This is a question I’ve been asking myself for quite a while now, and even though the wording of the question may allude to a simple yes or no answer, it’s really not as straightforward as that.
No Reading fan could’ve imagined that, with eight games to go in the season, we’d be sitting in sixth spot with a real chance of finishing in the play-offs. After the catastrophically bad last few seasons, paired with the shambolic summer in which Veljko Paunovic was appointed two weeks before the start of the season, and before Mark Bowen had been sacked, any Loyal Royal would be forgiven for not being in the most optimistic of moods coming into the campaign.
However, to be where we are now is a serious achievement and everyone involved should be given a huge pat on the back for getting us as far as we have done already. The players, as a collective throughout the course of the season, have been fantastic and I personally don’t think Pauno has been given enough credit for just how well he’s done.
Because of the circumstances he joined under, and the fact that none of us had ever heard of him, the only way he could get us on side was by winning football matches - and when you get employed two weeks before the start of a Championship season, that’s much, much easier said than done. But Pauno did just that, and then some. And now we all love him.
As the season has gone on and we’ve stayed in the promotion picture, where we were ultimately going to finish the season (which is what you get judged on at the end of the day) never really crossed my mind.
Pauno has instilled a ‘no game is bigger than the next game’ mentality into the entire club, and it’s rubbed off on the fans too - well it’s rubbed off on me anyway. So I’ve rarely looked ahead further than the next game, which means I’ve rarely thought about where we’re going to finish in the league.
It’s also because of how well the players have played on the whole and how good the results have been. When we’ve won games I’ve been too caught in the moment and the celebrations to properly, seriously think about finishing in the top six or even pushing for the top two.
Of course I’ve tweeted my fair share of tongue-in-cheek ‘HMS P*ss the League’ memes and have had great fun seeing the fellow fans in the same spirit - it’s been far too long since we’ve been able to even joke about potentially reaching the Premier League. But it was probably after the disaster at Wycombe Wanderers a few weeks ago when I started genuinely considering where we may finish. And since then it’s been pretty much non-stop.
I think the fanbase will be split into two camps when it comes to answering this question. But I'm also pretty sure I know which one will have the most campers in it.
For the entire season I have been one of the biggest advocates of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. We have had some shocking, abysmal, horrific results (particularly in more recent weeks) but even in the face of those defeats I’ve tried my best to look at how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. Even though the players have done their utmost to break that resilience recently.
However, I also believe that your aims and goals as a club can change during a season. They will never, ever stay the same as they were at the beginning of the season, if you even had any.
For example, if you look at Sheffield United currently, after finishing near the European places last season, I’m sure their goal for this campaign would’ve been to try and emulate that, or maybe go even better. However, their target now could not be further away from that - because circumstances change throughout the course of the season, and results impact your goals.
It’s exactly the same scenario for us right now. We’ve put ourselves in a position, through the results we’ve had so far this season, through what we’ve proved we can do as a team across the last 38 matches, to finish in the top six. So that has to be our aim. And if you don't achieve your aim, you fail.
I understand that there will be fans who will say that, no matter what happens this season, it’s been a season of progress, and progress is never failure. That’s also true, to an extent. But, if we miss out on the top six, we’ll only know if it’s truly been progress 12, 18 months further down the line.
There was probably a huge amount of the fans who, despite the heartbreak of Wembley in 2017, said that that season was still one of progress, one of development - I for one was one of them. But in the long run, it wasn't a season of progress, was it? Losing the play off final and then going on to spend three years hovering around relegation isn’t progress, it’s the complete opposite.
What I’m essentially trying to say is that Pauno and the players can only deal with the here and now. And the here and now is that we have to finish in the play-offs. We could miss out on the play-offs and go on to walk the league next year, who knows? But that’s the point: no one knows. Finishing seventh would be progress, and would set us up to kick on even further next season - which is something I’d fully back Pauno and the club to do, but it’s not guaranteed.
What is guaranteed (I think, I hope) is that if we finish in the top six, no matter what happens after that, the fans will be content and ultimately be proud and happy with how the season has gone. If we don't however, particularly considering how cracks have started to show as the pressures started cranking up, the mood among the fans will do a complete 180 and it won’t be a very nice summer.
Ultimately, in answer to the question ‘Is Anything Less Than The Top Six A Failure?’, in the short term: absolutely yes. In the long term: maybe? Maybe not? Who knows? That bridge will get crossed if and when we get to it. Pauno and the players can only deal with what’s in front of them, and what’s in front of them is a huge chance to finish in the top six of the Championship.