Last week was excellent for Reading’s fan engagement.
On the Tuesday afternoon, with half-term underway, the first-team squad headed to The Oracle shopping centre in the middle of town to meet supporters. It went down a treat, with a huge queue of young fans gaining great memories (as well as signed memorabilia) which they’ll treasure for years to come.
Paul Ince subsequently told the media how important the afternoon was:
“When I came in, I felt that there between the players, the club and the fans, there was a massive gap. One of the most important things this year was to bridge that gap and have a connection.
“It’s great that they came out – they’re the next generation! You see all the kids there… we want to get them to the stadium, and get the stadium full in the future.”
A day before the Oracle visit, Elm Park Royals released a two-part podcast with the Royals’ head of football operations, Mark Bowen, which had been recorded the previous week. Again, it was received very well indeed; fans are always delighted to get communication from the club’s hierarchy and this interview being done by a fan-led outlet was particularly appreciated. To Bowen’s credit, he was open and substantial with his answers.
You can find part one of that podcast here and the second part (in which Bowen takes fan questions) here.
Given where we were as a club in early 2022, we shouldn’t really take either event for granted. The attitude from supporters towards the squad was (understandably) so toxic in the early months of this year that a large-scale, public meet-and-greet would have been unwise. Imagine the players - let alone the manager - being sent down to The Oracle after they’d just lost 2-1 to Kidderminster Harriers, been demolished 7-0 by Fulham or lost eight on the bounce.
As for the idea of a Reading fan podcast interviewing the head of football operations? The club didn’t look like appointing one at all until Paul Ince spoke publicly of the need for Reading to change behind the scenes in late April. Even then, it wasn’t until mid-May that Bowen was finally installed.
Fast-forward to today and, if you really think about, neither event is all that remarkable. Neither the squad’s Oracle visit nor Elm Park Royals’ podcast with Bowen are out of tune with what we’ve come to expect from the Reading Football Club of late 2022. This now seems like a club that’s authentically tuned into the community and fanbase.
After all, there are plenty more examples of Reading getting supporter engagement right in the last six months or so. Bowen appeared on BBC Berkshire at the end of June to discuss his role at the club before doing similar at STAR’s Fans Forum (along with Paul Ince) in August. He even made sure the ‘Reading fans #13’ entry to the matchday squad list was restored.
The club gave a proper explanation for the academy downgrade in July, including setting out the ambition of regaining category-one status, while Noel Hunt spoke to the media on this subject the following month. Reading also fully explained and properly apologised for the lack of kits available to purchase this season.
On matchdays, last season’s half-time entertainment (done by TTE’s very own Ben Thomas) has continued into the current campaign. The club updated supporters when it had to be temporarily stopped due to a fungal disease affecting the pitch (not something I was expecting to type, in all honesty).
And speaking of grassroots, thousands of discounted tickets were given out to young fans to ensure a bumper home crowd for the 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town. It’s a great idea: Reading get more bums on seats in the short term and (hopefully) more supporters in the long term.
The media department even announced Shane Long’s arrival with an Oracle teaser video to reference years of “I’ve spotted Shane Long in The Oracle” Twitter jokes, and did similar for Andy Carroll’s rowboat goal celebration when he returned in September. Fan service at its absolute finest.
July 13, 2022
September 15, 2022
There’s a real mixture of content in there - some bigger things, some more mundane; some more serious, some less so. They all count though, each adding to the club’s standing with supporters. While no single event or action can turn around years of apathy, collectively they make a difference. Reading are consistently getting it right now, including holding their hands up when something’s gone wrong.
How much of it would have happened last season? Some, but not much. This feels like a substantially different organisation to the one which seemed steadfastly opposed to openly communicating with its own fans, was subject to a protest at the 150th anniversary match and decided to give out the fans’ player-of-the-season award at a private gala dinner.
Now though, supporters have far more trust and pride in Reading Football Club. I get that impression on matchdays in the general vibe of the crowd, as well as from how the tone and content of fans’ posts on Twitter has changed. There’s far less grumbling about how the club is run in general and more explicit praise, while the attitude ahead of individual games and the season overall is increasingly optimistic.
Most of that last point is of course down to results and performances. But even taking that into account, you’d have expected more pessimism if the club’s operations off the pitch weren’t held in as high regard as they are.
Still, there’s much further to go. If we are truly in a new chapter of Reading’s fan engagement, we’re still only on the first few pages. Decisively tackling the apathy that’s developed over the last decade or so takes time and consistency over the course of years, not just months. It’ll be measured by how attendances rise or fall in the coming seasons, and at the moment, they’re still nowhere near where they could be. All in good time though.
And it’s not as if everything’s perfect right now anyway. Three main concerns jump out at me to differing degrees.
First and foremost, are we now reliant on Mark Bowen? To all intents and purposes he’s done an excellent job as Reading’s head of football operations so far and that’s absolutely something to be lauded, but what happens if he leaves? Given how long it took to bring in someone like him in the first place, not to mention that the move probably only happened because of his prior link to the club, I’ve got my doubts that Reading would be able to make a quality replacement.
Then again, Reading have done a pretty good job of building up a behind-the-scenes structure more broadly. It’s not just Bowen who’s made an impact this year - Paul Ince deserves a huge amount of credit himself, as does director of recruitment Brian Carey. So, while it’s not currently a pressing priority, I’d be encouraged to see a succession plan at some point down the line.
Secondly, we’re still not hearing from Dai Yongge. I don’t feel too strongly about this given that we know what to expect of communication from the owner: he doesn’t do it, but Bowen addresses the fans instead. That’s fair enough. Still, the odd message would be a nice bonus.
Thirdly, where on earth is Dayong Pang? While Bowen’s rightly stepped to the fore since coming in, it’s not at all clear what Reading’s CEO does - although, to be fair, he was photographed holding up a flag in Wigan (he’s in the top left of the picture).
The best owners in the league. Fact. #readingfc pic.twitter.com/611KijS13k— micah (@m1871e) September 17, 2022
On the face of it, an absent CEO isn’t the biggest issue Reading will have this season. But I still find it odd at best and worrying at worst that we hear little from him (nothing substantial since just before the Coventry City match by my count) and have little clarity on what he actually does.
The first point is easy enough to solve: let’s hear more from him. While it makes sense for Bowen to be the primary communicator at boardroom level, that’s no excuse for complete radio silence from the CEO.
As for the second, where do Pang’s responsibilities end and Bowen’s begin? Around 17 minutes into part one of his chat with Elm Park Royals, Bowen said his remit not only covers outright footballing areas such as recruitment and the academy, but it also extends to others such as the media and commercial departments.
While discussing how hands-on he is in his position, Bowen said:
“...it’s the media department, it’s Tim [Kilpatrick] at commercial, although I guess I’m supposed to be covering the commercial department. I don’t know anything about the commercial department. We’ve got a good guy doing it - Tim - and you’ve just gotta basically... I’m here for him, giving him all the help I can, and let him get on with it.”
It strikes me as very peculiar that these areas of the club, which aren’t directly related to on-pitch matters, are being overseen by someone with footballing rather than business expertise. Surely they should fall under Pang’s remit, so why don’t they? Further, what does Pang do to support Bowen directly or reduce his workload? And if Bowen were to leave, would Pang have any input in the process of replacing him? Clarity on these questions would be appreciated.
In truth, Pang is probably CEO primarily due to his working relationship with Dai, which went back a “number of years” at the time of his arrival in 2020. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that - as a distant owner, it’s entirely reasonable for Dai to have someone he trusts in a senior position at the club on his behalf. But the situation we’re in with Pang - fans having to try to deduce this for themselves - feels more opaque than it needs to be. With a bit more openness and communication, this is all easily remedied.
I don’t say any of this to have a go at the club for the sake of it. On the contrary, Reading are in a far better situation nowadays for fan engagement than they were earlier on in the year; the improvement has been commendably quick and substantial. But it can still go further.