High: At least there was one game this month we didn’t lose... (January 3)
You know a month was particularly terrible when the only possible option for a high point was still a really poor result in isolation. Drawing 2-2 with Derby County in the first match of 2022 was as good as it got for Reading in January; after all, it’s the only time we didn’t lose.
Junior Hoilett put the Royals 2-0 up via goals either side of half-time, with the former a particularly good hit from long range. However, the Rams struck back in the 86th and 91st minutes through Colin Kazim-Richards and Curtis Davies. It was a collapse reminiscent of what we’d already seen at the SCL earlier in the season - Reading having capitulated in a 3-3 draw with Queens Park Rangers and 3-2 defeat to Blackpool.
Had Reading been able to hold on against Derby, it would have been a big shot in the arm for a side that badly needed it. The Royals were at that point winless at home since mid-October (with just two victories on the road in that period), and needed a positive result against relegation rivals. In reality this game ended up as yet another confidence blow - and one which foreshadowed worse matches to come...
Low: The wrong end of a cup upset (January 8)
January contained enough rock-bottom lows to fill half the year, let alone one month, so it’s hard to pick out just the one. I could have gone for the 2-2 collapse against Derby, the 7-0 battering by Fulham, a late capitulation at Middlesbrough, dire 2-0 home defeat to Luton Town or 4-0 thrashing by QPR.
Instead let’s go back to where the implosion really began: the 2-1 defeat at Kidderminster Harriers. Even with a weakened side playing below its best away from home, Reading should have been able to get past non-league opposition, but the Royals barely looked like scoring (bar George Puscas’ opener) and fell apart in the second half. Even at 2-1 down, there were few signs of Reading mounting a comeback.
The mood in the fanbase had been restless before the match but it became truly apocalyptic afterwards. Demands for Veljko Paunovic to be sacked were overwhelming, while fears over the club’s short- and long-term future rose to a level that felt unprecedented in recent years. One result flipped Reading from being in a bad run to being in an existential crisis. It would be quite some time for the damage to be repaired.
Low: 150th anniversary celebrations fall flat (February 12)
Again, there are multiple options for the low point of this month: the drab 0-0 at Peterborough United and 4-1 battering at Blackpool in Paul Ince’s second game are both possibilities. The real nadir however was the 3-2 defeat at home to Coventry City - Reading’s eighth consecutive loss in all competitions.
It should have been a day of joy, with Reading’s 150th anniversary celebrations postponed to this game from the original date in December due to Covid-19. However, everything that could go wrong did: Reading again blew a lead (gained through Lucas Joao), Junior Hoilett was sent off for two yellow cards and Tom Ince missed a glorious chance to make it 3-3. At full time, the scenes of some angry and frustrated fans taking to the pitch to vent their emotions were a stark reminder of just how toxic the atmosphere had become.
High: Pauno finally put out of his misery (February 19)
February 19 2022 was a bittersweet day for Veljko Paunovic. By this point he’d long been a dead man walking, with even his biggest sympathisers in the fanbase preferring him to be put out of his misery rather than kept on while Reading’s dire run of form continued.
He did at least though manage to sign off with a 3-2 win at Preston North End thanks to goals from Joao (x2) and John Swift. Although Reading looked like again throwing away the lead by conceding twice in the second half, they just about held on for a vital three points. It was an uncharacteristically confident, positive display and a result that took us all by surprise - we’d forgotten what a win was like!
It also proved to be the turning point for Reading’s season in a larger way. Straight after the game it was announced that Paunovic would be replaced by Paul Ince on an interim basis, a decision which ultimately helped keep the Royals in the Championship. Well over a month after Pauno should have been sacked, Reading finally made a vital change in the dugout.
As a side note, the following day Reading’s weekend got even better. Noel Hunt returned to the club as senior professional development coach, taking charge of the under-23 side.
Low: Taken apart at the City Ground (March 12)
Although Paul Ince got off to a winning start by beating Birmingham City in late February, after that point things got worse before they got better. Reading’s then-interim boss racked up three defeats on the bounce, with the final game in that trio being the worst of the bunch: a 4-0 battering at the City Ground.
While the first half wasn’t all that bad, Reading fell apart in the second half and went home with their tails between their legs. On the evidence of this game - as well as the prior losses to Blackpool and Millwall - the Royals were making little to no progress under their new gaffer and there were serious doubts that the side could avoid relegation.
Reading needed a big improvement from the standard shown at the City Ground if they were to stay up...
High: The turnaround begins on the south coast (March 15)
After that rough afternoon at the City Ground, it wasn’t long before the green shoots of recovery started to emerge. Just a few days in fact. While the first half of the trip to Bournemouth wasn’t all that impressive, Reading came alive after the break, deservedly fought back to 1-1 and would have been good value for another goal too.
It was the first sign of a big performance for a big occasion under Paul Ince. When the chips were down, Reading were after all capable of rising to the challenge and getting the job done. We’d go on to see similar in the 1-0 win over Blackburn Rovers a few days later, the 1-1 draw at Barnsley, 2-1 late win at Sheffield United and comeback 4-4 draw at home to Swansea City.
It was also a great night for Tom Ince. Having been in earshot of chants from the away end for Paul Ince to get his son off the pitch, Ince Junior responded with a well-taken and hugely important goal. That could well have been the confidence booster that led to his standout performances this season.