It’s that time again: we’d like to know what you think of the job being done by those in positions of authority at Reading Football Club. Manager Veljko Paunovic has just gone past a year in the dugout (an achievement in itself considering the fate of his predecessors), while owners Dai Yongge and Xiu Li Dai have been here for approaching four and a half years.
When we last ran an approval poll on them, May 2021, you seemed pleased but not thrilled with the manager and owners. Pauno’s score came in at 3.59/5 (down from 4.79 in February 2021), while the Dais took 3.35/5 (down from 3.75 in February). That drop-off is unsurprising given how the team went from being in a strong position to finish in the top six to missing out due to a drastic downturn in form.
Times have been tough for Reading on the pitch and behind the scenes in the subsequent months. Key players have left, finances have been tight and the side has started the new season poorly, losing four of five Championship games and being knocked out of the League Cup.
So how does that reflect on the manager and owners specifically?
As things stand, Veljko Paunovic is under a lot of pressure as manager. But that seems to have taken off relatively recently; it wasn’t until after the Coventry City and Huddersfield Town matches (both extremely poor defeats in different ways) that the ‘Pauno In/Out’ debate took off.
When we put that specific question to the floor after the 4-0 rout at Huddersfield, you narrowly gave your approval to the gaffer. Note the significant number of people who weren’t sure either way - 25.9% is a lot considering Paunovic has been in post for more than a year.
To get a gauge of the mood at the moment... #readingfc— The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd) August 28, 2021
Those results reflect the mixed nature of the feeling towards Pauno. His biggest fans wouldn’t argue he’s perfect (or that close to it), while his severest critics would find it difficult to ignore the difficult circumstances in which he’s been working while at Reading. Those circumstances provide important context for the positives and negatives that have come through recently.
Pauno has had to deal with severely limited resources - of course through no fault of his own. While he managed just three loan signings last summer (Tomas Esteves, Lewis Gibson and Alfa Semedo), none arrived in January and it took until mid-August with the addition of free agent Junior Hoilett for Pauno to finally bring in a player on a permanent basis.
The difficulty in getting any signings over the line, let alone doing so early enough to take advantage of pre-season preparation time, makes it difficult for Paunovic to properly build a side. The current two-week international break will have to make do instead.
What’s more, he’s had seriously bad luck with injuries. Reading have lost a significant number of goals now that Yakou Meite and Lucas Joao have been ruled out for the long term. Ovie Ejaria is yet to play this season, Femi Azeez and Tom McIntyre are set for spells on the sidelines for a few months, and Felipe Araruna hasn’t played in around a year.
Usually at this point I’d try to pick out explicit positives, but to be honest, there aren’t many clear ones that stick out. The pro-Pauno case is more that he’s done well in the past and, given a chance to get the side going with fresh personnel in contention, he’ll do that again.
That being said, I would highlight the spirit in the team. Although Reading’s form has been poor, the side has shown good fight on numerous occasions that suggests morale has been at a decent level in relation to results. The Royals fought back twice on the opening day at Stoke, saw off a late barrage from Preston, clawed themselves back into the contest against Bristol City late on after trailing 3-1, and rode out heavy pressure in the second half at Coventry - albeit to no avail. Add in the spirited performance from the youngsters too, in the League Cup defeat to Swansea City.
There are however some clear downsides for which Pauno is responsible, regardless of the trying circumstance he’s been working under.
First and foremost the form has been poor, and poor for quite some time. Since New Year’s Day Reading have played 29 league games (24 of which came last season), winning nine times, drawing nine times and losing 11 times. That’s equivalent to 1.03 points per game, which would have worked out at Reading finishing 20th last season, just over four points outside the bottom three.
The main issue in determining results this season has been Reading’s poor defence - literally the worst in the top four tiers of English football.
There’s no single clear reason for this. Reading have had difficulty with individual errors and poor concentration, defenders being played out of position and generally bad organisation, but all of them come down to Pauno. He has after all still been able to put out a back three or four containing experienced defenders like Michael Morrison, Liam Moore and Andy Yiadom in every match.
What’s more, some of his team-selection decisions have left me puzzled. Pauno started the season at Stoke with two players out of position on the left in a 4-2-3-1 (Tom McIntyre at left back, Ethan Bristow on the wing), despite the option of going to a back three.
After McIntyre’s injury at Coventry (by which point Reading were playing 4-2-3-1 again), Pauno played Yiadom out of position at left back for the rest of that game and at Huddersfield - despite having the option of Bristow. The Coventry match also included Pauno putting lanky striker Jahmari Clarke on the left wing (perhaps as an aerial target?), before having to put Puscas there when Clarke understandably struggled defensively.
Pauno’s had few cards to play this season, but he still needs to play those available to him correctly. I’m not talking about complicated decisions, just putting square pegs in square holes.
Those following Pauno’s post-match quotes may also have been annoyed after the Coventry loss. Pauno’s assertion of being “very happy” with how his side played until the late winner was an odd take given Reading’s poor display, even if he may have been trying to protect his players.
Last but not least, the Huddersfield rout. Reading saved their worst performance of August until last, capitulating pretty tamely at the John Smith’s Stadium. Whether you look at the game in isolation, as a reaction to Coventry, or through the lens of a second-half collapse after being behind 1-0 in a fairly even first half, Reading had to do so much better.
The last few months have been far from quiet behind the scenes at Reading - ironic given how quiet the owners generally are towards the fans.
The main bone of contention is financial. Difficulty in bringing new players in has prompted plenty of discussion over the Dais’ long-term impact at the club; drastic overspending in years gone by has come home to roost this summer. None of this is new of course - we’ve known for quite some time that Reading couldn’t continue splashing the cash in a drastic attempt at getting to the Premier League - but the consequences are right in front of us now.
At the end of the day, Reading being under a transfer embargo is a result of the Dais’ running of the club. We wouldn’t have had to work for clarity and leniency from the EFL if the long-term accounts were in a better state.
Those consequences started what feels like a lifetime ago already with the saga of Omar Richards’ move to Bayern Munich. Reading’s inability to tie the left back down to a new contract before his bright performances put him in the shop window came, to a large extent, from little financial wiggle room due to FFP concerns. It resulted in a valuable asset going for nothing this summer.
One senior official at Reading told Sky Sports News they believed Omar Richards would be worth in excess of £15 million to the club if they were able to keep him. #readingfc pic.twitter.com/e2yYuC7nZI— Talk Reading (@TalkReading) January 8, 2021
You could say similar about Michael Olise leaving for just £8m due to a release clause in his contract, which also wasn’t renewed after being signed in 2019. That being said, the fact that Reading tied him down to a multi-year deal at all - on the Dais’ watch - is creditable.
The loss of Thierry Nevers to West Ham United, albeit for a fee, also stings when you consider his talent. Reading have additionally lost two recognisable figures in the coaching staff without yet replacing them: John O’Shea and Eddie Niedzwiecki.
Looking towards the future, there’s a ticking time bomb set to go off next summer. Only a handful of senior players are contracted to the club beyond the end of this season: George Puscas, Yakou Meite, Ovie Ejaria, Tom McIntyre, Liam Moore and Lucas Joao. There’s a huge amount of work to be done in sorting new deals over the coming months.
There have however been a decent number of positives. The summer kicked off with the retention of key first-team player Michael Morrison, in addition to new contracts for youngsters Luke Southwood and Tom McIntyre, while Jokull Andresson followed suit later on. A number of young players to sign new deals in the summer have gone on to feature in the first team this season: Femi Azeez, Lynford Sackey, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan and Kian Leavy.
Reading also managed to end the summer with some decent recruitment - albeit not including a new striker. The Royals signed six players - Tom Dele-Bashiru, Junior Hoilett, Alen Halilovic, Baba Rahman, Scott Dann and Danny Drinkwater - adding quality and depth across the squad. Getting six good additions in through the door under the circumstances was a good job, all things considered.
Reading also finally released a statement to its fans about the running of the club. While short on detail and only coming after some pressure from frustrated supporters, direct communication was welcome.
Grade Pauno and the Dais
So with all of that in mind, how good or bad a job do you think the manager and owners are doing in their roles at the club? As ever, please grade them in the poll below from one (lowest) to five (highest). If it doesn’t display, click this link.