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The Day Reading Fans Turned On Veljko Paunovic

Supporter opinion has shifted following a humiliating cup exit and the manager’s job is surely hanging by a thread.

Kidderminster Harriers v Reading - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round - Aggborough Stadium Photo by Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images

They don’t tell you what it’s like to be on the wrong end of a cup upset. Nor should they. History only remembers the winners. Hereford United. Sutton United. Wrexham. And now, Kidderminster Harriers.

The National League North Side, 2-1 winners over Reading on Saturday afternoon, will take the limelight of national media and cup enthusiasts across the country. Rightly so, too. The Aggborough encounter was what the FA Cup - in its 150th year - is all about. Plucky underdogs pulling off a giant killing. A whole town coming together in a tightly packed ground. There were even tin-foil trophies. It was the fabled magic of the cup.

It just feels different when you’re the victim.

To call Reading a Goliath slayed by David would be generous. The Royals shot themselves in the foot by conceding two soft goals in a drab performance, rather than putting up a fight only to be heroically beaten. A blue flare being thrown onto the pitch in the second half was a rather apt metaphor: this is a club deep in trouble which is crying out for help.

Allow the nautical symbolism to continue for a second - after all, we’re supposedly “all in the same boat”. Eyes must now turn to the man steering the ship: Veljko Paunovic. He’s been in rocky waters for a couple of months, but Saturday’s embarrassing defeat could have tipped him overboard. The tide has turned.

The murmurings of discontent about Paunovic date back to last season’s capitulation as Reading won just one of their final 11 matches to throw away a place in the Championship playoffs. But generally there has been recognition, particularly this season, that he has been dealt possibly the worst hand of any Royals manager ever: a transfer embargo, six-point deduction, unprecedented injury crisis and a Covid outbreak.

That all remains true. In time, when Paunovic’s tenure has been consigned to the history books, the accepted view should be that he did a relatively decent job given the circumstances. But circumstances matter little when you lose to a sixth-tier side in the FA Cup. Certainly not to fans who were hoping that the competition might provide just the smallest bit of respite in a broadly miserable season.

There has been an opinion shift both in the stands - as chants of “sacked in the morning” rang out in the away end at Aggborough - and online, where #PaunoOut is gathering momentum. For the first time in his reign we are in territory where you can safely say most supporters feel that a change of manager is needed.

That is a difficult position for Paunovic to come back from, despite his belief that “I will turn this around”. Defiant optimism that may be, but it alienates him from fans who simply want him to face up to the reality and accept some blame.

There was no true admission from Paunovic of the magnitude of Saturday’s loss. We were told that “you forget we were playing with eight senior players” and “the priority is the Championship”. Kidderminster were equally under-prepared as they had not played since December 18 and have important league duties of their own as they fight for promotion to the National League.

Kidderminster Harriers v Reading - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round - Aggborough Stadium
Pauno watches on as Reading fall apart against their non-league opponents
Photo by Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images

Dai Yongge, despite getting through five managers in under five years, has not tended to make hasty decisions on sackings. Jaap Stam and Jose Gomes were relieved of their duties four days after losing what proved to be their final matches in charge; for Paul Clement it was a five-day wait. The timing of Mark Bowen’s departure a week before the start of last season was bizarre, but Dai had seemingly previously felt the Welshman was worthy of staying in the job for the whole summer.

The underground shopping centre tycoon does not have the same luxury of time on this occasion as Reading are set to begin a run of five Championship fixtures in the space of 18 days when Fulham visit the Select Car Leasing Stadium on Tuesday night. Replacing a manager during such a busy spell is not an easy task, particularly when there is clearly no blueprint or vision for what kind of person the club will be looking to appoint. But it’s either that or risk the current rot continuing during a crucial period of the season.

Dai’s previous appointments have been two British coaches who have historically been assistant managers and two foreign bosses unproven in the Championship with underwhelming track records overseas. It’s anyone’s guess what direction he goes in next when the time comes.

His right-hand man and CEO Dayong Pang has minimal football experience and is hardly the person to lead the recruitment process. The rest of the club’s ‘football board’ - which they say fulfils the role of a director of football - is similarly unqualified. It’s made up of finance director Bryan Stabler, academy manager Michael Gilkes and Paunovic himself. It’s a sorry mess.

Gilkes would arguably be the leading candidate to take caretaker charge, maybe even until the end of the season. It’s not an ideal scenario, but worse decisions could be made than giving an audition to someone who deeply understands the club’s values and already knows the current group of players.

This is of course all hypothetical - some might call it wishful thinking - and until we know any different, Paunovic will be in charge for the visit of Fulham on Tuesday. In this madhouse of a season, you would barely blink if Reading beat the high-flying Cottagers for the second time in four months and perhaps in the manager’s eyes that would make Saturday’s defeat worth it.

But the goodwill between him and supporters has gone. Paunovic may be able to naively move on from such an inexcusable, humiliating cup exit, but not many fans will.