Reading are a badly run club. Over the last five years, the club’s financial losses have stacked up, a string of sub-par managers have been hired and our Championship status has been (and remains) at risk. There is no structure behind the scenes, long-serving staff have left and owner Dai Yongge has consistently trusted the wrong people to make key decisions.
None of this is new information. Last week, STAR ‘urgently’ brought forward a structured dialogue meeting with the club as there is so much concern about what is happening. Before the weekend’s home game against Huddersfield Town, a banner was unveiled in Club 1871 which read ‘No Desire. No Drive. No Direction’.
Everyone knows Reading Football Club are a shambolic mess. So why is there such uproar when a player’s personal story apparently certifies this?
Late on Tuesday evening, the Scottish Daily Express released an interview with Marc McNulty, a player still contracted to Reading after signing four-year deal in 2018. The striker, currently on loan at Dundee United, did not hold back with his views about his parent club.
“For me, with all the sh** I have seen there over the years I’m just glad it’s going to be over and I don’t have to go back down there. I would probably be happy to be unemployed than go through that sh**e again.
“I have talked about it before and at some point I will come out and say exactly what’s gone on. But it’s not how you should run football clubs or deal with players who show you respect. It’s not a nice place, you can see that with results - a lot of managers come and go and a lot of players come and go.
“It’s not ideal, chopping and changing managers and having to train with youth teams - I’ve seen it all in football. But how they run their club is for someone else to worry about. I will be delighted when it’s [his Reading contract] up and I can try to go somewhere I am valued and wanted.”
McNulty was hardly popular with fans before - that ship may have sailed with his anti-England tweets during the 2018 World Cup before he’d even officially signed - but it’s safe to say he’s now up there in Matt Mills territory in terms of disliked players.
The reaction to the striker’s comments reminded me of an excellent piece from Daniel Storey about football tribalism, which I’d thoroughly recommend reading in full. On supporters becoming the “militant PR arms of their football clubs”, Storey writes:
“There’s nothing wrong with defending your club in most circumstances, of course. Protecting anything you love is a natural human instinct. It reminds of the unwritten code that you are allowed to criticise members of your own family but if anyone from outside the nest does the same you are hardwired to rush and defend them.”
As Reading fans, we are within our rights to call out the club for their shortcomings. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when someone else does the same. Particularly when it’s Marc McNulty.
Because there is a certain irony that McNulty talks about the “sh**” he’s seen, when many would argue that the striker himself has been part of it.
McNulty will permanently depart Reading this summer having made 17 appearances for the club, with as many goals as missed penalties in that time (one). He was a Paul Clement signing but started just three league games under the former Swansea City manager and then wasn’t deemed good enough and instead shipped out on loan by Jose Gomes, Mark Bowen and Veljko Paunovic.
Paunovic was the only one of those three to give the striker any game time, starting him in the Carabao Cup last season against Colchester United and Luton Town. It could have been a fresh start for McNulty - making his first Reading appearances for 20 months - but he did nothing to suggest that the Royals had missed him while out on loan and reflected a player who knew his long-term future was not in Berkshire.
There is an argument that McNulty was rarely used in the right way at Reading and that is probably true. Clement’s switch from playing two upfront to one was never going to suit McNulty who has neither the pace nor strength to play as a lone frontman, while Paunovic played the Scot on the wing last season. But considering that McNulty was arguably signed to be Reading’s main source of goals, it’s telling that no manager felt he was good enough to build a system around.
The 29-year-old’s loan spells hardly tell of a player that Reading could have done with either. Aside from scoring eight goals in 17 games for Hibernian in the second half of 2018/19 to earn a first Scotland call-up, since then McNulty has scored twice in 15 League One games for Sunderland and four times in 36 Scottish Premiership appearances across spells at Hibernian and Dundee United. No club has had enough faith to buy the striker permanently.
In truth, it is sad that McNulty’s time at Reading has not worked out because his move from Coventry City four years ago had so much promise. It was a deal straight out of the ‘Reading way’ playbook, the sort of transfer that many fans were calling for the club to make and have continued to since.
McNulty was 25, entering his prime years, and had just scored 28 goals in all competitions to fire Coventry to promotion from League Two via the playoffs. At a reported fee of £1.2million he was a relatively cheap punt - certainly in comparison to some of the other players Reading signed between 2017 and 2019. He had all the hallmarks of the next Adam Le Fondre.
Maybe McNulty’s ‘flop’ status doesn’t give him the right to speak ill of Reading, but the reality is that we all realise deep down that his testimony is probably true given what we know about how the club is run.
His story corroborates Garath McCleary’s, whose eight-year spell in Berkshire came to an end in 2020. On an Instagram live video with @threethirteenltd last year, the winger said:
“There was a point where I had fallen out of love with football and that was towards the end of my time at Reading. Towards the end, it was toxic. It was hard to be around. So many good people from staff to players were either let go or just chucked aside.
“It didn’t really sit right, especially when we had done so much for the club, but I suppose that’s the way the industry was going at Reading. I’m not too sure now what’s going on.”
Earlier this month, McCleary re-emphasised his point on Twitter, saying:
“It starts at the top for me. Club has been a mess for years and filters down.”
It’s worth noting that McNulty and McCleary both had/have had sour ends to their Reading careers and therefore may have axes to grind, while others may not. Charlie Adam, in contrast, recently said he “really enjoyed” his one season at the club. Yet McNulty and McCleary’s experiences are the exact reason why they quite frankly don’t care what they say. There are no doubt other less outspoken ex-players with similar stories. There will almost certainly be players in the current squad with tales to tell when they leave.
That is what hurts the most. McNulty’s comments should not be cause to bite back at the striker, they should be cause for concern because it is proof from someone who has seen first-hand that the club is abysmally run. From the sounds of the interview, there is even more to his experience than he has said so far.
It is stories like McNulty’s and McCleary’s that warn prospective players off signing for Reading. Let’s not forget Sam Baldock’s comments in July 2020 about the Royals not being a “straightforward” club. Agents are encouraging their clients to stay away from the Select Car Leasing Stadium because word is getting round about the internal issues that exist. That is deeply worrying.
I don’t particularly like Marc McNulty as a player. I don’t get the impression that I would like Marc McNulty as a man. Speaking so bluntly about a club you are still officially contracted to could be considered a slightly brainless move. But ultimately I respect his honesty. It only makes me fear further for the football club.