in 2019 when Joorabchian reportedly returned to prominence.

As with short-term thinking in general, loan signings aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but basing your transfer strategy around them too much means fewer additions coming in who’ll develop in the long run. Reading spent a lot of money on their 13 signings of the summer 2015 window, but when six of those went back to parent companies at the end of the season, how much did we really have to show for that expenditure further down the line?

The last two factors are more subjective so can’t really be illustrated on a chart in the same way, but they’re still very important: the club’s overall decline and the poor quality of recruitment itself.

In the first case, Reading have gone from a club consistently challenging for promotion to one typically fighting against relegation. That’s certainly not just caused by issues in the transfer market, but it can mean more signings are needed (or at least wanted) in an attempt to stop the decline. After all, the three biggest summer overhauls came after poor seasons - 2015 followed a 19th-place finish, 2016 followed 17th, and 2019 followed 20th.

Reading v Leeds United - Sky Bet Football League Championship
Steve Clarke oversaw an extensive summer 2015 rebuild after the previous season’s 19th-place finish
Photo by Martin Willetts/Getty Images

In the second, the standard of transfers has dropped notably. Whether we’re talking about expensive or cheap additions, Reading generally aren’t as good at making signings as they were before 2012. Of course, this feeds into the previous factor - worse signings mean worse league positions - so these two points go hand in hand.

But, when you think about it, all four of these factors are in part created by the others, and in turn perpetuate further problems. They can’t be easily dealt with as they don’t exist in isolation - they make a vicious cycle that damages the club in the short and long term.

Breaking the cycle

I’ve highlighted four key problematic areas for Reading in the transfer market, so what kind of position is the club currently in to solve them?

On the personnel front, we’re unclear. Although the ownership seems to be at its most settled since the Madejski era (a unified group with the cash reserves to keep supporting the club), Joorabchian’s influence is unclear, and it remains to be seen whether or not we’ll get a director of football. Alexandre Mattos was set to join this year, but the move fell through. Getting proper clarity on this front might take some time, irrespective of how long it takes to move out of the Covid-19 crisis, and might not even be a priority for the club’s hierarchy.

As for short-term thinking, there are good signs. Although Reading have made some short-term signings recently (Charlie Adam, Michael Morrison and no shortage of loan deals), there have also been some longer-term ones. George Puscas and Felipe Araruna (both 24) should improve with time, while Lucas Joao (26) and Rafael (30) are young enough to be key players for years to come.

We’ve seen a shift in approach to loan signings to get more long-term value out of them. Ovie Ejaria and Matt Miazga rejoined after their winter 2019 loans, and Reading agreed a deal to sign the former permanently this summer. Similarly, the club is in a position to bring back Lucas Boye and Ayub Timbe after their loan deals expire.

Limited progress has been made with the club’s overall status, although that’s based on the revival under Mark Bowen. Follow up this season’s probable mid-table finish with a top-half finish next campaign, and we can hopefully put relegation battles behind us.

Finally, the quality of recruitment seems to have improved significantly in 2019. All five loan signings in January last year played important parts in keeping Reading up, and the additions this season have for me been better than previous years. Puscas seemed to find his groove after a poor start, but otherwise I’d only really put Joao Virginia and Lucas Boye down as really disappointing additions.

Overall, there’s certainly things to be optimistic about in those four areas I’ve identified, even if there’s also plenty for Reading to improve on. But any improvements need to be followed through in the long term, otherwise they won’t make much of a lasting impact, and at the end of the day that’s what Reading need.