What is it that gives the start of any new season its charm?
Certainly there’s always sense of relief that club football is finally back after a summer recess - and that’s even more poignant right now due to the long-awaited return of matchday normality. Fans will not only be back in stadiums this season - without attendance caps - but we’ll also be able to follow the Royals on the road. There’s no substitute for a good ol’ away day.
What it really comes down to for me though is that lofty sense of hope. We love this sport because it allows us to dream that anything’s possible, and at no point in the calendar year is that more pure than at the start of the season. Going into a new campaign wipes the slate clean, allowing for a fresh start that can ultimately lead to glory: maybe promotion to the Premier League, perhaps a memorable cup run. Who knows, and who’s to say otherwise? It’s the start of a new season and anything can happen.
So it’s bitterly ironic that, after one of Reading’s best seasons in recent years, hope appears to be in short supply. The Royals may have put together an unlikely play-off charge for most of the season - culminating in a “disappointing success” as Matt Joy aptly put it in our Town End preview - but a demoralising summer has left many of us feeling anxious about what’s to come.
Normally we’d be talking about how this season would be better than the last one. Instead, for the first time in years, most of us are outright expecting the club to have a worse season than it did last time. There’s certainly good reason for that: 2020/21’s talented group has been chipped away at, and with a few weeks left to go in the transfer window, you can’t rule out more damage being done.
Omar Richards joined Bayern Munich on a free transfer after a stellar campaign, an £8m release clause in Michael Olise’s contract was activated to take him to Crystal Palace, and Yakou Meite suffered an ACL injury that will keep him out for most - perhaps all - of this season. Three vital first-team players taken out of the equation, and in each case Reading were at the end powerless to prevent the damage from being done.
Last season’s squad was small enough anyway, even before the raft of departures that also included veterans Sam Baldock and Sone Aluko, three loanees and a number of academy graduates too. To plug the gaps Reading needed to bring in half a dozen new faces at least - if not more to add the depth that was conspicuous in its absence earlier this year.
Thus far though, nothing. Reading can run from FFP breaches but they can’t hide; a £92m loss over a three-year period doesn’t go unnoticed and this summer’s transfer embargo is ultimately the chicken that’s come home to roost. Regardless though, the Royals deserve two things: a degree of leniency - a few cheap signings to reinforce a worryingly thin squad - and clarity over what business can and can’t be done.
And yet, we’ve had neither. Reading are going into the new season with their hands tied behind their back - ironic when you consider the extensive cost-cutting that’s been in place since the end of the 2019/20 campaign. The punishment is coming at a time when the Royals are on the right track: a lower wage bill, a leaner squad and with plenty of young talent to be brought through.
The Reading Football Club of August 2021 is an organisation that’s hard to get a proper read on to see where it’s at - so just like it was on the eve of last season too then. Veljko Paunovic is still learning his way in English football despite a promising debut campaign, the squad is talented but inconsistent in its delivery, and assessing the feelings and strategy of the elusive man at the top, Dai Yongge, feels like a fool’s errand.
So, in trying to analyse how the coming season will pan out, not much is a reassuring certainty. On the contrary, I’m left with no shortage of questions; the factors upon which Reading’s 2021/22 campaign will rest are very much up in the air and it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll land.
- Will new players be signed before the end of the transfer window?
- Can last season’s incessant injuries be avoided?
- How well will Pauno learn from last season, improving his tactical variety and squad management?
- Will we get the Lucas Joao of the first half of last season or the second half?
- Can Ovie Ejaria and George Puscas add real consistency to their undoubted potential?
- How big an impact will academy players like Dejan Tetek, Femi Azeez and Ethan Bristow have on the first team?
Above all though, can Reading recapture the winning spirit that propelled us into play-off contention last season?
This last one is more of a vague concept than the others, but is just as important. Pauno breathed new life into this club when he arrived just over a year ago, instilling levels of passion, discipline and enjoyment that had been in short supply for too long, but they faded away during a gruelling and bitterly disappointing back half of the campaign.
So are they gone, or have they merely subsided? If it’s the former, the success of last season will prove to have been a flash in the pan, but if it’s the latter, we’ll have a real reason to be optimistic about what’s ahead. Regardless of the luck we get with transfers, injuries and individual form, keeping last season’s spirit alive is in Reading’s hands, and it’s something to which everyone - whether in the dugout, on the pitch or in the stands - can contribute.
When there are so many variables in play, it’s only natural to go straight down the middle with how you think Reading’s season will pan out. Indeed, the bulk of predictions I’ve seen so far put the Royals somewhere in mid-table (admittedly I’ve got a feeling about 12th-14th myself).
In reality though, every single one of those above factors could go in any direction, landing anywhere being catastrophic and fantastic. Should Reading get the rub of the green on a few of them though, we won’t be in any real danger of relegation - as some fans are worried may happen. Get it on most of them - which is perfectly possible - and this side might do an awful lot better than many of us are thinking right now.
Comfortable mid-table ignominy is just as likely as another play-off charge or relegation battle. You never know, we might well be in store for one of those in the first section of the season before an abrupt volte face halfway through puts us on track for a completely unexpected conclusion.
Whatever’s in store, we can’t predict it just yet. But there’s hope yet that this season will turn out to be a good one.