I am a huge fan of Veljko Paunovic. To me, he’s the finest manager we’ve seen at the club since the first Brian McDermott tenure gave way to the Nigel Adkins smile-a-thon in 2013. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even think about replacing him before the season is done, even if we end up closer to the relegation places than we’d like.
I don’t feel like that should be a particularly hot take. Football is a 24-hour news cycle though in which reactions to single results can be extreme, and recently there’s been a fair amount of unrest with the state of Pauno’s regime. I can understand some of it. Reading have been poor at times this year and endlessly streaky. They’re just as capable of a dreary performance at home in midweek as they are a rollicking away win against superior opposition at the weekend.
For the remainder of this season though, you won’t find me calling for Pauno’s job unless circumstances really turn dire. I’m talking 10 consecutive games with no wins dire. That’s because Pauno’s impact on the club to me appears obvious, as though his influence is universal to everything at Reading. He’s earned his right to coach this team, very much his team, at least until the end of the season.
Prior to Pauno’s arrival, transfers had been a shambles at Reading. Where before the club was a keen player of moneyball, turning valuable lower (and Irish!) league prospects into Championship-ready talent, from the Ron Gourlay era onwards Reading lost their way in the market. That led to numerous failed signings: Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock to name two emblematic symptoms.
In the aftermath of Gourlay, the transfer policy and team were constantly shifting beasts, sometimes operating with the consent of the manager, but often not. It has been confirmed by the club this year though that Pauno is now at least a prominent member of the transfer board at the club.
Since he began that role, it appears that the success of transfers both on and off the pitch has blossomed again. It took a while in the summer for Reading to make moves, hamstrung by their embargo as they were. Once they got the green light however, Reading moved quickly, signing Baba Rahman, Scott Dann, Danny Drinkwater and Alen Halilovic in a matter of days. That those players arrived quickly suggests the club is set up to be able to execute a coherent strategy with urgency. That those players have been some of the primary drivers of the first team this year speaks to that strategy being astute.
Further to Pauno’s credit in that regard, players only want to come to the club in the first place because they’ve been convinced of a coherent project or joint benefit by the manager.
This is the primary and clear benefit of the club’s time with Paunovic. Words like momentum, belief and form are buzzwords in football, but they seem to reflect reality under Paunovic. Countless times, players who have come into the club have talked about the atmosphere being great. Just recently, the clamour from the players after Carroll scored his first goal for Reading was that the players were all in the same boat, all pulling in the same direction. Some of that comes from Carroll’s infectious personality. A lot of it comes from Pauno.
Andy Carroll’s signing is a great example of the fantastic atmosphere Pauno has created at Reading. If Carroll didn’t believe in Pauno’s project at least a bit, why would he have stayed in contact with Pauno for months after the summer transfer window, and then agreed to join for reportedly just £1,000 a week? There are numerous clubs in the EFL that I’m sure would have offered Carroll a longer contract on a higher wage, and yet Carroll chose Reading, and Pauno’s project.
I do agree that Paunovic occasionally either lacks some tactical nous or perhaps is too devoted to his ideas, even once they’ve been proven not to work, but is that a huge problem? Throughout the history of football there have been managers that have gotten by almost entirely on being fantastic man-motivators. A player can only take on so much tactical information each week, but a highly motivated player will attempt more dribbles, take more chances and generally exert themselves more than under-motivated colleagues.
Some may argue that the man-motivator manager is outdated in modern football. That, in a sport which is more tactically sophisticated and full of more innovators than ever before, the impact of motivation is lessened in the face of organised defence and schemed attack. I’m not convinced. England just made it past the quarter-final stage of two major competitions in a row for the very first time. They did it with a man-motivator as manager.
For another example: Steven Gerrard has just joined Aston Villa after a successful period in Scotland, coaching Rangers to their first title since their rebirth. Sources on Gerrard’s style tell us that he is primarily a man-motivator who understands his limitations tactically and defers to his coaching staff when needed. These are individual examples of a greater trend: one that has shown us that coaching staff are just as important as the figurehead manager.
I don’t think motivation is everything. A club needs an identity and a style of play to build on. Why can’t the identity be passion though? Reading’s identity throughout their 12/13 years of huge overperformance to start the millennium was almost just that: the idea that passion, belief, and effort could trump quality.
It’s not perfect, and it leads to streaky seasons, but it should keep the club up this year handily.
He’ll get a chance to prove himself when the injury crisis abates in the new year
Still not convinced? Here’s why he should get until the end of the season anyway. It would be impossible for anybody to argue that Pauno has had anything close to a full squad to choose from this season. Judging by the recent injury report though, the tide may be turning over the next two months. The bench has already been bolstered in recent weeks, seeing the club have at least three legitimate options for the first time this season.
From January, Tom McIntyre should also be back, as should Rinomhota, Morrison, Ejaria, Moore, Hoillett and perhaps even Lucas Joao. Regardless of whether the club finds a way to keep Carroll past January, that will be a decent, if not exceptional Championship squad.
If Reading’s form remains streaky and inconsistent once those players return, perhaps it will be time to have a discussion about Pauno’s future. If though, as it appears he has been doing anyway, Pauno keeps us safely away from relegation despite the six-point deficit, it will be tough to say he hasn’t fulfilled or even exceeded his expectations this season. His season started with Bristow, an untested teenager, playing out of position in attack because it was the legitimately the best option available. I’d rather judge Pauno’s performance when Hoilett, Ejaria, or Meite have a chance to run opposition defences ragged.
In short: give Pauno 20 games with the full squad before we decide whether or not he’s the man for the job. That’s what the 2022 portion of the season should represent, so that’s the opportunity Pauno has earned with his more than reasonable opening half.
Pauno deserves his chance with HIS full squad
Pauno has always been a streaky manager. His teams seem to ride waves of momentum that are seemingly impossible to stop mid stream, but take a while to get rolling again. If he isn’t able to string together more consistent team performances once he has the majority of his team back in January, then perhaps we can have a conversation about his future.
With all Pauno’s given to the club across transfer policy, club atmosphere and player management, he should at least stay for the entirety of 2021/22 though. Not only will it provide the club with some much-needed stability during a turbulent period, but Pauno has genuinely earned it.