As if you needed reminding, this isn’t a normal summer. The Championship play-off final on August 4, the start of the new season on September 12 and the transfer window closing on October 5 - it’s all pretty unfamiliar territory.
Reading certainly find themselves wandering into the unknown as they enter a hugely significant summer on and off the pitch. It’s indicative of the club’s struggles in recent years that that seems to be said almost every year, but it feels like everything could come to a head in 2020. A demoralising end to the season, combined with a precarious financial position, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, means that whatever the Royals do in the next few weeks and months really could define the next five years.
The numbers on Reading’s 2018/19 sheet of accounts were eye-watering and harrowing. The club made a pre-tax loss of £30.1 million, following on from a £21 million loss in 2017-18. For every £100 of income, £225 was spent on wages - the highest ratio that the Championship has ever seen.
What’s even more worrying is that those figures don’t include the reported £13 million spent on George Puscas and Lucas Joao last summer just weeks after the club were under a self-imposed transfer embargo. That mad final week of the transfer window may have been exciting at the time, but it has now left the club in a position where they’re searching for pennies down the back of the sofa in order to comply with profit and sustainability guidelines.
The club confirmed as much in a recent structured dialogue meeting with STAR, saying that it was “in cash conservation mode with no income and was ‘battening down the hatches’; budgeting for reduced revenue and reduced cost”. It is clear Reading cannot continue to run as it has done for the last few years. It is simply not sustainable.
‘The Reading Way’, whatever that truly means, encompasses a lot of things, but financially it always symbolised signing players for bargain prices, over-achieving on a tight budget and generally having a very stable economic basis. The Reading Football Club of the last few years has been a far cry from that, in fact it has been virtually the opposite: signing players for inflated transfer fees, under-achieving despite blowing the budget and volatility behind the scenes amid talk of intermediaries, embargoes and corruption. It is not a “straightforward” club, as Sam Baldock put it.
This is no longer the club that signed Kevin Doyle and Shane Long for a combined fee of £66,000 or the club that paid James Harper £1,500 a week in the Premier League. Perhaps football has moved on since then and it is wishful thinking to long for those days to return, but surely it is not too much to ask to support a club that is well-run and makes sensible decisions.
For Reading, and perhaps the Championship as a whole, the coronavirus pandemic has been the wake-up call that was urgently needed. It has forced a rethink of business models that were becoming increasingly unviable, with clubs edging further down a very slippery slope. If anything good is to come of the pandemic from a football perspective, it is that the transfer market should be reset with decreased player values and potential for a salary cap.
The good news is that Reading do appear to be waking up to this fact. The season only finished two weeks ago, but already 15 first-team players have left (including loan players who returned to their parent clubs), which will have been a huge relief to the wage bill - particularly the departures of Chris Gunter, Garath McCleary, Jordan Obita, Vito Mannone and Mo Barrow who all signed expensive contracts during Ron Gourlay’s time as CEO. It’s also a positive simply to see the size of the squad decrease, as it had become bloated in recent years.
However, the work has only just began on turning the club around, as although a lot of players have already left, only Barrow has earned the club a fee. More money needs to be coming in to the club, and with all other assets sold, that is going to have to come from selling players.
On this front, it’s baffling to hear conflicting stances from the club’s hierarchy. Nigel Howe has told supporters to be prepared for key player sales, yet Dai Yongge is reportedly preventing a move away for John Swift. This seems a dangerous approach to take. Swift, along with the likes of Liam Moore and George Puscas, should be sold if the right offers come in. We quite literally cannot afford a half-hearted clear-out.
The promise of change is a hopeful one, but we’ve had false dawns of resets before. In 2018, signing free transfers Andy Yiadom and David Meyler, as well as lower-league gem Marc McNulty, indicated a potential return to a strategy that had suited the club so well in the past, but a lack of significant departures left the squad ridiculously over-sized. Then in 2019, there appeared to be a commitment to building the squad around youth before that late transfer splurge which blew the bank.
Such indecision behind the scenes has led to a series of embarrassments and disappointments on the pitch. The last three years have seen two 20th place finishes, the club’s worst ever start to a league season, the worst ever campaign at home and the two managers with the worst win percentages post-war. That is far too many ‘worsts’ for such a short period of time.
Never has a hard reset been more justified. As Mark Bowen put it, “there has been an acceptance of mediocrity for too long”, and for that to change, there is no room for sentiment and there is no room for half measures. In truth, no player in the squad should be exempt from being sold for the correct price.
The departures of long-term servants Gunter, McCleary and Obita was one of the biggest indicators that a new era is dawning in Berkshire. The club may look a very different place come the end of the transfer window, and that has to be for the better. The signing of Josh Laurent for example, an ambitious and eager free transfer, is definitely a step in the right direction.
The rebuild process is one that requires patience. Not only from those behind the scenes, but most significantly from supporters. The club have normalised sacking managers every season, and that has promoted an instant gratification culture amongst fans where the pitchforks come out at the slightest sign of trouble.
Promotion will not come in year one. It’s unlikely to come in year two. It may not even come in year three. But as long as there is continual progress along that timeline, I’m fine with that. If this summer truly is the hard reset that has been needed at Reading for so long, success cannot be expected straight away.
Expectations need to be grounded, and that way the Reading that we all fell in love with has a chance of returning: a shared sense of realism, an appreciation of a project and a togetherness that drives the whole club forward.