George Alexandru Pușcaș. One of, if not *the*, most controversial Reading player in recent times. I say that because he has split opinion among the Loyal Royals pretty much ever since he stepped through the door at the Mad Stad in the summer of 2019.
He probably couldn’t have hoped for a better start to his Reading career: a Carabao Cup game against Wycombe Wanderers in which he bagged his first goal for the club and that famous home game against Cardiff City in which he scored one of the best individual goals I think I’ve ever seen at the Madejski Stadium. Puscas was probably going home at night thinking ‘well, this Championship football lark is a walk in the park isn’t it?’ and us fans were going home at night thinking ‘we’ve got one hell of a player on our hands here’.
Ever since that honeymoon period though, George has really struggled to adapt to the Championship. Let’s be fair, that’s not unusual amongst foreign players - especially strikers - and especially those as young as George was when he joined (23).
The Championship is famously unique in that near enough every team has their own way of playing, it's physically gruelling on players and games come thick and fast for for the entirety of the season - except in international breaks of course. But, even then, Puscas was more often than not away on international duty with Romania.
Even back then, question marks began to arise over whether Puscas was all he was cut out to be, or whether it was another big-money investment (we’ll talk more about this later) that will just end up flattering to deceive. However, it takes anybody in any walk of life time to settle into a new job - especially when that job is in a country that you’ve never even set foot in before - and football is no different in that.
Puscas’ form dipped, he began to drift through games, and - couple that with an injury to Lucas Joao (again, we’ll talk more about this later) - a huge amount of pressure got put onto his shoulders very early on in his Reading career and that is never a nice thing when you’re already running low on confidence.
This led to him starting to miss some howlers. And this is when the pressure really cranked up on him from the fans. I remember him missing what you would definitely describe as ‘my-nan-could’ve-scored-that’ chances late on in the Cardiff game, against Charlton Athletic a few games after and also in away games at Bristol City and Swansea City.
Things didn’t get much better when Jose Gomes was sacked, Mark Bowen came in and eventually started playing a system that didn’t suit him whatsoever. I think it’s clear for everyone to see now that Puscas doesn’t really like playing up front on his own (although, and I’ve got my tin hat, gloves and socks on right now, I think he’s got better at it in recent times).
From then on really, things just didn't go Puscas’ way at all. Bowen played with one up front, which nine times out of 10 was Joao. And when the Portuguese got injured again, Bowen constantly switched between playing either Baldock or Puscas, giving neither a chance to have a run of games and build up any kind of form. That being said, Puski still finished the season with 14 goals in all competitions.
Last season wasn't much better for George unfortunately, mainly due to the imperious form of Lucas Joao. The bloke was near-on undroppable for the best part of the campaign, and when you combine that with Puscas’ injury problems, it was another season to forget for the Romanian.
That leads us up to now, the present day. And, much like the early days of his time here, there is now a huge amount of pressure on Puscas to perform in the coming weeks. As you can see by what I’ve just written above, Puscas has had a bit of a torrid time since joining, largely because of factors beyond his control in my opinion. Maybe his performances haven’t been up to scratch when he has played, but I have a lot of empathy for him and how his first two seasons have panned out.
It seems though that some fans don’t share that empathy, because some of the abuse I’ve seen directed at him already this season (including a section of fans actually cheering him getting substituted at Huddersfield Town last time out) has staggered me to be honest. If you honestly think Puscas was the problem in the game then I don’t really know what to say.
My biggest problems are a) I feel George gets judged on a different scale to other players because of how his first two seasons have gone i.e. he needs to do more in a game to get praise than others, and b) he gets judged more harshly because of his transfer fee.
This isn’t a problem just among Reading fans, but in football in general. Players have zero say in how much a club pays for them. Absolutely diddly squat. It is not Puscas’ fault he cost £7.5 million, and I don’t think I’d be having to write this if we paid, let’s say, £1 million for him. It’s the same concept as when people use Liam Moore’s weekly wage as a reason to have a go at him. Moore reportedly gets £35k a week - who wouldn’t accept that?
People might think I’m sat here making excuse after excuse for Puscas. Subconciously that might well be the case - I like George and I still think there’s a serious striker in there. But just because I think he’s being hard done by doesn't mean I don’t think he has to be doing more - they are not mutually exclusive.
Puscas is clearly underperforming in his overall game, and my earlier argument that he hadn’t had time to adapt to the physicality of the league, I’ll admit, is fading with every passing game. And with Joao not out for the foreseeable, there is a heavy, heavy reliance on Puscas to perform.
Part of me is scared for him, in all honesty. If he doesn’t find the back of the net sharpish, I can see more scenarios like the Huddersfield game occurring. But a bigger part of me wants him to do well. And that, in my opinion, should be the case for every Reading fan.
I, unlike others, do not think Puscas is a lost cause or a waste of money. I think he needs nurturing and I think he needs a bit of love. He needs to mature a bit for sure, and he’s still showing signs of naivety. But, what I’m saying, is that we as fans have a big role to play in Puscas’ future career. We need to get behind him and back him, if we do - I genuinely think he will come good. Genuinely.