The day is finally here: Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock are now officially off Reading’s wage bill. They’re among a string of players released by the club upon the expiration of their contracts at the end of June, but are certainly the most significant departures, given how much the club have spent on them and how little they’ve got in return.
Exact salary figures aren’t known. However, it’s fair to say that the Royals had to offer hefty numbers to lure in Aluko from promotion rivals Fulham in 2017 and Baldock from Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion in 2018.
Both from a financial and footballing point of view, their departures are good news for the club. Reading simply did not get anything close to a good enough return on the millions of pounds spent in transfer fees and wages: Aluko managed five goals and eight assists in 102 appearances, while Baldock provided 11 goals and five assists in 74 appearances.
The odd thing is that they should have been safe investments. While you can rightly point out that other expensive signings like George Puscas arrived as young prospects in need of adjustment time, you can’t make the same excuse for Aluko and Baldock. Both joined the Royals on the back of significant experience in English football across the Premier League and Championship.
Many fans (if not a comfortable majority) will be glad to see the duo go, particularly for financial reasons. Reading’s spending power has been severely restricted in recent years due to FFP; Aluko and Baldock leaving is a long-awaited golden opportunity for the club to trim a bloated wage bill and reinvest more sensibly.
And yet, I can’t help but feel conflicted about their departures. I’ve long had something of a soft spot for underachieving players - the ones who flop or don’t quite fit in, and are as a consequence generally maligned or written off. It’s worth remembering that, just like those players that become fan favourites, players who don’t make it at Reading are also hard-working guys who want to succeed with the club. There are exceptions to that, sure, but they’re not the norm.
So I find it immensely satisfying when underachievers turn it around. For example, think of how unpopular Shaun Cummings was in his early days at Reading before eventually establishing himself as regular in the 2011/12 title-winning side.
I’d hoped for Aluko and Baldock to get the same. Both strike me as nice guys rather than epitomes of the overpaid, lazy footballer stereotype. Baldock in particular couldn’t be further from that cliche: constantly running himself into the ground, always tracking back and closing down.
Both had glimpses of a redemption arc, but neither managed one.
Aluko will be largely remembered for a seriously poor first 18 months at the club, failing to deliver under Jaap Stam - who brought him to the club - or successor Paul Clement. There were flashes under Jose Gomes, but he spent most of 2019 and the first half of 2020 either on loan with Beijing Renhe or on the fringes of Reading’s squad under Mark Bowen.
This season should have been his chance to turn things round, with opportunities inevitable due to Reading’s small squad. However, despite an impressive showing against Watford at the start of the season, Aluko would end the campaign with just nine starts (in addition to 24 sub appearances), being particularly overlooked in the second half of the season.
Baldock on the other hand has often been a victim of system. The archetypal channel runner alongside a target man, typically in a 4-4-2, he was rarely given an opportunity in that setup at Reading. Attempts by various managers to turn him into a winger or lone striker generally ended in failure, and he given scarce opportunities in the first anyway under Jose Gomes and Veljko Paunovic.
None of this is to completely remove responsibility from Aluko and Baldock. Both could - and should - have done a lot better in Reading shirts, particularly when it came to their debut seasons: 2017/18 and 2018/19 respectively. Those campaigns may have gone different for the club if the club’s big investments at the start of the season had provided a more positive impact.
At the end of the day, both are experienced players capable of putting in better performances than they did, regardless of limited opportunities or tactical issues. I shouldn’t have reason to be talking about a redemption arc in the first place.
That’s the past though. Reading can now look to the future. We’ve long talked about the damaging ‘Ron Gourlay era’ of overly expensive contracts being given out to players who didn’t provide a return, but continued to be a financial drain on the club due to the length of their contracts. Aluko and Baldock were the two starkest examples of that era.
Their departures are not only opportunities on the pitch and in the transfer market, but also in a broader sense too. This is a chance for Reading Football Club to show that it won’t make the same mistakes again and is instead committed to doing things differently. We’ve had success in recent years with free transfers and academy talent, and such an approach should be continued.
As for Aluko and Baldock, I’m intrigued to see where they end up next. With a fresh start at the right club, I could see either being squad players at lower Championship level, although regular game time in League One may well be a more appealing prospect for them.
Whatever the future holds for them, we wish them all the very best.