What a difference an international break makes. Prior to the Derby County game, Reading were one QPR meltdown away from having taken four commanding wins from four since returning from the most recent break. They’ve looked an entirely different team from the one that lost 4-0 at Huddersfield Town. New form built on the back of a powerhouse midfield boasting new arrivals that teams with no transfer restrictions likely wouldn’t turn down, and John Swift’s continuing dominance of every pitch he surveys.
Against Derby, Reading attacked with intent and had their chances, but came up short. This certainly wasn’t a disinterested, hopeless performance though. If one Josh Laurent header was better placed, Reading would have had a deserved point. The Royals looked a little leggy, but that’s not at all surprising given how thin the squad is stretched. With a winnable game up next in Cardiff, who’ve shipped nine goals in two games, and an international break to follow, Reading now have a good chance to regain momentum, and then get a much-needed rest.
To add to the upturn in performances, it appears that our impending points deduction may be just six points for now (with three further points to come at some unspecified point.) Six is not ideal, and what the EFL thinks that helps after two years of embargo, who knows? The practical reality though is that it’s more of a slap on the wrist than a body blow to the Royals.
Putting all of this together, it would seem our potential this year doesn’t appear to be as stunted as we previously expected. All that’s clear is that the only thing that will be predictable this year is unpredictability! So what are our expectations once our upcoming points deduction has been tallied?
I’ll knock on all of the wood I can as I post this, but staying up with a six- (or even nine-) point deduction should be absolutely no problem if this Reading team continues at the same trajectory. They should be able to follow the example of Birmingham City in 2018/19, who finished 12 points clear of the relegation spots, despite a nine-point deduction for similarly breaching profitability and sustainability laws.
A further slate of injuries could test that theory, and I hope that to combat that, Pauno is taking a kinder approach in training. In American sports, we have players at risk of injury practice in designated “no contact” jerseys. I expect a crowdfunder to purchase John Swift one of those jerseys would go down very well with Reading fans!
Reading have demonstrated enough quality in the past few weeks to suggest that being relegated would be more a symptom of a significant team underperformance than the six-point deduction though. Drinkwater and Rahman can’t get a game at Chelsea, but evidence of why they were bought by the London club in the first place has been plainly apparent during their games with the Royals. Dele Bashiru and Halilovic have also bedded into the team nicely, and contribute well with forward passing and dynamic movement. Relegation, at this point, does not appear to be in the offing for the Royals.
Does that mean playoffs are a possibility? Well… that seems a stretch. I was unable in my research to find an example of a team with a points deduction making the playoffs, and certainly no examples of promotion! Imagine the sour grapes though. It’s a glorious thing to think about!
But were those teams as set up for success as this current Reading team?
With the possible recent exception of Wigan Athletic in 2019/20, the majority of squads that saw significant points may already have struggled with a relegation battle. Reading meanwhile boast one of the Championship’s best players in John Swift, as well as a glut of quality players once injuries subside.
If a points deduction wasn’t impending, playoffs would have been the goal for Reading this year, certainly in the eyes of the owners anyway. The quality of the reinforcements we’ve been able to bring in are not those of a lower Championship club, and should only be able to make more and more of an impact as they bed into the team.
Reading do have a remarkable number of players to return from injury as well: players that could well make a significant impact on the team. It’s difficult to argue that having fit centre backs won’t make the team better, despite Moore and Morrison’s respective disappointing starts to the season.
McIntyre and Holmes were huge losses though, and should have a huge part to play in the second half of the season. The missing duo of attacking players, Joao and Azeez, should also be able to contribute more direct speed and flair going forward: something we’re missing right now.
It’s not like Reading need to get themselves, and then keep themselves in the playoff spots before those players return as well. Reading’s 2011/12 campaign didn’t really kick off until December when they began stringing wins together. If the current usual 11 can keep us in mid-table through Christmas, then Pauno should be starting to look up the table once he has more options at his disposal.
It’s even possible that we could be able to add more players in January: an exciting thought given that the recruitment in recent years has been a significant improvement on the Gourlay era. Optimism is a good look, and there are reasons for it here!
Let’s be honest though: a mid-table finish is most likely for Reading this year. While we’re blessed with serious quality, the restrictions of the past few years, and the realities of our injury crisis are likely to catch up with us sooner rather than later. It’s dull to predict a mid-table finish in September, but my opinion is that Reading should be prioritizing getting contracts signed for the future right now.
If we can sign key players such as Josh Laurent to longer term deals, perhaps return loanees for next year and give academy players a further year of development, our project will be building nicely for a serious run at promotion in 21/22.
Perhaps after a tumultuous few years, keeping the ship steady and ready for future success is a victory in itself.