After two years battling the drop, finishing 14th last season sounded a lot better than it actually was. Similarly, appointing a manager who would come in, have us in with a chance of the play-offs with eight games still to play, and would slowly but surely steady the ship on the field sounded great.
But that’s the thing. It sounded great.
Now, us Reading fans are a funny bunch. We’ve been crying out for stability, realistically, ever since the club were relegated in 2013 amid Anton Zingarevich’s disastrous spell as the majority shareholder. Supporting Reading throughout Steve Clarke’s devious antics in 2015, Jaap Stam’s fantastic first season and the utterly dreadful second one, as well as Ron Gourlay’s awful reign as CEO in Berkshire, has been quite the experience.
And not for the right reasons.
So, in theory, what Mark Bowen, the Dais and Nigel Howe have delivered over the course of this year is exactly what we’ve all wanted: (relative) stability. Yet, it’s fair to say that a decent portion of our fanbase aren’t particularly satisfied with what they’ve seen over the season, and 14th place, for some, hasn’t been viewed as significant progression or an ultimately successful season.
I understand some of these frustrations – especially on the pitch. For example, it’s beyond me why George Puscas was continued as the lone striker, with Sam Baldock subbed on after 60 minutes to play exactly the same role. It’s beyond me why, for example, Ayub Timbe wasn’t thrown on or started more often, when, as the ‘home’ team (did this exist during lockdown?), we were often clearly lacking any pace or intensity. And it’s beyond me why we continued to mark zonally after some pitiful defensive displays from set pieces.
But, ultimately, I don’t feel I can complain about this season. This is due to the glimpses of what the squad can really do (e.g. the Christmas run), the clear backing from the owners and the fact that we haven’t been embroiled in a relegation battle.
And, looking towards next season, I’m fairly optimistic.
Now, we were saying the same at the beginning of last summer, after Jose Gomes’ Portuguese revitalisation of the club. Of course, the transfer embargo imposed was a major factor in our poor start as Gomes couldn’t get the players in at the times that he wanted to. He even stated on BBC Radio Berks’ podcast that he strongly considered resigning before the season started.
Similarly, it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll be splashing the cash this summer, due to the financial pressures Covid-19 has placed on the club. However, unlike a transfer embargo, this is a business matter than can be worked around, rather than a ‘punishment’ that we have to deal with, so to speak. Therefore, in terms of transfers, the lack of money around may actually be good for the club as it will force them to look for cheaper, sustainable alternatives.
The signing of Josh Laurent, albeit in a small way, already connotes a ‘healthier’ transfer strategy. Similarly, Mark Bowen’s statement of wanting to have a ‘young, vibrant side that is full of running, full of energy’ is positive. Whether this actually happens is another matter.
Expectations and hopes are very different things…
It’s fair to say that we expect a certain level of commitment from the board to a successful and sustainable transfer strategy. Of course, we all hope that the club will end up signing a 30-goal-a-season striker, but naturally, this isn’t an expectation, nor is it guaranteed with any player.
Furthermore, we expect the club to make good decisions in terms of appointing staff, spending the money that we give them via ticketing revenue, and to effectively manage the commercial and corporate side of the club.
In my opinion, it’s fair to say we expect a certain level of entertainment and commitment from the players, which improved inconsistently last year compared to previous seasons. Finally, we can expect, and I will personally expect Bowen to continue to push the academy players into the side. I hope this will be a big year for Tom McIntyre, who I felt was scapegoated at times earlier on last season, as well as Michael Olise.
On the playing side of things:
This appears to be where our fans are split. I suppose this is mainly where every club’s fans are split, to an extent.
This is really where we need to differentiate our ‘hopes’ from our ‘expectations’. Now, like all of us, I hope that Reading win the league next year, beat our own points record and then go on to do a Leicester, but I’m obviously not expecting it.
Differentiating hopes and expectations would be my argument to Bowen’s critics. We’ve called for managers to be given time, yet the club (as a business) hasn’t seemed to be in a position to do that over the last seven years or so. So, now things are generally looking up at board level, it’s more than worth giving Bowen what he needs and allowing him to work with the squad further.
As well as this, I strongly believe that we as fans need to accept the fact that we are no longer a team that ‘should’ be in and around the play-off picture. Because frankly, why should we be? After nearly eight years of vastly underwhelming Championship football, I find it hard to consider us one of the Championship’s top clubs. Historically, yes, we have a pretty strong claim, but you’ve got to live in the present.
Reading has the potential to finish in the play-offs or higher, but then I believe that 20 out of the 24 Championship clubs next season also have the potential to do so.
Personally, my expectations for next season would be to build on our finish this year and finish comfortably in the top half, but this is dependant on a few conditions.
It seems like whether Lucas Joao stays fit, or a suitable understudy is found, will be imperative to gaining a top-half finish. Given that Joao probably won’t stay fit based on what we’ve seen this year, buying a suitable understudy is a must in the transfer market. James Collins of Luton would be a good fit in my eyes, but I don’t think Mark Bowen will think likewise.
On the topic of strikers: will George Puscas actually exploit that potential we’ve all been talking about? If he does, then I do be believe that Championship defences will be, as per the chant, ‘terrified’. Furthermore, some pace is much needed. Too many times last season, we didn’t have that attacking drive that Barrow, McCleary, Kebe, McAnuff, and even (dare I say it) Ola John have provided us with over the last ten years, especially at home.
As well as this, the Madejski has become an easy place for away teams to come. Reading has got to show a bit more ‘bottle’ and become much harder to beat. As they say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
Finally, I really do believe a good start is important. Since 2014/15, we’ve won one of our opening games out of a possible five, coincidentally the year that we reached the play-off final.
Will any of this actually happen? Well, who knows. But I suppose that is part of the joy of being a football fan. And, as Reading fans, we never know quite what to expect.