Reflecting on Reading’s season has been a relatively easy, if a little painful, task over the last couple of years. This year it feels slightly more tricky, given the ups and downs of the campaign, the hopes, the expectations and, ultimately, the disappointment.
What I can do is sift through the facts and raw data behind Reading’s season in the hope that they provide clarity on exactly what happened, how it happened and why it happened. Here we go.
Firstly, the league position: Reading finished in seventh. That is the highest the club have finished in the last four seasons. In our 16 campaigns in the second tier since 2000, we have only finished higher on six occasions. It is a placing that surpasses all start-of-season expectations; in our roundtable back in September, our writers predicted the Royals would finish somewhere between 10th and 19th. With the bookmakers, Reading were 18th favourites for promotion.
It wasn’t hard to see why. The team had laboured to 14th place in 2019/20, and although plenty of players had departed, a lack of recruitment suggested that Reading were unlikely to have enough to trouble the playoff positions. Oh, and the club had decided to change manager two weeks before the start of the season, bringing in an unknown Serbian whose only previous role at club level was an underwhelming spell at Chicago Fire in the MLS.
Given that backdrop, to finish where we did is pretty remarkable, and that unknown Serbian, Veljko Paunovic, deserves an immense amount of credit. It is also undeniable progress: Reading climbed seven league positions from the previous campaign - only Barnsley (16) made more strides in the Championship.
Not that it is much comfort, but it is also worth pointing out that our final points tally of 70 is the same number Swansea City finished with last season when they finished in the playoffs. Bournemouth finished sixth this season with 77 points - the third-highest points tally for a sixth-placed team in the last decade. Essentially, Reading have spent this season in one of the most competitive playoff races in years and come up ever so slightly short.
But of course, there remains that lingering sense that this season seemed to have the makings of something really special. Let’s take a minute to appreciate quite how sensational the start to the campaign was.
After eight games, Reading had 22 out of a possible 24 points. Since 2004, no team has achieved more at that point in the campaign. That run also included six clean sheets in the first seven matches, another record no club has bettered since the second tier’s rebrand. It simply, as proved to be the case, could not have got much better.
So, what has happened since then? In the last 38 games, Reading picked up 48 points. That averages at 1.26 points per game, enough to give the Royals 58 points across a whole campaign which would have put them 14th this season - exactly where they finished last season with 56 points. It is also fairly similar to Mark Bowen’s record as manager: 48 points from 35 games (1.37 points per game).
I want to take nothing away from that brilliant start, and certainly don’t want to get into ‘if my auntie had bollocks she’d be my uncle’ territory, but it is worth at least paying some attention to these numbers if we are to truly assess how Reading’s season unfolded. While the start to the season was unsustainable, the drop-off was certainly bigger than it should have been.
But to say that the campaign collapsed after eight games is simply untrue. Sure, the Royals quickly fell from their perch at the top of the table, but they remained in the top six - bar one week in December - all the way up to game 40. They maintained a playoff challenge through spurts of good form. One defeat in six (W3 D2) in late November/early December, seven games unbeaten (W4 D3) over Christmas and into the New Year, three consecutive wins in late February/early March.
Then you come to the final 11 matches, of which Reading won just one. Three defeats in 11 isn’t all that bad, particularly when two of them come against automatic promotion-winning sides, but seven draws is the sticking point. From March 7 onwards, the Royals picked up just 10 points from a possible 33 - only Derby County and Bristol City picked up fewer. In the same time, playoff rivals Bournemouth and Barnsley achieved 21. If you’re looking for a simple reason why Reading didn’t make the playoffs, it’s right there. To end the season in such atrocious form when chasing a spot in the top six is pretty unforgivable.
The reality is that this Reading team are not as good as that start to the season suggested and not as bad as the end suggested. Take the Royals between December and March and that’s probably a good reflection: capable of competing with the best (see the superb win over Bournemouth), but also guilty of totally failing to perform in games (see the abject defeats to Wycombe Wanderers and Birmingham City).
The reasons for that? There are probably three standouts that are all interconnected. Firstly, you have to look at the squad size. The clear-out last summer was praised and certainly helped Reading build a more tight-knit and spirited group, but it left a pretty bare squad with little depth.
Veljko Paunovic used 27 players in 2020/21, only Rotherham United used fewer. But even that number does not fully detail how limited the squad was, given it includes six players who played no more than two games. Look at the individual appearance numbers and only 17 players played more than 20 matches.
It is worth mentioning at this point that 11 academy players made their debut this season, the joint-highest ever total for a single campaign along with 2014/15. In total, 40% of the players who made a Championship appearance for Reading came through the academy. That’s a brilliant figure and emphasises how the production line continues to be a shining light.
But back to the matter at hand and there’s no denying that Pauno had a very small group to work with. It not only meant there weren’t many game-changing options he could turn to, but also that fatigue set in more quickly and the squad was arguably burned out both physically and emotionally by the end of the campaign.
Injuries have worsened that problem. With such a condensed schedule, this was always going to be an issue this season and Reading were far from the only team to struggle. But the Royals have missed several key players for large portions of the campaign and you can only wonder how it might have panned out differently if they had featured.
You also have to highlight the lack of action being taken in the transfer market to help remedy the problem. Of course the club’s financial position is known to be precarious, but even one signing may have proved decisive and was surely worth the gamble. You only need to look at how Barnsley’s loan signing of Daryl Dike essentially changed the course of their season. Reading, on the other hand, had no injection of fresh energy and were the only Championship club not to sign anyone in January.
The inquest of the season’s downfall will rage on for the next few weeks, and so it should, as harsh as it sounds. As great as it is to make the argument that the season has been a positive one on the whole and that progress has been made - and those are both important points - I doubt there is a fan out there who has not had a nagging feeling that we have blown a big opportunity given the start we made.
The summer will feature uncertainty, but that is not a new off-season feeling at this point. Omar Richards is Bayern-bound and Michael Olise seems the most likely to follow him out of the door. Reading have a necessity to sell, but then it is all about how they recruit. The contracts of Michael Morrison and Tom McIntyre are still not sorted, in addition to all those that expire in 2022, and FFP regulations continue to hang over the club.
One thing we can say with confidence is that supporters will be inside the Madejski Stadium when the Championship returns in August. That, if nothing else, is something to look forward to. I’m not sure the turbulence of this season was made easier or worse by not being there in person, but I do not want to rely on the unreliable iFollow ever again.