Disappointed. Dejected. Frustrated. These are all emotions I felt as the full-time whistle blew on Sunday afternoon. And what a familiar feeling for a Reading fan in January over the past few years. After three seasons of low peaks and deep troughs, I’m used to making a good result last for weeks and managing my frustration.
But this result was different. Coming in the context of either the Coventry City result in midweek, or the wider season, It was two points dropped. Reading had missed a chance to go level on points with the automatic promotion places. Hold on. Just two points off the automatic promotion places? This being the same Reading team that were in disarray with a manager in quarantine two weeks before the season began?
So the clear difference between last year and this year is that this year: it’s a good frustration.
This is what success breeds, and you’d be hard to argue that this season hasn’t been a successful one so far for Reading Football Club. Trust me though. Success can most certainly lead to frustration, just with higher stakes. I’ve been a New England Patriots fan since I arrived in the States. Anybody who knows anything about the NFL therefore knows that I have been incredibly lucky to be blessed by success, possibly unmatched in modern team sports. Here’s the thing, those darn Patriots still found endless ways to frustrate me. You adapt to your environment, and if your team is regularly chucking out 10/10 performances, even a 9/10 raises eyebrows.
The moving target of frustration may be an obvious phenomena, but it’s a good reminder for Reading fans who may be out of practice with the practice of celebration. When the stakes are high: even a clean sheet away from home against a top-10 opponent can be a missed opportunity.
That shift in frustration though reminded me of an important fact: how far this Reading team has come. Let’s take a look at some of the ways we’re significantly improved since this time last year.
Somehow, after this Reading squad was finally purged of a lot of the deadwood (sorry, Garath McCleary and Chris Gunter) over the summer, we look stronger in depth.
If you were watching the ESPN+ coverage of our draw with Preston North End, you could’ve been forgiven for forgetting that Reading have players available for selection outside of Michael Olise. The commentator dedicated much of his 90-minute run time to the talented teenager… who never even saw the pitch.
Considering that kind of treatment, you’d think that notwithstanding a shoulder tweak, leaving Olise out was inconceivable. A fully fit Sone Aluko however, does not represent a huge drop in attacking quality. Obviously Olise is a more talented player, however we’re already using John Swift as a more passing-focused playmaker in that attacking three, and Aluko could arguably get up and down the wings faster than Olise, giving us another way to get in behind.
My point is not to directly compare Olise and Aluko. Olise wins that battle. My point is that there is at least a discussion to be had, and more than one way for Reading to be offensively effective - and that’s a hugely positive sign. Reading are not tied to one particular play-style in that forward three. The players that we can rotate through there (Ejaria, Swift, Olise, Aluko, Semedo, Meite… Tom McIntyre?) each offer us something a little different.
Ejaria brings quick feet, incisive dribbling and defensive work rate. Swift brings louche class. Olise combines a little of both. The alternatives provide speed and directness or a little more physicality. Our depth not only allows us to replace starters with dependable players, but also provides our offence with a range of ways to produce pressure.
Reading’s run since the Brentford game has been impressive. Rebounding from our worst half of the season in an errant opening half hour, Reading have since scored seven goals over four games with only two conceded. Moreover, this has been through an injury crisis. Against Luton and Swansea, we started all three of the Toms in defence. As much as I appreciate the alliteration, that’s not indicative of our full strength. Still however, the quality level on display was enough to take a point home from a tricky away trip and no heart-in-mouth moments from the young defence leap to mind.
Our young stars then, are proving their worth to us earlier than expected, and yet still improving with every 90 minutes they spend on the Madejski Stadium pitch. While the contract situations aren’t ideal, we can hope (And perhaps expect) that both Academy Toms are looking forward to signing a new deal this year. Morrison and Moore will likely be our best starting CBs for the rest of this season, but moving forward, Holmes and McIntyre appear to be a ready-made replacement at the position that will secure Reading’s defence for years to come. Quality is everywhere in this backline.
Meanwhile, Reading’s midfield lines are full of young players with hunger and quality in abundance. Swift and Olise make the headlines with their transfer rumblings, but it’s easy to forget that the other accepted starting attacking midfielder, Ejaria, is just 23. He’s just over a year older than Mr McIntyre, and so likely hasn’t yet hit his ceiling, a scary thought for opposition defences considering his mazy runs and developing maturity. Indeed, nobody in Reading’s starting five midfielders has seen the ancient age of 26 yet, indicating that there’s room for an already exceptional unit to grow exponentially over a two-to-three-year run.
A side note on Ejaria: getting him for around £3 million was an absolute steal, and the potential sell-on fee from him (if we have to make that decision) could help us turn around our FFP situation sharpish.
The team is young, and sound transfer dealings over what was billed as a summer of squad thinning have given us a platform to compete for years to come, especially if players continue to make significant improvements under Paunovic.
A lot of these significant improvements have come from players that previous managers also had available. Indicating a huge improvement in...
Just weeks before the start of the season we all thought this was a club in disarray. Reading fans had been dragged through three seasons of turgid performances and even the keen smile of Jose Gomes had only produced a temporary boost of positivity. Squad members like Sam Baldock spoke openly in the summer about a lack of clarity behind the scenes. The club seemed like it was in trouble.
Come January 2021 though, fans are thinking about the possibility of promotion: an impossibility even 12 months ago. Perhaps some of us predicted this turnaround. Mutual fans of Reading FC and the Serbian U20 National Team will have been punching the air when Veljko was appointed I’m sure, and I do wish all three of them well.
Results certainly help, but Pauno has clearly infused this team with hunger for promotion, desire to improve, and passion for the badge. From the moment he came into the club, he spoke about how excited he was to be in this league with the infrastructure the club could provide. That Reading is his first club in England may have once seemed cause for concern. Now, it makes me think he was earnest when discussing his excitement to join a club with the setup Reading can provide. That his arrival has not stopped the stellar performances from league stalwarts like Michael Morrison suggests that Paunovic knows when he can help, and when his players may know best.
His recent introduction of “Revenge Month” even reminds me of an ability to infuse players with a Mourinho-style siege mentality. On a macro and a micro level, Paunovic has been able to combine his genuine excitement to be here with tactical flexibility and impressive man management skills.
All of this combined has lead to a surge in...
We have some, and that’s almost enough said. Take Olise. Olise is a teenager, who should be concentrating on getting game time over anything, and yet he’s speaking about not just getting promoted with Reading, but winning the whole tin pot. Those thoughts seemed a light year away a year ago. So while I’d like everyone reading to touch some wood to combat the jinx Michael put on us there, that our team is setting lofty ambitions and feeling bullish about what they can achieve is exciting.
So with that ambition, naturally comes frustration. When our teenage starboy talks about promotion, we believe him! It naturally becomes all the more annoying when we can’t get a goal away at Preston. I believe in Paunovic’s ability to turn that disappointment into motivation though, and I’m excited to see that motivation against Bournemouth on Friday. No doubt about it, I am ready to be happily frustrated again.