Sam Baldock had an eventful afternoon on Saturday, turning the game (at least temporarily) at Blackburn Rovers with a goal and an assist after coming off the bench. But he wasn’t done there. After the match, he spoke to BBC Berkshire’s Tim Dellor, and had some intriguing comments about the state of the club behind the scenes.
He discussed his own future at the Madejski Stadium beyond the end of this campaign, the changes that could be made to the squad in pre-season, and influences at a high level of the club. Although he spoke quite generally, refusing to be nailed down on specifics too much, the fact that an experienced, senior squad member is airing concerns in public is intriguing at best and alarming at worst.
I’ve included a transcript of the most interesting bits of Baldock’s interview below, alongside my thoughts on them. However, I’d encourage you to listen to the audio version, which starts at the 50-minute mark on this link, as you’ll get a much better impression of Baldock’s tone and delivery - neither of which I can properly replicate in text form here.
Dellor: Normally I speak to players, they say it’s important to finish strong so we start next season well, and I say I always think I’m not sure about that, because that’s April they’re telling me that, and you’re not back till August. But actually this time around it’s such a fast turn around there might be more of a bearing, more of a correlation between the two sides.
Baldock: In theory yes, but there’s... I think there’s a lot of change to happen over the summer, there’s a host of players out of contract and I think there’s other speculation going on, so I’d be surprised if it’s the same dressing room come start of the season.
Are you confident you’ll still be at Reading?
Yes, definitely. I think on my part is a lot of unfinished business, and in the past not every manager or person higher up in the club has particularly wanted me at the club, so I’ve got some doubters to prove wrong.
The Jose Gomes time when you were very much sidelined? That must still rankle.
[Awkward pause, Baldock laughs]
Simple as that?
Pretty much. I think yeah, there’s a... it’s not a...from what I can see, it’s not a straightforward club in terms of... on the face of things. I think there’s a lot more going on but erm… yeah. I’ve definitely got to stay true to myself and stay strong, honour my contract and give my all every day and I think I do that, I try and bring on everyone. We’ve got a host of young players. I’m trying to try to improve every day. I don’t think anyone can question my attitude around the place so yeah, I’ll be here next year fighting for a spot.
Is it getting more straightforward? So you say it’s not a straightforward club, with Jose Gomes departing and Mark Bowen coming in - has that made things more straightforward for you?
Erm... I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t... it’s not for me to...
Talk[ing] about boardroom here and behind the scenes off the pitch?
Yeah, I think so yeah. There’s some… rumours fly around the changing rooms… people in negotiations with different, I don’t know, intermediaries, or what have you. It’s not for me to say, it’s just from what I hear and things don’t... things aren’t always as other clubs have maybe run them from what I’ve seen but, we’ll see... hopefully we can get a strong group of players together and compete next season.
It’s a really interesting one because from my point of view obviously it looks a bit opportunistic pushing you on this, but clearly from a fan’s point of view, they’ll be alarmed that a senior player - who’s experienced, you’ve been at different clubs, know how the game runs inside out - is ringing those alarm bells. And I know you’re limited with what you can say, but, erm... it must be quite unsettling, and if you’ve got I’m guessing a sort of... finances, politics, contracts... that’s the area that we’re looking at here.
Yeah well I think I’ve been one of the players that hasn’t benefited from everything that’s been going on. I think potentially an easier option to not play or to not have as many minutes. But listen, this is football, it’s a murky industry and there’s a lot going on in every club, I’m sure of it, so... this is just another one that we’ve got to sort of try and get everyone on the same page and progress together.
Are there external influences beyond the manager selecting the team or leading to team selection?
Oh no I wouldn’t, I can’t, I wouldn’t say that. But... I feel I would have merited more of a run in the team, throughout the whole season. The last manager came in, straightaway first game, not starting - having started the previous game, and then that was it with the last manager.
There are a few key points to unpack here:
- Baldock thinks there’ll be a big change to the squad over the summer, to the extent that he’ll be “surprised if it’s the same dressing room come start the season”.
- Reading isn’t a “straightforward” club. It has an unorthodox relationship with “intermediaries” to the extent that rumours “fly around the changing room” - possibly impacting morale.
- He’s been a victim of “everything that’s been going on”, resulting in a lack of game time.
On that first point, it’s clear that Reading are planning a big squad overhaul in the summer. That’s likely to primarily include loanees returning to their parent clubs and those out of contract being released, but Baldock’s additional “I think there’s other speculation going on” comment suggests to me that more departures are planned.
That’s consistent with what Mark Bowen said after the Blackburn game:
“We’ll be losing a lot of players with those on loan and those out of contract. There’s probably a significant amount of changes coming to the club so maybe it’s a fresh start for them.”
However, Baldock himself won’t be off. Fair play to him for wanting to prove the doubters wrong, as he puts it.
The next point is quite concerning. It’s been widely rumoured - albeit not officially confirmed - that Kia Joorabchian has been involved with Reading’s recent transfer activity, having reportedly returned to the scene in late 2018, and you’d presume that Baldock is referring to Joorabchian here.
That isn’t necessarily a completely bad thing in itself. Having an influential businessman on your side with well-placed contacts often helps to secure better players, and that can be a valid transfer strategy to pursue, as shown by the success achieved at Wolves. However it doesn’t always work out.
But what certainly is problematic is just how murky and opaque this relationship seems to be. If a senior member of the squad like Baldock isn’t fully clear on how the club is operating - as he apparently gets this information from dressing-room rumours - then Reading will suffer from a lack of harmony.
As he puts it, Reading isn’t a “straightforward” club, and that goes higher than the management. Although he denies any suggestion that there’s interference in team selection, there’s evidently a lack of clarity over transfers and other strategic decisions.
If I were to ask you who contributes to, and is responsible for, Reading’s transfer strategy, you couldn’t tell for absolute certain. It’ll be any of Bowen, Nigel Howe, Kia Joorabchian and the Dai siblings for sure, but we don’t know how the balance of power ultimately works.
Baldock also comments on his lack of playing time, which dates back to Gomes’ arrival in December 2018. Although this can to a large extent be put down to things like managerial preferences and the team’s tactical requirements, Baldock’s view seems to be that he hasn’t been treated fairly by either manager, with it possibly being an “easier option” to just not play him.
It’s a reminder of just how erratic Reading’s squad building has been in recent years. Baldock was signed by Paul Clement, overlooked by Gomes, and although he’s fared better with Bowen he’s mostly been a square peg in a round hole tactically. Hopefully, if that problem is resolved next season, Baldock can have a more successful 2020/21 season at Reading.