For a brief moment on Monday afternoon, it looked like this piece would have a very different tone. After an entire month of inactivity on the incoming transfers front, up popped the news that Reading were “close” to signing Diego Rossi, a very highly rated 22-year-old Uruguayan striker, from MLS side Los Angeles FC.
In what should probably count as classic Reading Football Club fashion by now, it wasn’t to be. The Royals were unable to get their man, meaning we’ve gone through a full transfer window without bringing a senior player in for the first time since January 2014. In both cases, Reading were hampered by their financial situation: an ongoing ownership crisis during the 2013/14 season and financial fair play restrictions now.
Is such a quiet window a bad thing though? Both in 2014 and 2021, the task was not just to bring in reinforcements if possible to bolster a play-off bid, but also to keep hold of key players. As we’ve seen all too often in years gone by at this club, doing so can be easier said than done.
Granted, Covid-19 has restricted the spending power of those clubs potentially interested in buying our brightest and best, but Reading still had a number of talented players to keep on the books. Most obviously that’s stand-out performers such as top scorer Lucas Joao, top assister Michael Olise and Bayern Munich-linked Omar Richards, but you can add others to the list too. Yakou Meite, Liam Moore and and Andy Rinomhota have all impressed this season, while the situation with Tom McIntyre’s contract (it runs out in the summer) would have made the youngster a tempting target.
Keeping every single first-team regular at the club is a very commendable achievement. It also speaks to just how good a place the Mad Stad is for these talented players to be right now; Reading have a manager who improves those he works with, great facilities, great morale in the squad and a very real chance of promotion.
Accordingly, there’s been nothing in the press or on social media to suggest that any player has agitated for a move away, and impressive recent form on the pitch is further proof. You don’t get dogged, united performances like the one seen in Reading’s 3-1 win over Bournemouth on Friday if team spirit isn’t right.
That harmony and work ethic is the real secret to this side’s success. Losing a key player, even if he’d been immediately replaced with a signing of decent quality, would have been a blow to morale. Think of how let down we would have felt if Joao, Olise or Richards had been snapped up by a Premier League team. There’s a real connection at Reading - both in the squad and between team and fans - that goes beyond players’ ability on the pitch.
What effect would adding other players into the mix have had? Getting another wide forward was the main order of business - as it was late on in the summer 2020 transfer window - and Rossi (or another like him) would have given Reading extra quality, variety and depth in the front line. Even with every Reading player fit, there’s a gap for that kind of forward in the squad.
Filling that gap effectively though is easier said than done. Getting a ready-made player capable of immediately boosting the squad with little to no bedding-in period was very unlikely to happen - as shown by the commendably ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to sign Rossi. Quality like that doesn’t come cheap.
Players in that mould can also - potentially - upset squad harmony. In a season when Reading have done so well from fostering a sense of healthy competition for places, dropping a new signing at the front of the queue may understandably have left players already on the books feeling somewhat disheartened.
A new arrival would more likely have been a less refined talent in the mould of Reading’s summer arrivals: a Premier League youngster like Lewis Gibson, foreign talent like Tomas Esteves or lower-league prospect like Josh Laurent. Younger players like those, typically eager to prove themselves early on in their career, would have been the closest fit for the dynamic of this squad. But as we’ve seen with Reading’s summer business, some signings like that surprise you and are an instant hit, others take a while to settle in and some never really get going.
So really, whatever way you look at it, any January signing would have been a gamble to some degree. Of course, taking a punt on a mid-season addition can be the right choice. Reading did just that in the 2016/17 season, signing three Premier League players on loan (Lewis Grabban, Jordon Mutch and Reece Oxford) and another on a permanent (Tiago Ilori), in addition to buying Adrian Popa.
Those five had very mixed times in Berkshire (the less said about Mutch the better), but Reading could afford to take a punt on any of them being the crucial element to secure promotion. The Reading of January 2017 had Dai Yongge’s riches to play with - this one doesn’t, so its options have been limited.
On the pitch, Reading weren’t risking that much with their January 2017 signings. Grabban may have only scored three goals but his presence didn’t harm the squad - ditto Oxford (five appearances) and Mutch (nine appearances, one goal). They were unnecessary extra pieces.
It feels different in 2021 though - this squad is particularly lean and tight-knit. Unlike in previous years, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the group who feels like a spare part (Sam Baldock being the exception), so adding another player into the mix would have risked upsetting the balance. In the summer I wrote about the need for both signings and cohesion; half a season on, signings would have been useful, but harmony was of paramount importance.
Reading may have finished the January transfer window with the same squad they started it with, but it’s still a squad that’s capable of promotion - and in the right state to get it.