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Midweek Musing: A Difficult Week, A Bright Future

Missing the playoffs would be brutal, but there’s so much to like about what we’ve seen this year.

Reading v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Right now, Reading are in limbo. While making the playoffs is still possible this year, and the team is still producing competent performances that could see us pick up results, It’s hard to deny that Ismaila Sarr singlehandedly dented our chances mightily last Friday. Understandably, many decided that the result against Watford represented the end of Reading’s chances of making the playoffs this year.

Now, I spent early last week writing a piece in which I accepted that losing to Watford was likely, and that if we’re going to make it to the playoffs this year, patience will be needed, and last day drama: likely. That meant that I was disappointed, but not bereft of hope at the final whistle at Vicarage Road. That said, Saturday’s results were cruel to us, and making up five points with a total of 15 remaining is going to be tough, even if we score 13 points or more.

So it’s limbo then: we’re not out of the playoffs yet, but we’re hovering outside with our chances on life support. Regardless of where we finish this year, and it will be mightily disappointing to miss the playoffs, it’d be silly to argue that this hasn’t been a season of serious gain for the Royals. Here’s some of the things we’ve already gained from this campaign that should serve us well in the future, regardless of whether we make the playoffs in 2021 or not:

A strong spine and consistent coaching

Reading v AFC Bournemouth - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

If Morrison and McIntyre’s contract extensions both get across the line, then regardless of Olise’s movement this summer: our team’s spine looks like it will be solid and consistent for some time into the future. We’ll have two options at goalkeeper, four quality centre backs, a set of midfielders in Rino, Laurent, Ejaria, and Swift that represent rigidity and creativity, and at least three strikers in Puski, Joao, and Meite that have proved they can score goals at this level. Dangerous words for a Reading fan to utter I know: but there’s really only so far backward this team can go.

Making predictions in football is a fool’s game, but I don’t expect those players to lose a huge step in one summer. Obviously, we’ve seen this team go from playoff-bound to relegation-threatened in one season with a similar squad before: but we all know deep down that reaching third place with Stam’s style was a bit of a fluke. That so many draws and losses this year have felt like “dropped points” rather than the natural result of not being good enough suggests that there is even more room to grow for this squad. Keep the majority of the spine together, as it looks like Reading will do, and they have every chance to compete at the top end next year if they miss the playoffs.

What’s more, it looks like Reading will finish the year with the manager we started with for the first time since 2016/17. Whatever you think of Veljko Paunovic, I’d imagine he’s now the default favorite Reading manager of the past five years for the vast majority of fans. He’s already seen out more games than anybody since Jaap Stam, and done so playing a more attractive brand of football.

Early on in the season, you could tell something was different with Reading’s style. The attack can occasionally be a little toothless against stacked defenses, but Reading’s counter-attacking and transitions from defense to offense can be absolutely rapid. Meanwhile, the defense took a small step back from the rigidness of Bowen’s system, but not enough to consistently see Reading concede multiple goals.

Pauno had almost bought himself an entire season to tinker before November had ended, but finally: Reading have kept a manager for longer than one season. That consistency could be crucial for Reading in putting the squad together for 2021/2022, and I’m sure Veljko is excited to get an entire pre-season this year. Whether thinking about getting the same players ready to go, or integrating new signings, Reading don’t need to worry about their manager and that’s a very freeing feeling for a recently tumultuous backroom.

For the first time in three offseasons, I don’t feel like the previous seasons’ entire game plan needs ripping up. If Pauno can continue to improve, and our spine can continue to put in a baseline of quality performances: there’s a lot to like about this Reading team moving forward.

Likely financial help and Reading’s “free” transfer

Reading v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The announcement that Omar Richards would be leaving for nothing was a blow. After watching Jude Bellingham leave for Germany for as much as £25 million, we could’ve expected to sell Richards for at least a third of that, and yet thanks to contract tomfoolery: it’s nothing.

Still though, you may have heard that Olise has been generating just a little interest from big clubs. With a year left to go on his contract, this summer looks like it will be the time that the club looks to cash in, and that cash-in could be considerable. This Swift-less season in the middle of the park has been a boon for Olise’s playing time and experience, and I expect those extra 40 games added serious extra value to Olise’s price tag.

Covid has depressed the transfer market, but the clubs that are reportedly in for Olise don’t typically pay less than £10 million for a player. We’ll likely never hear the true fee, but if the Olise transfer is completed early in the offseason, we could start hearing that Reading are in on yet-more MLS prospects before 21/22 kicks off.

Some of this, perhaps more than we’d like, will have to go into balancing the FFP books. Dai Yongge hasn’t been precious about spending his money even with those restrictions plaguing us however, so if Olise brings us a chunk of change: I expect to see Reading bringing in some first-class reinforcements this offseason. Ironically, we likely won’t need them in Olise’s position however:

Reading v AFC Bournemouth - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robin Jones - AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

A “free transfer” in John Swift

The remarkable rise of Michael Olise came at a crucial time for Reading. John Swift started the year as the subject of bids from Premier League clubs, and was regarded by many Reading fans as the best player on the team, but injuries have dogged him all season, and he’s appeared in more of Pauno’s press conferences than team selections. It only speaks to Olise’s quality then, that he has made Swift’s absence almost a non-story.

While Swift has shown some proficiency in a deeper role, it seems likely that if he had been fit throughout the year, he would’ve been vying with Olise for the central spot in the attacking three behind the striker. Olise has made that role his own this year though, and provided much of the creativity that usually formed much of Swift’s role.

If Olise does move on though, Swift’s re-entry into the squad should lessen the blow. He’s still a top playmaker at this level, and while he clearly doesn’t have Olise’s ceiling, he’s good enough to run the midfield of a team chasing the playoffs.

Long-term worries about his health are going to dog him now, and that’s valid: Swift has missed over 30 games this year. Still, health is a fickle thing in both a good and bad way. Lucas Joao is held up as an “injury prone” player, but has played the majority of our games this year, missing only seven. If Swift plays 30+ games next year, that’ll give us a great chance to replace the creativity lost if Olise moves on.

Passion for Reading Football Club

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Reading v Blackpool - Madejski Stadium

Results are the main thing that keep a fanbase happy obviously, but seeing your own passion for Reading FC aptly represented by the players on the pitch is an amazing way to form a connection with a team. Having conversations about whether we’ll make the playoffs, or struggling to find even a clear top three for the Player of the Season is exciting!

On top of that, wow: this is a likable team! I don’t see the team being entirely asset-stripped at the end of the year: I don’t think we’ve been good enough for that. That means we’ll likely start next year with the academy Toms, Josh Laurent, Yakou Meite and many others who seem both happy to be Reading players, and passionate about the project that Paunovic is building.

It’s great to see, and makes it so much easier to get invested in this team’s success. There hasn’t been a loss this year like the Wigan 3-0 reverse at home in the closing stages of last season: a loss in which it looked like the players simply don’t care as much as the other team. Pauno’s Reading, even when they can’t quite get everyone firing, seem like they’re giving it their all.

If we don’t get promoted, this season has reinjected a passion for Reading FC into both the team and the fanbase that had been chipped away at in the past three years. For that, and the other reasons put forth above, even if this year doesn’t pan out the way we want, I’ll be hugely optimistic for the future.