Now that our 2019/20 season is over, I’m left with one main question: how much progress have we actually made? When you compare the Reading Football Club of late July 2020 with that of early August 2019, is it most accurate to say we’ve moved forward, gone backwards or simply stayed where we are?
If you had to pick just one of those three options, you’d probably opt for the latter. Indeed, when we asked you about this just after full time on Wednesday evening, around half of you said the club is in a similar position to where it was a year ago. The rest were pretty evenly split, but edged towards saying the club is in a weaker position.
I’ve gone through at least half a dozen different ways of how to approach this particular paragraph, and to be honest, I just can’t succinctly sum up how I feel about the progress Reading have or haven’t made in the last 12 months. There are certainly areas in which the club has come on nicely, whether in terms of achieving something new or continuing something it had already done well, but in so many other departments it’s a case of being back to square one.
On the face of it, that would appear to be limited progress. If Reading have done well in some areas and not gone backwards in others, then that means the club is gradually nudging itself in the right direction. But that’s not how a football club moves forward; it needs to be firing on all cylinders, with all constituent parts facing in the right direction, if it’s to make progress. Otherwise the whole vehicle stalls.
It’s worth highlighting the positives though as, despite a pretty dismal end to the campaign, there are reasons to be reassured. First and foremost, finishing 14th may not feel particularly groundbreaking given the levels of optimism and ambition felt at the start of the season, but it’s a damn sight better than the near misses with relegation we’ve had in recent years.
All in all, 14th counts as our third-best league finish since relegation from the Premier League - behind third in 2016/17 and seventh in 2013/14. That may say more about just how rubbish we’ve been in the last seven years, but a clear improvement on 20th (x2), 19th and 17th still isn’t to be sniffed at. Long-term improvement often starts with more modest progress, and perhaps that’s how we’ll regard 2019/20 in the years to come.
I’d also argue that the club is becoming more and more stable behind the scenes in terms of personnel. Despite the frustrating lack of progress in terms of improving the side and getting it to challenge at the top of the table, the hierarchy is much more settled and consistent than it has been at earlier stages of our post-Premier League era.
A season without change at CEO or ownership level has meant that both Nigel Howe and the Dai siblings have been at the club for longer than their respective predecessors. As of the final day of the season, Howe has been in the hot seat for 595 days - almost 100 more than Ron Gourlay (497). Similarly, Yongge Dai and Xiu Li Dai have owned Reading for 1162 days - ahead of the 970 days for which the Royals were under the control of the previous Thai consortium. In fact, the Dais are now the longest-serving owners since Sir John Madejski sold up in 2012.
Granted, it’s a different story in the dugout; after all, Reading sacked a manager midway through the season for the third straight campaign in 2019/20, replacing Jose Gomes with Mark Bowen. But I’d make a similar case for stability here too. The owners learned from the muddled, protracted process of replacing Jaap Stam and Paul Clement by, in all likelihood, having a new manager lined up in the form of Bowen.
I’d be surprised if the possibility of succeeding Gomes wasn’t on the cards when the Welshman initially joined as a technical assistant in Spring 2019, or as ‘sporting director’ a few months later. Either way, he was well acquainted with the squad and club when he took charge in October 2019, and that paid off in the form of his strong early results.
Of course, stability for stability’s sake isn’t inherently a good thing; simply keeping hold of your role doesn’t mean you’re good at it. However, if Reading are now to properly turn a corner as a club and kick on in the long term, the stability we’ve seen this season provides a solid foundation.
Reading’s behind-the-scenes setup isn’t without its faults though. The reported involvement of Kia Joorabchian in the club’s transfer activity remains unacknowledged officially and difficult to properly assess from the outside looking in. Without clarity on his influence and how much Reading will rely on him in the future, it’s impossible to accurately determine how stable this arrangement is.
Similarly, financial problems are an ongoing concern. A mixture of historic high spending (which impacts us to this day due to long, expensive contracts), heavy investment this season and the current lack of revenue resulting from the coronavirus pandemic leaves Reading in a tricky position. Although not all of these factors are the club’s fault, they’re still the club’s responsibility to deal with, and we could be in for at least one year of cloth cutting. What happens beyond that is anyone’s guess.
On a brighter note, we can see a clear commitment to youth at the club, which has continued throughout this season and bodes well for the future. Five debuts have been given out (one from Gomes and four from Bowen, bringing us to a total of 57), and with a total of 15 academy graduates featuring for the first team at some point in 2019/20, we’re at a stage where almost 40% of the squad came through the club’s own ranks.
Although a dozen under-23s were released recently, there’s still plenty of talent on the books for next season. Michael Olise enjoyed a breakthrough campaign, while Tom McIntyre and Gabriel Osho were trusted with runs in the first team that showed their potential. They’ll likely be joined on the scene in 2020/21 by Jordan Holsgrove, Tom Holmes, Luke Southwood, Thierry Nevers, Jeriel Dorsett and others.
Back to square one
Signs of clear progress are harder to see in other areas of of the club, particularly Reading’s vision and long-term plan. Those elements are the clearest indications of a well-run club - that even if one season doesn’t end in success, by virtue of following a coherent strategy, progress has been made and there’s a better chance of the next campaign ending well.
Although the stability and use of youth that I’ve highlighted above will benefit Reading in the long run, they don’t amount to a proper strategy. For that you need evidence both on the pitch and in the transfer market that the club has one eye on the future, but on the basis of 2019/20, I’m struggling to see that.
Of Reading’s dozen first-team signings, six were signed on loan - although Ovie Ejaria joined with an agreed permanent deal that will likely now not happen due to coronavirus-induced financial problems. Plus, Michael Morrison and Charlie Adam were both past 30. Reading spent a lot of money on players in 2019/20, but not a lot of it counted as an investment in the club’s future.
The appointment of Mark Bowen should have been such an investment too. Although his immediate brief after replacing Jose Gomes was to get the team out of the bottom three and push it up the table, gambling on an outside shot at promotion can’t have been the only thing in his sights.
Instead, tactical development in the second half of the season should have taken priority. After the injury to Lucas Joao on New Year’s Day the club knew a playoff push was unlikely, hence the sensible decision to not bring in a temporary replacement until the end of the season, so Bowen’s focus should have been on developing the players he believed he would have on the books in 2020/21.
Instead we saw experiments with various systems and personnel, with Bowen trying variations of 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-4-2 and 3-5-2. Expecting him to find a clear answer either quickly or more gradually wouldn’t necessarily have been completely fair - he is after all still a rookie manager - but I did want signs that the team had developed and Bowen had learned lessons himself.
There were encouraging signs, such as the 3-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday in which Reading’s midfield balance and support for lone striker Puscas seemed to click, but it wasn’t backed up consistently. Indeed, in the next home game (after a 1-0 defeat at Leeds United), Bowen reverted to a pretty disastrous 4-4-2 at home to Wigan Athletic. Perhaps more damagingly, Bowen didn’t take any personal blame for the setup, and ended up revisiting it after lockdown to results that weren’t as bad as the Wigan game but certainly didn’t inspire much confidence.
Ultimately, despite him being here since October, it feels both as if we’ve learned little about what Bowen wants to do with this side, and Bowen himself has learned little about how to set this team up.
Does he see Puscas as the go-to replacement lone striker for Joao? If so why constantly bring Sam Baldock on around the hour mark rather than giving Puscas more time to develop? What formation does he prefer? You’d assume a 4-1-4-1 or similar, so why switch to 4-4-2, 3-5-2 or other systems rather than refining the one he’s already got? Trying different things is of course fine, but failing to back up those ideas with any real consistency, and therefore being unable to learn much about them, is not.
Going by general form and performances since lockdown, if anything the team’s gone backwards, and would have finished outside the bottom three on goal difference alone if the season had only included the last eight games. To be fair to Bowen, it is hard to motivate a team with 10 or so departing players, and when the side is firmly wedged in mid-table. But two wins (neither of them at home), two draws and five losses simply isn’t good enough.
All of it leaves you wondering if either the squad or manager have made any real, lasting progress over the last 12 months. Although both certainly have had their high points, not least the great run over the Christmas period, that hasn’t paid off in the form of long-term benefit. Instead, we’re largely back to square one.
Thanks to an impending clear-out, with Bowen suggesting that at least 10 loanees and out-of-contract players will be off, Reading are able to remould the squad and start with a largely blank slate next season. It could well be that that this has been Bowen’s ace in the hole all along, his way of enacting decisive long-term change, but that makes the seven months or since New Year’s Day, when it really looked like Reading had a shout of getting into the playoffs, look like a waste of time.