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New Season, Same Uncertainty

On the eve of Reading’s return to Championship action, it’s hard to work out what state the team is actually in.

Corbis via Getty Images

By the time Reading kick off at Pride Park on Saturday afternoon, 52 days will have passed since they last played competitive football - when a drab 4-1 defeat to Swansea City brought the 2019/20 season to a depressing close. But it sure feels like a lot longer than 52 days.

That brief period was supposed to be spent on a significant reset as Reading let go of a dozen or so departing players and readied themselves for the sales of key first-teamers - but with the clear intention of putting something new in place. Mark Bowen spoke just after that Swansea City loss of a “young, vibrant side”, and even the official announcement of Reading’s new kits carried the same theme:

“A fresh start. A clean slate. On the pitch, the playing personnel is set to change and the manager has spoken openly about building a young, hungry, vibrant squad capable of playing high-tempo football and driving this club forward.”

In untypical fashion, it looked like Reading Football Club had a clear direction forwards.

It wasn’t long though before those plans were abruptly thrown in the bin. One day we were talking about an encouraging new system in a routine pre-season friendly win, the next we were unpacking the news that Nigel Howe had moved away from his role as CEO, being replaced by the unknown Dayong Pang.

It took no time at all for Mark Bowen’s future to come into question at that point, but far too long for it to be resolved. Days of speculation over his position as manager ended with an announcement that the unknown Veljko Paunovic had been appointed - albeit with no mention of Bowen in the statement. A few days later, with Bowen apparently still seething after his abrupt removal, he turned down the chance to stay on as director of football and left the club completely.

Reading v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

The timing of it all only adds to the chaotic nature of the Royals’ pre-season. The three weeks between Reading’s win over Gillingham and the trip to Derby should have been the time for final preparations, but instead we’ve enacted an entirely unnecessary and self-inflicted set of changes that puts the club into a state of flux - at a time when stability is so badly needed.

Mark Bowen took charge for the Spurs friendly, Veljko Paunovic was in the dugout for a game in Portugal against Portimonense, and a John O’Shea/Eddie Niedzwiecki double act deputised for the new boss when he was quarantined for the Colchester United match. Only Reading could go through the last three weeks of pre-season with more managers than games.

I’m struggling to get my head around what state Reading are in right now. In previous years there’s always been some level of uncertainty around how strong the club is going into the season - depending on what last-minute recruitment can be done - but this is something else. Reading have abruptly decided to reinvent themselves in what would appear to be little more than a desperate gamble.

In doing that, they’ve brought in rookie manager Paunovic, whose experience in the dugout amounts to winning the World Cup with Serbia’s under-20 side and four years at Chicago Fire which, by all accounts, didn’t go too well. The exact reason Reading have appointed him isn’t immediately obvious, and what he’ll bring to the team is unclear.

This isn’t to say that he’s a sure-fire failure. Reading have had success with far more inexperienced coaches than Paunovic before: Brian McDermott had never been taken charge of a professional team before completely turning the Royals’ fortunes around, and Jaap Stam reached a play-off final in his first season in management.

Paunovic deserves a fair crack at replicating their successes, but he’s not in a strong position to do so. He’s been left with barely any time at all to influence the players he’s already got; besides a few days out in Portugal, he’ll have had four days of training at Bearwood in the run-up to the season opener at Derby. That’s the kind of preparation time that a mid-season appointment would get - not a pre-season one.

He does however have a pretty strong group to work with at the moment. The post-season clear-out trimmed a bloated squad to leave a contingent that does have talent - not least Rafael and John Swift, both of whom have been linked with Premier League moves after standing out in 2019/20.

Much of the rest of the squad though comes with a question mark attached to it. Will George Puscas hit the form he’s capable of? Can Lucas Joao stay fit? Will youngsters Tom McIntyre, Ovie Ejaria and Michael Olise back up their talent by performing consistently across a full season? Will Reading strengthen that group further with new signings?

That last point is where Dai Yongge really gets to show his hand.

At the start of the summer we had been anticipating a cautious approach to the transfer market - cashing in on some key players to bring in funds and reduce the wage bill, and reinvesting those funds in cheap additions, loans and frees to create that “young, vibrant side”.

Now though, Dai appears to want to have his cake and eat it. Reading are reportedly stubbornly refusing to sell Swift - as they’ve done in previous years with Liam Moore and Yakou Meite - presumably in the intention of building a side capable of promotion. Swift, Moore and Meite will likely be joined by some pretty high-profile players: Sporting Lisbon’s Pedro Mendes has been linked, as have Atletico Madrid’s Rodrigo Riquelme (who’s been on trial with Reading) and Benfica’s Ljubomir Fejsa.

A transfer strategy like that isn’t cheap, and although it’s one way to build a side capable of promotion, it also potentially sets us on the way to breaching financial fair play restrictions and a deduction of 12 points.

The expectations on Paunovic are high, and the stakes significant. Reading’s 2020/21 season, which is so hard to predict at this stage, could come together marvellously or all end in tears.