‘What a joke’. ‘Absolute disgrace’. ‘Announce League One’.
These three accusations could conceivably have been tweeted by Reading fans in the last few days as a mad week in Berkshire only got madder. They are, in fact, a selection of the replies to the club’s tweet announcing the appointment of Mark Bowen as manager last October.
The vitriol surrounding the Welshman’s move from boardroom to dugout at the Madejski Stadium was seismic. Whether supporters weren’t in favour of José Gomes’ sacking, didn’t rate Bowen’s managerial credentials or were furious at the myth that he had appointed himself, it was impossible to find one fan that was in favour of him taking over. The reaction to the announcement got more wider media coverage than the announcement itself.
Arguably the most unpopular appointment in the club’s history, Bowen was walking into a pit of vipers; rather ironic considering he was being labelled as a snake. As he now leaves the managerial hot seat, leaving it warm for Veljko Paunović, the same disorder and social media furore surrounds the football club.
Yet it would be unfair to describe Bowen’s tenure as ten months of continuous chaos. The coronavirus pandemic made the 2019/20 season one that will never be forgotten and Reading’s accounts have made the club’s financial position never far from discussion, but on the pitch, Bowen oversaw a period that has to be described as progress.
“They [the fans] will be asking questions of me and the only way I can change that is to get results for them”, Bowen said at his first press conference in charge. He was true to his word. Matt Miazga’s 98th minute goal secured a dramatic 1-0 win over third place Preston North End in his inaugural match, and the Royals would go on to win 10 out of a possible 12 points from Bowen’s first four games at the helm - more than any other manager in the last 60 years. Of course it’s a small sample size, but considering that José Gomes had left the team 22nd in the table following one point from a possible 18, it was an undoubted improvement.
That form wasn’t sustainable, but Bowen still oversaw runs of results not seen in Berkshire since Jaap Stam took the club to the play-off final in 2017. Over Christmas and New Year, Reading won four games in a row for the first time in over three years, while they went into lockdown with three wins in five. From when Bowen took over in October to when the league came to a halt in March, only four teams - Leeds, Brentford, West Brom and Fulham - picked up more points.
That’s not to say his reign was without its faults. A 3-0 home defeat to Wigan Athletic in February was one of the most embarrassing performances in recent years and Reading’s post-lockdown form (two wins, two draws and three losses) was underwhelming and a little worrying. Meanwhile, Bowen’s lack of a clear style of play, aside from being overly defensive, turned some fans against him.
Nonetheless, it was generally recognised that Bowen had earned the chance to make the squad his own over the summer and have a crack at the 2020/21 season. As he took charge of the friendly against Gillingham last weekend, trying out a new tactical system, everything pointed to that being the case. Then came the most turbulent week in a long time at a club that has not been short of sagas in recent years.
On Monday it was confirmed that Nigel Howe had been replaced as Chief Executive by Dayong Pang, with rumours on Bowen’s own future beginning to circulate soon after. By Thursday, the Welshman was all but gone in the eyes of those in the know, with Veljko Paunović lined up to take his place. No one was even sure if Bowen would take charge of Friday’s friendly against Tottenham Hotspur. The squad were largely left in the dark, but told they would be flying out to Portugal to meet their new boss after playing Spurs. The Carabao Cup tie against Colchester United, let’s not forget, is just seven days away. The timing is bewildering.
The social media hysteria has returned, but this time it is in support of Bowen, with the outrage aimed at the turmoil going on around him. It is hard not to feel empathy for a man who, like the rest of us, surely saw none of this coming and declined to do any official interviews after the Tottenham game in case he said anything he would later regret.
There is, perhaps, a glimmer of hope in that first part. The fact that the fanbase has had Bowen’s back this week, less than a year after he arrived in the job to such animosity, suggests that it is possible for Paunović to also turn the mood around. His appointment could be said to be as unpopular as Bowen’s, but if he wins games then supporters are likely to get on board.
That’s the fickle nature of football fandom, something which Bowen certainly experienced throughout his tenure. His time in charge was far from perfect, but it was stabilising and did take the club forward. Let’s just hope that’s not been undone in the last few days.