A few days ago we asked you for you to grade the job Veljko Paunovic is doing as Reading manager, and it turns out that you’re very impressed indeed. In fact, you’ve given him the highest average we’ve ever had in our manager approval ratings series, which we’ve been running since February 2015.
His score of 4.79/5 is well clear of the previous record, 4.59, set by Jaap Stam after the end of his first season in charge. That average was just above the one other mark Pauno’s had so far during his time in the Madejski Stadium dugout: 4.51. A whopping 82.5% of you gave Pauno a perfect 5/5, while 15.7% went for 4/5.
It puts into context just how terrific a job the new man is doing. I said in October that Pauno would need to have sustained success over the course of the season if he was to push his score above Stam’s record, and he’s done just that. Although Reading have slipped off top spot during that spell, they’ve stayed in play-off contention and then established themselves in the top six. That’s no mean feat considering the sheer number of injuries in recent months.
So what’s been the secret to Pauno’s success? For me, it’s that he’s got everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. Reading are a far more united, focused and driven club than they’ve been for years now (since the 2016/17 season really), and Pauno’s been at the heart of that. He’s brought principles around hard work (he loves the phrase “non-negotiables”) and playing style (typically playing attacking football in a 4-2-3-1) but, crucially, everyone has bought into them.
He is of course also great at improving players. Only a small part of Reading’s first-team squad wasn’t involved at Reading last season; Josh Laurent is the only real new face that’s been a regular presence in Pauno’s side. The manager’s otherwise been working with the same personnel available to Jose Gomes and Mark Bowen in 2019/20.
The improvement in this regard is seen most clearly going forwards. Reading score at a rate of 1.53 goals per game this season - way above last campaign’s figure of 1.28. In fact, the Royals are scoring more often than in any season since 2010/11, when Brian McDermott’s free-flowing side of Shane Long, Jimmy Kebe and co found scored 1.67 times per match.
To get to that point without adding any new attacking players (except for academy graduates) demonstrates Pauno’s managerial ability.
Solid improvement from the owners, but the jury’s still out
The Dais don’t match Pauno’s score this time, but their average of 3.75 is much better than where it was last July: 2.92. Given that we’ve had pretty quiet transfer windows in the summer and January since then, and there’s been little movement on contracts ahead of plenty of deals expiring in a few months, I’d guess that improvement is largely down to how well the club is doing in general.
Far more of you gave the Dais a perfect score than a very low one, but most votes going into the 3/5 or 4/5 categories illustrates the fact that the owners have plenty of work to do.
Firstly the positives - why the improvement from 2.92 to 3.75?
The single biggest change the owners have made since July - to fire Mark Bowen and replace him with Pauno - has paid off very nicely indeed. It was a big call to get rid of Bowen, let alone to bring in such an inexperienced manager in his stead, but the Dais got that spot on - even if the timing and general handling of that switch were both pretty dire. It’s easy to forget now just how shambolic the club looked when Bowen left, having turned down the opportunity to return to his previous director of football role.
The Dais also deserve some credit for how the squad was rebalanced in the summer. The number of players on the books was slashed heavily - due to a large number of senior and academy players being released without a big influx of new signings. That created a leaner, younger feel to the squad that’s played a big part in Reading’s form this season, not to mention opening up a pathway for academy talent.
Put it all together and you can certainly say that the Dais have played enough of a part in this season’s success to be due credit. How much of that part comes from an actual coherent plan - rather than them accidentally making the right decisions (which really wouldn’t surprise me) - is impossible to accurately determine given their ongoing silence.
But what’s holding them back from a higher score? After all, this is Reading’s best season under the Dais by quite some way.
It’s the long-term planning. Yes, Reading are in a much better position at the moment, but anxieties over contracts and an inability to sign players - all apparently down to financial fair play restrictions - raise doubts over how strong the club’s foundations are for the future.
Promotion to the Premier League solves those problems, but if Reading don’t go up, the club’s in a precarious position financially. Whether or not that results in a points deduction isn’t something I can speculate on, but either way there are big question marks over the future of those out of contract like Omar Richards, Tom McIntyre, Luke Southwood and Michael Morrison. Similarly, with Michael Olise and John Swift among those out of contract in 2022, Reading will be on the back foot when it comes to keeping them - or at least getting a big fee.
Contract talks with players are currently underway though, and hopefully we’ll have some much more positive news to discuss in the coming weeks.