It’s January 1, which means it’s time for some New Year’s resolutions. I would pledge to go to the gym more, but they’re not open at the moment so I suppose that’s that one out of the window.
Instead, I thought I would suggest a few for Reading Football Club to follow. There is plenty to be optimistic about at the Madejski Stadium as we begin 2021 and I’m pretty excited about what the year holds. If the club can stick to the following suggestions, we will certainly be in a very good place in 12 months’ time.
Be sensible in the transfer market
One burden that Reading do carry into the New Year is that of their economic position. No one is quite certain how the club’s finances look at the moment as the 2019/20 accounts will not be made public until March, but we can fairly confidently make two conclusions.
Firstly, that they do look in better shape than this time last year. 2020 seemed to be the year, perhaps prompted by the impact of coronavirus, that the club’s hierarchy came to the realisation that they simply could not spend the millions that they have done in previous summers and expect to get away with it. While the club received minimal ticket revenue from March onwards, Ovie Ejaria was the only player that they paid money for in the entire year, with every other arrival either being a free transfer or loan.
Secondly, that approach has to continue into 2021. Reading made a £21 million loss in 2017/18 and a £30.1 million loss in 2018/19, so their three-year rolling average profit (which is what the Financial Fair Play regulations are based on) will be a minus number for the next couple of years at least. The problem is far from fixed, even if the club were more conservative last year.
As recent injuries have shown, the squad does need bolstering so I’m not advocating that Reading do no business at all this month. But like last summer, they need to be sensible with their spending. This is notoriously harder to achieve in the January window than it is in the summer, but is a must if the Royals are to avoid sanctions from the EFL that have been handed out to three Championship clubs in the last two years.
Continue the commitment to the academy
2020 was a great year for academy players in the first team. Omar Richards made the left-back spot his own, Tom Holmes returned from a loan spell in Belgium and slotted into the team almost effortlessly, boyhood fan Tom McIntyre scored his first professional goal for the club and Michael Olise caught the eye of clubs around Europe with his dazzling displays. Add in Andy Rinomhota’s continued consistency in midfield, and it was arguably one of Reading’s best years in terms of academy impact in recent memory.
The task now is to continue that into 2021. While I’m sure those five players will carry on improving, there will always be the question of who is waiting in the wings to follow in their footsteps. Reading effectively culled two whole age groups when they released 14 academy players last summer, so finding a player who is a bit younger who is ready to make that step up is slightly more difficult.
It has been great to see players such as Ethan Bristow, Jayden Onen and Nahum Melvin-Lambert regularly named as substitutes in recent months to bolster the depleted first-team squad, but the next step is to give them game time, which at the moment Veljko Paunovic seems loath to do.
Don’t sack the manager
When Veljko Paunovic replaced Mark Bowen at the end of August, it meant Reading had dispatched of at least one manager in six of the last seven years. It continued what has now become a habit in Berkshire.
That’s not to say that changes haven’t worked - Paunovic is getting better results than Bowen, Bowen got better results than Jose Gomes and Gomes got better results than Paul Clement. But what long-term good is constantly pressing the reset button actually doing?
There is nothing to suggest that Paunovic will not face the same fate as his predecessors if he suffers a significant slump in form and Reading fade away from the promotion picture. Dai Yongge has shown that he is not afraid to ruthlessly wield the axe.
It is a short-term approach that is so far away from the beacon of stability that Reading once was. It is something that we used to mock clubs such as Leeds United and Watford for doing, but now we are in that same category.
So please, Mr Dai. If Pauno doesn’t quite get it right this season, give him time and allow a long-term plan to be put in place.
Win promotion to the Premier League?
The golden ticket.
Promotion didn’t even seem to be on the agenda when Veljko Paunovic walked through the door (via a period of quarantine) at the start of the season, but Reading’s impressive first half of the campaign has raised expectations.
The Royals start 2021 in sixth place - two points clear of seventh and four points away from the automatic promotion spots. That’s a pretty good place to find themselves in. On the last five occasions that Reading have entered the New Year in the top six, they have at the very least qualified for the play-offs.
The promotion race is already shaping up to be incredibly tight and the teams around Reading have all shown themselves to be vulnerable to dropping points with relative regularity. The Royals are one of only four teams in the Championship this season - along with Norwich City, Bristol City and Cardiff City - to have strung together more than three wins in a row.
There is a very long way to go but it is certainly not unthinkable. The Royals’ early-season run showed the quality and threat that they possess. If depth can be added in the January window and key players are able to stay fit in the latter stages of the season (perhaps that is the biggest ask of all), then maybe, just maybe, we will be a top-flight club come August.