For the first time this season, Reading are in something of a rut. While Paul Ince’s tactics certainly didn’t help, Reading’s overall performance on the pitch wasn’t good enough. As Reading conceded their third for Swansea to complete their turnaround, it would have been tough to argue that the Welsh side didn’t deserve their win.
Three losses in a row then, and this was very arguably the worst performance of the lot. Let’s not lose the plot. It’s been a weird season so far for everyone in this league. Blackburn Rovers are joint top with seven losses, whereas two teams in the relegation zone have just five losses each. There’s still eight points between the Royals and the drop zone, so the main goal of the season is being met, but Paul Ince does need to arrest this slide soon.
Reading will have a chance to put things right against Bristol City this weekend, and could really do with taking the opportunity, given that a trip to high-flying Burnley awaits them the week after. Lose to Bristol City and Reading could very reasonably be staring at a five-game loss streak that could erase much of the goodwill that Paul Ince has built around the squad with their hot start.
Because misery loves company, my mind couldn’t help but wander back to last season’s bright start to the autumn that fizzled to nothing. Hopes were reasonably high in summer 2021 that while Reading were unlikely to repeat the playoff push of 2020/21, they also weren’t likely to be troubled by relegation. How wrong we were…
After a 4-0 loss away at Huddersfield Town to close out August 2021, Reading were looking in dire straits, with just one win and 13 goals conceded in five games. They couldn’t defend a set play to save their lives and had little to say going forward.
After an international break though, the team looked reborn. Paunovic was able to rally his team to five wins in seven, including a glorious away day at Craven Cottage.
The fizzle began though, alarmingly, on October 20, and even more alarmingly with a 2-0 lead turned around into a 3-2 defeat. That choke came against Neil Critchley’s Blackpool and the game looked similar to the recent defeat to Swansea. Blackpool dominated the game and played some nice stuff before falling two behind against the run of play.
Then, they methodically made their way back into the match and patiently chipped away at Reading’s flagging resistance until all that was left was bitter disappointment on the part of the fans.
After that reverse, Reading would go on to lose three further games and then a stretch that saw them win just two games out of 19. That stretch culminated in the eight-game losing streak that made Paunovic’s job untenable, and put left Reading only outside of the relegation zone thanks to Derby’s significant points deduction.
Come the hour, come the Ince(s) though, and while Reading shocked the league when they handed Paul Ince his first job in eight years, he was of course able to do enough to get us over the line.
This season has started well under Ince. It’s impossible to deny that, but that’s not to say the slide isn’t alarming. A fast start and a slide mirrors Paul Ince’s last managerial role at Blackpool. There, he guided Blackpool to a strong start but seemed bereft of ideas when the Tangerines ran into a run of bad form.
If I can posit some positivity though, I don’t think that will be our fate this year.
Last year’s slide feels as though it was as much about the incredibly poor feeling around the club as it was anything on the pitch. Pauno had lost the dressing room, the owners seemed uninterested in communicating to the fanbase and the players were unmotivated on the pitch. Given the summer of improvement, it’s easy to forget that in February fans were literally protesting.
It’s also easy to forget just how hard a play-off disappointment can be for a team’s confidence and cohesion. Huddersfield, who finished one game short of the Premier League last season, look completely bereft of any sign of the class that got them into that match.
This year at Reading is different. We have a real football structure in place and a seeming desire to communicate the ins and outs of the club to the fans. Mark Bowen and Paul Ince have made themselves available to fans and media alike to explain their visions, and while I may not always agree with them, you have to commend their effort.
I also trust that if things with Paul Ince truly cannot work out, then Bowen will know the right time to step in and make a managerial change.
But I think Ince will work it out. The energy around the club is better this year. Last year, we had a squad of players on contracts that ended in the summer, unsure if they were going to be given a reasonable contract offer considering the club’s financial circumstances, and still feeling the sting of the previous season’s play-off disappointment. Even those players felt motivated by Ince’s presence in the dressing room. Ince was able to drag a squad of exiting players over the finish line, and to some of their best results in months.
And tactically, while Ince has managed some stinkers for Reading, he’s also helped the side to grind out some impressive victories. He’s shown willingness to mold and adapt his team as well. The return to a back three this year showed that Ince has ideas which go beyond motivating his squad, and allay at least some fears that we’d be seeing dated and limited ideas. He may still muck it up, but for somebody who was out of management for a long time, he’s taken to it again impressively.
This year, as Tom Ince pointed out, this squad wants to “prove people wrong”. More importantly, they believe they have the quality to do it. I really believe that they have the quality to keep themselves well clear of the relegation zone this year, and I trust that the club in particular can arrest this mini slide.
And to risk making my worst prediction of the year: that eight-game losing streak in particular is unlikely to repeat itself… right?
…oh God, what have I done?