The 3-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the opening game of the 2019/20 season seems an incredibly long time ago because, well, it was. It was so long ago that I had forgotten the scoreline. We are just over a week shy of it being a year since things kicked off at the Madejski Stadium, and the fact that the campaign has only just finished is a reminder of what a unique, unpredictable and quite frankly bizarre season it has been.
The Reading team on that August day looked a little different to the one that would establish itself across the next 12 months. There were starts for Joao Virginia, Josh Barrett and Mo Barrow, while Andrija Novakovich came off the bench. Lucas Joao played, and scored, for the opposition.
The week that followed the defeat to the Owls was quite frankly mad, as Reading shook off their transfer embargo shackles to bring in six new players. Three arrived on one day – Rafael, Joao and loanee Pele – before the club broke their transfer record to sign George Puscas and then brought Ovie Ejaria back on deadline day for a second spell.
As the new signings bedded in, the Royals were beaten once more, this time by Hull City, before a dream week followed, showing what this new-look side was capable of. Puscas announced himself with two goals as Reading beat Cardiff City 3-0 in front of the Sky cameras, another victory at West Brom nearly followed before a late goal for the Baggies meant it ended 1-1, and a first away win of the season arrived at Huddersfield Town.
Seven points from a possible nine against two teams who had been in the Premier League the previous season and one who had reached the Championship play-offs is just about as good as it gets.
In reality, that was genuinely as it good as it got for José Gomes, and the victory over Huddersfield proved to be his last at the Royals’ helm.
The team lost five of their next six games, and only avoided defeat in the other thanks to Andy Yiadom’s last-minute equaliser at Swansea City. Although some poor finishing may have left Gomes feeling a little unlucky on occasions, the 4-1 defeat at home to Fulham exposed Reading’s flaws and rumours began to emerge that the manager had lost the dressing room.
Reading were 22nd in the table by the time the October international break rolled around, which presented the Dais with the opportunity to make the third managerial sacking of their two-and-a-half year reign. The stats may point to a man with the second-worst win percentage post-war, but off the pitch, Gomes was charismatic, charming and genuinely seemed to love the club. Perhaps being a football manager isn’t about being a good bloke. But if it was, he would be one of the best. Obrigado José.
An unpopular replacement
It’s fair to say that when Mark Hughes was touted as the man to replace Gomes, supporters were not best pleased. So when it was announced that his long-time assistant Mark Bowen, who had never had a head coach role in his career, would be taking over, there was substantial discontent. Add in the fact that as Reading’s sporting director Bowen had appeared to have a role in sacking Gomes and then hiring himself, his appointment was probably the most unpopular in the club’s modern history.
The only way that Bowen could get fans on side was to win games, and he did just that, as Matt Miazga’s 98th-minute goal against Preston started a run of three wins in four games, meaning the Welshman won more points (10) in his first four matches in charge than any other Reading manager in over 60 years. The Bowen bounce was in full swing.
Normality soon resumed as the team struggled for form, but there was to be plenty of festive excitement to come. Perhaps inspired by the promise of extra stuffing with their Christmas dinner, Reading won four consecutive games to see out the decade and welcome the new one. It was their best run of victories for over three years.
First came the 3-0 win at home against Derby (helped by a fourth-minute red card for Scott Malone), before John Swift’s stunning half volley from distance defeated QPR on Boxing Day. The Royals then went away to play-off chasing Preston and Fulham and recorded victories over both in stunning style. The football was free-flowing, the finishing was clinical and the travelling fans were in fine spirit. Don’t you know, pump it up.
Bowen’s reward for the club’s best winning run in three years was a new contract to keep him at the club beyond the end of the season. Yet in much the same way that Manchester United slumped a year earlier when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer became their permanent manager after initially being there on a temporary basis, Reading’s form took a severe dip in January and February.
Starting with a 2-0 loss at Millwall, Reading won just one of their next nine games after Bowen’s new contract to cap any optimism acquired over the Christmas period. It was also a spell in which we played Cardiff City three times in the space of ten days, so yeah, entertainment levels weren’t exactly high.
While the defeats against eventual top two Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion were a little understandable, the 3-0 home loss to Wigan was undoubtedly the low point of the campaign. The team look devoid of all cohesion, heart and ability against the Latics on a humiliating night at the Madejski Stadium.
Locked down but looking up
The perfect response to the embarrassment against Wigan was a 2-0 home win over Barnsley, followed by a very impressive 3-1 away victory against a Birmingham City side who were on a run of ten games unbeaten. Sandwiched inbetween those two matches was an FA Cup fifth-round tie with Premier League side Sheffield United, and the Royals took Chris Wilder’s men to extra time with a spirited, hard-working performance before bowing out of the competition.
Unfortunately it was at this point that the coronavirus pandemic kicked in, wiping out all professional sport in the process. A long, barren three-month break was to follow, as we swapped cheering on the Royals to applauding the magnificent work of the NHS and all other key workers.
Reading went into lockdown in 14th position, eight points off the top six with nine games to play, and sitting at home doing nothing seemed to transform the majority of the fanbase into giddy optimists. The countdown was on for the club’s late play-off push...
No heart for the restart
By the time Nick Powell equalised in the second minute of second-half stoppage time in Reading’s first game back, a fair chunk of that positivity had been drained. It set the tone for a very underwhelming final nine games.
There were of course some positives. Academy graduates Tom McIntyre and Gabriel Osho came into the side and helped achieve three successive clean sheets, while the 5-0 win over Luton Town was the club’s biggest win in six and a half years, as Yakou Meite became the first Royal to score four goals in a game since 1982.
However, Mark Bowen’s rather defensive playing style was consistently called into question, and the Royals failed to win at home after lockdown, culminating in a 4-1 defeat to Swansea City on the final day. It means that the team have won just once at the Madejski Stadium so far in 2020, and 2019/20 has been confirmed as Reading’s worst-ever season at home with 12 defeats.
That perhaps makes the campaign sound worse than it actually was - after all, a 14th-place finish is the club’s third-highest finish since relegation from the Premier League seven years ago. Is that a sign of progress? On the pitch, almost certainly. But off it, the situation remains a little “murky”, in the words of Sam Baldock, and an uncertain summer lies ahead...