Half an hour after full time in Reading’s 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest on Saturday afternoon, five men took part in a sprint (in the loosest possible sense) from the goal line to the halfway line.
But this wasn’t a warm-down for players or unused substitutes. This was the club’s owner, Dai Yongge, challenging his friends to a race. He came second, shiftily pulling his trousers up as he crossed the finish line, but wasn’t to be deterred and subsequently set off on a jogged lap around the pitch.
It’s fair to say that’s a sentence I didn’t think I would ever write.
You could easily be given the wrong impression of Dai based off that 50-metre dash. It depicts a man having the time of his life, without a care in the world. It depicts an owner who is a visible presence at his football club.
The reality is quite the opposite. The last week has surely been the most damaging in Dai’s four-and-a-half-year tenure. On Wednesday, Reading were hit with an immediate six-point deduction by the EFL for breaching profitability and sustainability rules, with a further six points suspended until the end of the 2022/23 season. On Friday, The Athletic published a damning 5,000-word special investigation into the club, describing Dai as a self-important gambler who has placed his trust in the wrong people, made “costly mistakes” and overseen a decline on and off the pitch.
Meanwhile, that is the first ever Reading FC-related video of Dai to hit the internet. There have barely even been any pictures. His name is rarely on club statements. He is still yet to do an interview, either in-house or with the media, since becoming the owner. For almost all of his reign he has been a man of silence and mystery. As uncertainty has grown around the club’s off-field position, we are simply told that Dai is a man who “does not like publicity”.
That’s not to say he is an absent owner. Reading do have a lot to thank him for. His presence has been felt by his investment, which has been unprecedented and kept the club afloat during the pandemic. Off the pitch, he accelerated the development of the new Bearwood Park training ground which is now one of the best facilities not only in the Championship, but the whole of English football. In the 2019/20 season, Dai provided free coach travel to the 15 furthest away days.
On the pitch, he has shown intent by spending approximately £30m in transfer fees and paying some of the highest wages in the Championship. That includes breaking the club’s transfer record twice - first for Sone Aluko and then George Puscas. The struggles of those two players show how Dai’s spending has been ill-advised, but you cannot fault his willingness to invest in the first place.
Ill-advised is probably the kindest way of saying how the Chinese billionaire has made poor choices of who to trust to run his football club. The appointment of Ron Gourlay as CEO in July 2017 had catastrophic consequences in almost every area of the club, most notably regarding finances and recruitment.
Then there is Kia Joorabchian, who does not hold an official role at Reading but is reportedly an adviser to Dai and has taken control of recruitment, again with detrimental consequences. The Athletic’s piece stated “an agent has described Reading as ‘a closed shop to a certain extent’, due to Joorabchian’s heavy involvement in recommending players”.
Dai himself has made critical errors in the transfer market. Reading have failed to offset losses by earning transfer fees for players and a lot of that falls on the owner for his refusal to sell certain individuals. Brighton & Hove Albion made an eight-figure bid for Liam Moore in 2018, but Dai not only blocked the defender’s departure but also handed him a bumper new contract. He also put his foot down on the potential sales of Danny Loader in 2019 (who left for nothing the following year) and John Swift in 2020.
All of this - Gourlay’s big-money contracts, Joorabchian’s sly transfer deals and Dai’s stubbornness - has finally come back to hurt Reading. Which brings us back to the present day and the confirmation of a points deduction for, in the simplest terms, poor economic management.
Dai’s response to the penalty has been refreshing and encouraging. Speaking “as a fan”, he said he was “hurt” by the deduction and his “determination to succeed has not diminished but has amplified”. Of course, his words are carefully constructed, but he didn’t have to say anything.
Instead of hiding, Dai has come to Reading for the first time since the start of Covid-19 - although he’s watched every match live from Asia. He was at Bearwood Park to watch training last week before his attendance for the Forest draw on Saturday - an entertaining one at that - and seemed to relish his time on the pitch afterwards. Over the last seven days, we’ve seen a clear restatement of Dai’s emotional investment in the club.
That gives you hope going forward. Firstly, it’s vital that Dai still actually enjoys owning Reading. As much his failures have led us to the current predicament, the club’s future also depends on his continued interest and investment. Without him, there would be serious doubt we’d even have a club to support.
It’s easy to worry about that possibility, particularly as not much is going in Dai’s favour at the moment. His personal wealth is believed to have declined with his business interests in China struggling. His power to spend at Reading has been restricted by transfer embargoes and now an agreed business plan with the EFL. The deduction itself, combined with Saturday’s draw, has left the Royals two points above the bottom three and potentially facing a relegation battle.
This is all without mentioning that there is now much less appetite in China for investment in football and owning a European club is not the power play it once was. Southampton, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion have all been put up for sale by their Chinese benefactors, with the Chinese government reportedly encouraging business people to invest in domestic football rather than European.
For Dai to still be enjoying himself, and willing to still invest and show a genuine interest, is therefore encouraging to see. West Brom owner Guochuan Lai has not attended a game in nearly three years and has stopped putting money into the club. You won’t see him doing laps of the Hawthorns anytime soon.
Secondly, and perhaps this is rose-tinted thinking, but it is a small suggestion that a change in tact is happening. Dai’s actions over the last few days - commenting fervently on a club statement and actually attending a game - are examples of how he can be less distant from the football club and its supporters. More open communication is needed. More honesty. That’s what will encourage fans that times really are changing.
There is still a long way to go. Kia Joorabchian’s presence among Dai’s entourage on Saturday afternoon was not a welcome sight. It remains to be seen how the club handle the restraints placed upon them by the EFL’s agreed business plan. There will always be the worry that Dai’s interest will wane the longer Reading go without challenging for a place in the Premier League.
But as much as the last week has been turbulent, there is hope that it has also been an eye-opener for Dai Yongge. There has been plenty of emphasis on looking to the future in recent days. To do that he must learn from the past.