Leicester City were top of the Premier League table in November 2015 and manager Claudio Ranieri was asked whether the club’s aspirations for the season had changed. After all, they had been tipped to battle relegation before a ball had been kicked.
“Forty points,” the Italian declared. “Forty points. I can’t change our project at the moment. Our goal right now is to maintain the Premier League. Be solid with two feet firmly on the floor. Forty points.”
Of course what followed was beyond anyone’s wildest beliefs as the Foxes lifted the title to complete perhaps the most remarkable sporting story of all time. Six years on, Paul Ince may be hoping that copying Ranieri’s cautious approach produces similarly miraculous results at Reading.
Having been tipped for relegation by every bookmaker and pundit at the start of the season, the Royals’ impressive start to the campaign has stunned even the most optimistic of supporter. Ince’s men have taken 22 points from 13 matches, have been in the play-off positions since August and currently sit fifth - two points off top spot.
But the former England midfielder is refusing to get carried away. “No, why would I?” was his blunt response at the start of this month when asked whether he was looking at the league table.
“I’m not going to change the way I see things. We have to stay in this league. When we get there, we will see where we are. We’ve been here before, we played Sunderland at home, and everyone got a bit excited, and we got beaten 3-0.
“We can’t get complacent. We’ve got a lot of tough games [coming up] - we have to play Watford, West Brom, Norwich, so it can change. We have to get to 45 points as quickly as possible.”
Naturally, it’s an approach that will split opinion. On the one hand, Ince could be credited with tempering expectations amid a strong start that at the moment is only that: a start. On the other hand, he could be accused of a lack of ambition given how well things are going currently.
Because, without wishing to tempt fate, getting to 45 points from Reading’s current position does not seem hard. 22 points from the first 13 matches means the Royals are 49% of the way to that target despite only playing 28% of the season. Their current points per game rate is 1.69, but they need to pick up just 0.69 points per game from the remaining 33 to reach 45 points. In simpler terms, Reading can afford to win just once in every four matches between now and May to achieve Ince’s stated goal.
So is it fair to expect more than simply survival? The easy comparison to draw here is with Veljko Paunovic’s first season as manager in 2020/21. Very little was expected when the former Chicago Fire boss took charge just a week before the start of the season, but Reading took 22 points from the first 24 available to equal the best-ever start to a Championship campaign. After 13 games, the Royals had one more point than they do now.
As a result, expectations went through the roof and finishing in the top six became the minimum requirement for the season. However, the underlying data suggested that Reading weren’t quite as good as they seemed. Paunovic’s side were massively outperforming their expected goals metric (according to experimental361), which put them 14th in the table after 13 matches - worse off by 13 places and 12 points.
Maybe it was therefore inevitable that their good form could not be maintained and they suffered an almighty capitulation in the second half of the season to finish seventh, seven points outside of the play-offs. The majority of supporters would have been happy with that before the start of the campaign, but it was largely seen as a failure given Reading’s fast start and Paunovic never fully regained the backing of portions of the fanbase.
Perhaps, therefore, Ince is covering his own back if things again turn pear-shaped and the team’s form nosedives. If he never publicly states that finishing in the top six is a possibility, he won’t have to defend himself if Reading don’t achieve that. For what it’s worth, the expected goals metric (again according to experimental361) currently has the Royals 10th in the Championship, worse off by five places and four points. So a potential drop-off should be expected, but the team are still performing remarkably well.
The key question is whether the owner’s expectations have changed in the last two months. But finding out what Dai Yongge thinks has almost always been an unanswerable question throughout his five-and-a-half-year tenure. In the absence of any interviews and barring an ultra-rare club statement or open letter, it has never been clear what he expects season-on-season. His unspoken ambition is clearly to win promotion to the Premier League, but his blueprint or requirements for each manager and campaign are hard to gauge.
What we can go back to is BBC Radio Berkshire’s interview with head of football operations Mark Bowen in the summer, when he discussed what a good season would like for Reading.
“On the one hand I’ll say, because of the restrictions we’re in now, first and foremost let’s make sure we get a good base and we’re able to be competitive and stay in this league,” Bowen said.
“At the same time, I’ll highlight the likes of Luton Town and Huddersfield who the year before last were finishing way down in the league. Then through due diligence, good management and 100 other things, look where they were last year. So I still say that through all our problems, because I’m glass half-full, why can’t we be pushing up towards that top end if we do things right?”
Bowen sits on the fence there, but it is worth exploring the two sides of the coin that he discusses. Least of all, we should remind ourselves of those restrictions that the club continue to work under. After losing a hefty number of players in the summer, Reading’s squad has been cobbled together while adhering to the EFL’s business plan. They cannot pay transfer fees, compensation fees or loan fees and they have a a total player wage bill cap of £16million, an average player salary cap and an individual player salary cap.
These restrictions act as Reading’s punishment for breaching profitability and sustainability rules. They are meant to be a detriment. Similar restrictions relegated Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County, so if Reading avoid the same fate even by just one point, it should be considered an excellent achievement.
But Bowen also shows an optimism that we haven’t really seen from Ince yet. The Welshman is right to point out that the Championship always produces a surprise promotion contender or two. That’s what makes the league so enthralling. After the promise they have shown in the first 13 games, why shouldn’t that be Reading this year?
The middle ground here is probably the view of ‘if we’re in the same position in January, then we should go for it’. But what would ‘going for it’ entail in the new year? It would usually mean a busy transfer window - à la Bournemouth last season or indeed Reading in 2016/17 - when reinforcements are brought in to see the club over the line into the top six.
But the Royals are in no position to do that. The reality is likely to be much more like 2020/21 when Reading were the only Championship club not to make a signing in the January transfer window. That ultimately proved costly as such a small squad could not handle the promotion run-in, while Barnsley’s key January arrival Darryl Dike fired them into the play-offs at Reading’s expense.
That again highlights the struggle that the Royals face. Burnley, Norwich City and Sheffield United spent almost £40million between them in the summer and will have the resources to cement their places in the top six come January. Reading will not. There is a reason why Ince’s side remain 17th favourites for promotion with bookmakers, behind West Brom and Middlesbrough who are currently 22nd and 21st in the table respectively.
But this is the Championship. Anything can happen. No one expected Reading to be where they are now, so you would hope that many would know better than to write them off because Ince and his team are relishing proving the doubters wrong.
Equally, there would be no shame in falling away from the promotion picture as it is worth an occasional reminder of the circumstances that the club continues to operate under. It is nothing short of remarkable that we are even discussing promotion as a possibility.