I really don’t know where to start with this. I’m sure an exasperated Mark Bowen didn’t either as the lights went out at Ewood Park. After the pretty dismal loss to Boro in midweek, at least this one was a bit more entertaining. You often get games like this at the end of the year. The shackles on teams are off; some players are looking at their own circumstances rather than the club’s; managers start to experiment a bit more with the line up and formation, chopping and changing personnel to see if there are any nuggets heading in to next season and goals seem to flow more freely as a result.
One thing that is certain is that there are nuggets of optimism within the team, but changes need to be made before those nuggets can shine (if nuggets of gold) or eaten (if chicken-based nuggets). The point is that sometimes as a fan, you just have to laugh at a result and go “ok”. And that’s exactly what I did with yesterday. What I can’t laugh at is the long-term prognosis for the team and club. More on that later.
As it was the last Saturday of the season (whatever that means now), a few of us decided to head to the pub for the first time to watch the action unfold with Jeff and the boys. Pubs have of course been open since the start of the month and so the experience was something that I was looking forward to but was also intrigued by.
I had to book tables at the three pubs we were planning to go to, which in itself is an oddity. Long gone are the days when you can just turn up to a public house and order a pint of Directors without giving away all of your info, from phone number to favourite book to last meal consumed. Of course, I pride myself in this column of not sharing any product names or brands or advertising pubs, so the names of the pubs themselves shall remain anonymous.
When we turned up at The Monks Retreat on Friar Street in Reading, we were greeted with a proper bevvy of security men (x3), a door host (x1), a chap manning the sanitising station (x1) and a waitress (x1). I know that The Monks Retreat in Reading has a reputation for being a “proper tasty boozer” but this was extreme. Once seated at our table, everything was done via the app.
Again, I don’t like advertising beer so I won’t discuss the brewer or the product. A few clicks of some virtual buttons and a completely non-contact process meant that, five minutes later, four pints of Camden Hells Lager, created by the brewer Camden Town Brewery, turned up - all golden and dripping wet. These allowed us to see out Brentford bottling the chance to go into the top two by losing to Stoke (lols).
In the interlude between that game finishing and the 3pms starting, a bit more beer was drunk and a bit more chat was had. Incredibly, the punters in the pub were making a mess of the one-way system in place and it was beginning to resemble something out of ‘Fawlty Towers’ (which we are no longer allowed to acknowledge, apparently).
Indeed, the constant reminders to not “approach the bar” were ignored by those old-school chaps (you know the ones: walking sticks, copies of The Racing Post under their arms, handfuls of clinking change to pay for their Fosters) and the thing looked like geese being herded as they were chased away from the Perspex-covered bar and ordered back to their seat by stressed-out staff. Amid the chaos, I stuck the iFollow stream on (thanking my lucky stars that there were only two games left before I enjoyed at least a month’s break from it - really awful streaming service, it has to be said) and quickly hit ‘mute’, saving us from the commentary.
Soccer Saturday was about a minute ahead of iFollow, which was great because we were alerted to the early Blackburn goal and were able to witness it before the “live” stream caught up. Truly hideous defending, coupled with a goalkeeper who had forgotten what his job was, meant we were 1-0 down very quickly. A second was added before six minutes and you could feel that this was going to be a crazy game.
John Swift pulled one back with a lovely free kick, adding a million or so to his price tag in the process. A few more beers were sunk (moved on to Shipyard - a lovely drop) before half time was called and some much-needed breathing space was actioned.
The defending in the first half was not ideal. And by not ideal, I mean genuinely quite appalling. The goals we conceded were really horrific. Despite the atrociousness of the defending and instead of crumbling like a basic, but much-loved biscuit (let’s say a digestive) we did show some resolve and looked like we could get back into it.
We contemplated moving pub, but stuck with our original one as the second half commenced and the beer flowed once again. Any hopes of a Reading comeback were seemingly dashed when Blackburn restored their two-goal cushion with the help of some suspect defending once again. Shock. Bowen lost his patience and hooked three players in one go, Baldock looking lively and scoring shortly after coming on. Meite then equalised on 68 minutes and suddenly, Reading looked like the team that might get the W.
At this point, we celebrated with a move to a nearby bar which again I won’t mention, but suffice to say was an Australian-themed establishment and served as a sports bar which shared its name with a form of gentle exercise. After we’d signed in to the track and trace at The Walkabout, given copies of our ID and had the house rules explained to us, we were able to order a lager pitcher via the app. I might add that this was a different app to The Monks Retreat, so god knows how really drunk people will cope moving forward.
The wet lager arrived just as Reading’s hopes of any sort of positive result were dashed and, much like the inflatables that should have been held by the sweaty palms of Reading fans who should have been in attendance, the players were deflated and left to rue another missed opportunity to get points on the board.
After the game, Bowen explained that the end of the season couldn’t come quick enough. He’s right. Securing our survival was the main goal from October after a dismal start. He hasn’t been able to stamp his authority or style on the team, nor bring in the type of players he wants. Some of the games, both pre- and post-lockdown, have been dreadful to watch and the players have looked clueless in large patches of the games.
There are the beginnings of a good team, but the revamp has to be just that when the offseason arrives. For the first time in a long time, I don’t actually care who comes in player-wise, I’m more excited about the retained list being published which I hope is on Thursday morning after the dust has settled on the game against Swansea.
There was a frank exchange between Sam Baldock (arguably the best player on the day for us) and Tim Dellor. I won’t go into the full details as Sim has done that wonderfully in a separate article, but the information gleaned was telling. Clearly our transfer policy has been ill-informed and muddled at best over the last eight seasons, but it seems to have reached a nadir in the last few years.
Everyone just needs transparency on where, why and how these players are being bought from and the club need to establish the type of fit they are looking for when selecting players to add to what we’ve got, whether that be on loan (more likely) or on a permanent contract (less likely unless other players are sold).
Sacking Bowen has been touted by some of the fan base. But in reality, this would be short sighted considering that he took over a mess of a team devoid of confidence, ideas and creativity. Coupled with the fact that he has healed some of the rifts that were clearly forming between the club hierarchy, fans and players, means that we must start next season (again, whenever that is) with the Welshman in charge.
What the team looks like come the first game of 2020/2021 is anyone’s guess, but let’s hope it’s vastly different and has all the good points of the current team. We are in a privileged situation in that we have lots of players on loan and lots who are at the end of their contracts, which means that a proper turnover can happen once and for all. We’ve also got assets that we can sell to balance the books if needs be. With the younger players showing more maturity in every game and with the experienced players who can actually do a job remaining under contract, the bones of what could be a good side are already in place. How they are put together though is Bowen’s biggest challenge.
If the expected turnover happens and the new season begins in earnest, at least it will be a start of some description and will give us all an idea of where the club wants to go in the next campaign. Hopefully that’s in a more consistent and refined style of play with players we can rely on and can enjoy watching. After so many years of failing to do this, it would be nice to enjoy watching our club again whilst picking up points towards what will hopefully be a top-half finish. To expect nothing less would be missing the point of where our club is currently at.
Until next time.