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Midweek Musings: Don’t Look Back In An-Gour

Hide your aging “stars”. Hide your cheque books. Ron Gourlay is back, and ready to financially destroy another Championship club.

Reading Football Club Official Team Photograph and Head Shots

West Bromwich Albion have announced that Ron Gourlay will be joining the club as a “transfer adviser” to help them navigate a busy summer of transfers. Yeah… good luck with that one Baggies.

Famously, Loyal Royals don’t have a good word to say about Gourlay, and our most important figure of the 21st century decried that “he didn’t get the culture of Reading”. Apparently, Gourlay even had an office at the training ground, an unusual move for a CEO, that some speculated was undermining both the manager he sacked (Jaap Stam) and the manager he brought in (Paul Clement). In short, his presence shattered team morale, and the Royals were lucky to cling to their Championship status in their two years under Gourlay’s “stewardship”.

Reading are only just turning the corner now from Gourlay’s disastrous time with the club: with the current transfer embargo seemingly more a product of the EFL’s incompetence, given that 10 clubs are reportedly labouring under the punishment. Gourlay’s negative influence went way past the transfers though. This site noted that the club was constantly losing staff to resignations, and seemingly making no attempts to replace them. That attitude led to many of us feeling a growing sense of disconnect from Reading FC that we hadn’t felt in decades.

Luckily, we saw flickers of the club connection return briefly with Jose Gomes’ great escape, and then roar into life again with Pauno’s first season in charge. More of that please.

However, seeing as he’ll simply be West Brom’s “transfer advisor”, let’s take a look at his transfer record with Reading shall we? I’ll note: I’ve got nothing against the people Gourlay signed. Many of them showed that even when they weren’t being picked, they had good attitudes and had unfortunately just been set up to fail just as much as the Royals had by their transfers.

You can’t lay every problem Reading had at the time at Gourlay’s feet, but with the following shoddy transfer business, you certainly can. With that dark period long in the rear view mirror then, let’s take a look at the minimal good, but mostly the considerable bad.

The good

Reading v Huddersfield Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

I want to be fair. I really do. So let’s get it over with: Andy Yiadom came into the club during Gourlay’s tenure, and John O’Shea was given his first taste of football in RG2. Given Yiadom’s continuing importance to the team and O’Shea’s time in our coaching staff, it’s tough to denigrate their arrivals. A day before O’Shea’s arrival though, Gourlay brought in David Meyler, so Shea’s arrival was more of a bolt from the blue than forethought and ingenuity. There I said something nice, now let’s move on.

The bad

Luton Town v Reading - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round - Kenilworth Road Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

The big names are the two that only just left this summer. Baldock and Aluko were useful squad players to have around last season when budgets were tight, but you’d be hard pressed to say their transfers were a success. Moreover, through no fault of their own, their pick-ups represented the abandonment of the fabled “Reading way” that had brought us two Championship titles in seven years.

Where before, extensive scouting networks would scour the lower leagues and others in the British Isles looking for talent and potential at bargain prices, now it seemed that one man was opening his contact book and bringing in players he’d seen wear a Premier League badge on their arms once or twice.

Aluko and Baldock can’t help it that they were tempted away with big wages, but there were a million miles of symbolic distance between the pursuits of those players compared to those of players like Kevin Doyle, Mikele Leigertwood or Adam Le Fondre.

Leandro Bacuna and Dave Edwards, both arriving less than two months after Gourlay’s arrival, followed the same undesirable pattern. Again, both did their best for the club and their failures were not all of their own making, but they certainly weren’t bargains, and potential was being eschewed for former glimpses of quality.

Vito Mannone wasn’t a great pickup either, given that he was backstopping brand new MLS team Minnesota United in the land of lakes not long later. Mannone did show flashes of quality while in the Premier League with Arsenal and Sunderland, but that he never did it consistently should have been an apt warning about his suitability for the gruelling Championship schedule. I was glad to see him reinvent his career in the USA and win the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award though, and I’m sure he’s having a lovely old time in sunny Monaco.

As the January 2018 transfer window arrived with Reading going backwards, Gourlay used his dated rolodex to bring in two names you’ll recognize, but not for the right reasons. Chris Martin had a good career for Derby in the mid-2010s during their period of flirting with promotion, and famously scored against Reading nearly every time he played us. You can’t fault Gourlay for trying to complement a front line that was failing to find the back of the net often enough, but again: this was a recognisable name, but not perhaps somebody with the required hunger at that stage of their career.

Former Brighton and Hove Albion and Bournemouth man Tommy Elphick was also brought in, and fit that mould to a tee: a solid operator on his day, but a man who had made his name in situations with more upward momentum. Not perhaps perfect for a relegation battle.

After clawing onto our Championship status on the last day of the 2017/18 season, Gourlay finally had a whole off-season to fix our misfiring attack. Who was the man for the job? Why Marc McNulty of course! That transfer might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Gourlay finally moved on in November 2018 after yet another miserable start to the season.

The real litmus test that showed just how poorly our transfer strategy was being run by Gourlay was the January 2019 window. That window, hampered by the financial restrictions we’d been left under, the Royals signed Ovie Ejaria, Matt Miazga, Nelson Oliveira, Lewis Baker and Emiliano Martinez.

Given that those five players were instrumental in keeping Reading in the Championship that year, and the high esteem that Reading fans (and Premier League fans in Martinez’ case) hold all of those players, it was clear that the blinkers had been lifted from Reading’s transfer strategy.

In conclusion

Reading v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

So what can Baggies fans expect? Well to sum it up, a lot of names that you might recognise, but not perhaps for the right reasons. With the recent relative success stories of Wycombe Wanderers, Barnsley and even the England team, the culture of a club has been shown to be just as important as the quality of player you can sign.

If a club can instill those lauded intangibles - hunger and passion, in its players and combine that with a manager who has a clear project - you’ve a real recipe for success in the transfer market. Clearly in appointing Ismael, West Brom were going for a project, but in adding Gourlay to their backroom, they may have mucked it up before they even get started.

Only time will tell, but you’ll not find any Royals fans who would swap this squad for 2017/18’s version! Josh Laurent’s free transfer from League One Shrewsbury last summer seemed to herald a return to transfers that give the impression of the Reading of old, and operating under a transfer embargo may force Reading back into those old ways for good. In any case, good luck Baggies, but don’t say we didn’t warn you...