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Town End 2021/22 Season Preview: Part Five

The inside track on the prospects of Peterborough United, Preston North End, QPR and our very own Reading.

Reading v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Jonathan Brady/PA Images via Getty Images

All this week in the build-up to the start of the new Championship season, we’ll be speaking to fans from around the division to get the lowdown on their team. What are their aspirations and fears going into the new campaign? Which member of their squad is most likely to stand out? And of course how their season - and Reading’s - pan out?

With part five, we’re finally onto the Royals, getting a non-TTE perspective on how Reading’s season will pan out. In addition: a team that’s been edging up the Championship table in recent years, the last of the three promoted sides, and a club for whom Reading have been a bit of a bogey team in recent years.

You can find Alex Batt on Twitter @AlexBatt

How would you sum up last season?

How do you sum up last season?! A wide range of emotions going from disappointment that we couldn’t be in the stands, to ecstasy at finally getting promoted. We were brilliant and consistent throughout, and we got promoted in the best way possible. A truly memorable campaign for numerous reasons.

Darren Ferguson achieved his fourth promotion at the club - how highly is he regarded by supporters?

Funnily enough, there’s still a lot of fans that don’t back or support Fergie. However, it’s impossible to deny he’s the greatest we’ve ever had. If you try deny that, you’re wrong. He’s done wonders at this club and he just works whenever he’s here. A true club legend.

What are your expectations for this season?

I guess survival is the aim and the target. The leap from L1 to Championship is bigger now than ever before in my opinion, so it’s going to be a real test for our young side. Surviving the first season is always crucial, and then you can try kick on. Do I expect us to survive? I actually do, yeah. I think we can surprise a few.

Jonson Clarke-Harris hit 31 league goals last season - how do you expect him to make the step up to the Championship?

I think JCH will make the step up relatively smoothly. That’s if he’s at the club come the start of the season!! He’s by no means an Ivan Toney, but he’s been a fantastic replacement, so I do expect him to make the step up. I don’t expect 30 goals, and may not even expect 25, but I reckon he’s good enough to be hitting near 20 or above.

Which player of yours should we look out for this season?

We have actually got a great crop of players. Jack Taylor in CM is the main one for me though. He’s a superb player and will undoubtedly go higher in his career. You’ve then of course got your more known players like Dembele, JCH, Marriott, Szmodics. Jorge Grant is a top signing, too, as is Josh Knight.

Where will you finish?

Above 21st

How will Reading’s season go, and where will we finish?

I would be lying if I said I knew a lot about Reading to be honest, but they seemed to have relative success early on last season before fading away. They’ll hope they can start the season how they did last year, rather than how they ended it. Keeping Lucas Joao will be the main aim I would assume. Mid-table finish I would guess.

You can find James Vickers on Twitter @_JamesVickers

Preston sacked long-term boss Alex Neil in March - was that the right decision, and was Frankie McAvoy the right replacement?

I was annoyed and upset when Alex Neil left as he has probably been my favourite manager for North End over the last decade or so. He managed to push us on after Simon Grayson’s departure and managed to turn us into a solid top half Championship team on a shoestring budget.

Was sacking Alex Neil the correct decision? In my opinion, No, but I think the split was due to happen sooner rather than later.

I think Neil had reached a point where he had taken us as far as he could, and although it ended with him being sacked, I don’t think many Preston fans have hard feelings towards him. He was professional right up to his final day. I think with the way our club is run at the moment, Neil wanted more backing in the transfer market, however that wasn’t going to be the case.

Frankie McAvoy came in after Alex Neil’s departure and from March until May – we led the form table for the whole division, so in that regards I can see why the club gave him the reigns.

I think he is a safe appointment in that the players love him, and that he says the right things in his interviews, however I think that is reflective of the club as a whole over the past few seasons. Safe.

We are crying out to at least have a dip into the transfer market for someone who can make the difference for us but the club seem content with where they are at, and with the managerial appointment, it gives off the same vibes. I really hope Frankie McAvoy does well for us and he has my full backing but it just seems like we have yet again taken the cheap option.

Time will tell.

Since a seventh-place finish in 2017/18 you’ve dropped a few places, finishing in the bottom half in two of the last three seasons. Are Preston now wedged in midtable, or is there much likelihood of promotion or relegation any time soon?

We are wedged in mid-table for the foreseeable I think, however I hope I am wrong…

We have a decent squad. Decent, but not great.

Ben Pearson, Darnell Fisher, Callum Robinson, Jordan Hugill are the players who spring to mind. When we were pushing for the play offs regularly, we had these players who all had high sell on values. These players have since moved on, and we have replaced them for the most part with players from League One, or players such as Scott Sinclair and Ched Evans who have no sell-on value.

The problem, that we always seem to have is that we settle for being a small team in a big pond, and with that attitude it is only going to end in one way.

Off field, we have this attitude as well which makes it even more concerning. The new home shirt has been out roughly a month now and we still haven’t received infants’ kits into the club store. There is still no fan zone at the Stadium which was promised several years ago either. I fear in the next few seasons there will come a breaking point with a majority of fans, and at the moment I don’t think the club is willing or able to adapt.

How would you sum up last season?

Poor. Disappointing. Mediocre. 13th-placed finish. Minus seven goal difference, and 16 points outside the play offs. As well as sacking our manager in March. We lost Ben Pearson, Ben Davies and Darnell Fisher in January as well which all but ended our play off push and led to the dismissal of Alex Neil.

We became a team that lacked direction, a far cry from two seasons ago when we were pushing for the play offs.

I don’t think Covid has helped as we really benefit off a crowd behind us and that must be factored in but we just didn’t seen up for it last season. A point which several players echoed by saying they found it difficult without a crowd.

I think last season is one we need to sweep under the carpet, forget about and move on from but the scars are still there for everyone to see.

Players haven’t been replaced, an all too common occurrence at the moment, and a new manager who has received minimal backing in the transfer market. I am hoping this season is better, especially with fans being back at Deepdale but I am still fearful that last seasons form will be here to stay.

Which player of yours should we look out for this season?

Ben Whiteman. I was delighted when we brought him in from Doncaster Rovers in January – as several of my Friends know, I have been pushing for us to sign him for about two years now and he was brilliant in the second half of last season.

He is a player who can play as a 6 or an 8 and looks to be a perfect partner to Ryan Ledson (another player to watch out for) at the heart of our midfield. I am hoping that he can continue where he left off, and also chip in with goals and assists.

Where will you finish?

It all depends on how we finish the transfer window. Peter Risdale said during the summer that because of how sensible we were during Covid that we would be at the forefront of transfers this summer and be able to compete with everyone in the division…

Jamie Thomas – brought in from Bamber Bridge

Sepp Van Den Berg – loan from Liverpool

Liam Lindsay – free from Stoke

Matthew Olosunde – free from Rotherham

Izzy Brown – free from Sheff Weds (injured until 2022)

I don’t expect us to spend tens of millions of pounds but a tiny bit of ambition in the market would be nice, especially with how “P Riddy” promised a big summer. If we were to go into this season with the squad we have now, I would say 16th.

If we were to sign a striker and someone to link the midfield and forwards, I would say top half with a good chance of challenging for the play offs.

How will Reading’s season go, and where will we finish?

As Preston’s bogey side I am hoping that changes this season and we can FINALLY take six points from you, however I cannot see that happening at present! I certainly think you will be challenging for the play-offs again this season, and I think Paunovic will have learnt a lot about his squad from last season after you missed out on the play offs.

Richards (Bayern) and Olise (Crystal Palace) will obviously be big losses for you, especially given that you are unable to sign players at present – however I think that the Olise money will be invested wisely and you’ll be back challenging again.

If I had to pick a position come May, I would say sixth.

Clive Whittingham runs Loft For Words (@LoftforWords on Twitter), the website of which you can find here

Mark Warburton’s led you to finishes of 13th then 9th. Have you been gradually developing into a play-off side?

We hope so, yes. It’s actually the culmination of a lot of work that’s been done over the last six years even before Warburton was appointed. We don’t need another rehash of just how abysmally QPR went about their business during their most recent two spells in the Premier League, but it left the finances of the club, the wage bill, and its compliance with FFP in a complete state.

Having been levied with the biggest fine in the history of world sport for those breaches we now look at some of the meagre punishments going the way of Sheff Wed, Derby, Birmingham and others with the Marge Simpson grumbly noise but the fact remains we not only breached the rules horribly and deliberately, but the team and the club got worse for it rather than better.

We had to get from a point where we were paying a Harry Redknapp squad £80m a year in salaries, to where we are now where the wage bill is £18m p/a, and that’s a long road to go down in which it’s easy to get a full on Sunderland-style League One disaster on your hands. You want to pay your squad less this year than last, but you still want it to at least maintain it’s performance level if not improve it – tough juggling act, and that’s been us for six years.

Having gone through that process there’s a feeling that we may have our house in order just as the cards are collapsing elsewhere. Several clubs – Blackburn, Stoke, Sheff Wed, Derby, Reading – who spent big trying to get up and failed are now in varying degrees of strife and/or embargoes.

Covid has obviously bitten into the budgets of many others, just at a point where we landed £20m for Ebere Eze. We’ve kept a manager on for three seasons now and he’s been building a team methodically and within a set style, rather than us chopping and changing between different bosses with radically different styles.

Only Norwich and Watford won more games than us in the second half of last season we’ve done good, strong, early transfer window business to consolidate that. For the first time in ages there is expectation and optimism, which brings its own challenges for a young team which will still have a bottom half budget. It’ll probably all blow up in our face as usual, but at the moment we feel well set.

How’s former Royal Rob Dickie got on at QPR so far?

Very well, won most of our player-of-the-year awards in his first season and has come back particularly strongly in the friendlies so far. He’s not the quickest, and some teams have tried to expose that – Tony Mowbray, in a bit of a grump after a tight 1-0 loss at Loftus Road last year, blurted out afterwards at a journalist criticising his team selection that they’d done it to try and exploit Dickie’s lack of pace.

When he first arrived he had a bit of a panicky tick for reaching out and grabbing the shoulder of a quicker opponent, resulting in a penalty and red card at Barnsley and a near miss for similar at Coventry. But he’s worked on that, benefitted from the switch to a back three, come on leaps and bounds and like I say looked really strong in our friendlies so far this summer.

How would you sum up last season?

Two halves. We’d lost not only Eze but also Nahki Wells, Jordan Hugill, Ryan Manning, Grant Hall and later Bright Osayi-Samuel from the year before, which was a lot of experience, talent, goals and assists to go out of the team all at once. They’d been replaced with punts and projects like Lyndon Dykes and Chris Willock and initially it was a bit of a slog, just four wins in the first half of the season and three of those were an absolute trauma to get over the line.

We switched to a back three at the turn of the year, and then added Charlie Austin, Stefan Johansen, Sam Field and Jordy De Wijs too that, and never looked back. Fifteen wins in the second half of the season, only Watford and Norwich managed more, Johansen was particularly brilliant, and it was only a couple of silly slips against Birmingham and Huddersfield that prevented an unlikely play off push.

What are your expectations for this season?

Those four loans have all been bought permanently. We’ve added Sam McCallum to cover Lee Wallace which was needed, and replaced the inconsistent and dislikeable Todd Kane with Moses Odubajo the success of which really depends on his fitness. We lack of a good defensive midfielder now Sam Field is injured, Dom Ball is game but limited, and I suspect we’ll see that back three exposed quite a lot at first.

But the second half of last season was good, the transfer activity has been strong, the direction of travel under Warbs has been clear, and quite a good chunk of the rest of the division is in a bit of a mess, so there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Of course, the last time I was optimistic we lost 5-0 to Swansea on the opening day of the season, didn’t win at all until December, won only four times all season and got relegated in April.

Which player of yours should we look out for this season?

Former Arsenal and Benfica child Chris Willock is really starting to shine in a position Osayi-Samuel and Eze previously made names in.

Where will you finish?

Top six.

How will Reading’s season go, and where will we finish?

I feel like last season was a big missed opportunity. For all the summer fannying around shifting Bowen and changing direction, the overspend, the transfer embargoes, the unknown manager… Reading had a good team last season.

Ejaria and Olise are obviously brilliant, Pussas and Joao a handful at Championship level, Richards has gone to Bayern Munich, you add onto that Josh Laurent finally fulfilling the potential he always had, the two Toms emerging as talented Championship players, and experience like Morrison, Moore, Rinomhota – that’s a good team. It should have made the play-offs at least.

This time, some of that talent has left, the squad is thinner, a few FFP chickens are coming home to roost. You’ve still got one of the division’s outstanding players in Ejaria, you’ll be fine, look at the state of Blackburn, Bristol City, Preston, Huddersfield, Derby etc, but I think it’ll be lower midtable this year rather than a play-off push. I had you seventeenth last season, so I’m always wrong about these things.

Matt Joy covers the Royals for The Reading Chronicle, and can be found on Twitter @MattJoy96

Given problems in recent years with FFP and transfer embargoes, how optimistic or worried are you about Reading’s long-term future?

It’d be foolish not to have a certain amount of trepidation. Unfortunately, the club only has itself - or former employees - to blame and ultimately its punishment for years of mismanagement.

Fortunately, I do believe the club have enough talent in the ranks to consolidate this season and hopefully continue the tweaks behind the scenes to amend the issues. I think the next season or two may be rocky, but I don’t think they’ll be a total disaster.

What have you made of the job Pauno’s done so far?

I think Pauno has done a stellar job so far. On a shoestring budget, he took a squad full of perennial strugglers into play-off candidates all whilst going through perhaps the strangest season in history with respect to Covid-19-related issues - whilst battling injury issues throughout the campaign.

By no means was he perfect, I do think he needs to be more reactive and flexible in respect to his tactics. In games where the Royals are on the back foot, Paunovic needs to be quicker to make changes to personnel and style.

This being said, Paunovic has done a great job in very tricky circumstances (which he still faces) and I trust that he has the ability to continue to do the same,

How would you sum up last season?

A disappointing success. Reading ultimately blew my pre-season expectations away but fell short at the last hurdle. Ultimately an amalgamation of factors, most crucially injuries, made the play-off run more and more arduous as the season progressed.

But for the first time in several seasons, there was excitement, optimism, and progress. All of these have been in short supply of late, the club theoretically has the foundations in place to build upon these, although off the field issues are making this incredibly tricky.

What are your expectations for this season?

As alluded to above, I don’t expect another play-off push. Equally, I don’t believe the club will be rooted to the bottom of the table. Despite these issues, the club has a strong first XI (injuries dependent, of course).

It’s tough to predict how similar the squad will be when the window slam shuts, but barring an absolute disaster over the next month, the squad is more than capable with a little luck of pushing for a top-half finish.

Which player should be Reading’s one to watch this season?

For me, it will be either Femi Azeez or Dejan Tetek.

Azeez has looked sharp, full of tenacity, guile and effective movement. He’ll need some fine-tuning to force his way into the starting XI each week but looks to be a promising talent.

Tetek has a bit more experience with the senior team and doesn’t look out of place in a Championship midfield. He has the attributes you want in a central midfielder and looks ready-made for a step-up into the Royals team. Could be a massive season for him.

Where will we finish?

Apologies for being incredibly boring - but I’ll go with 14th!