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The Realities Of Relegation

A look into what could be, should the Royals drop into League One. I’ll warn you it’s not pretty.

Reading v AFC Bournemouth - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Relegation couldn’t come at a worse time for Reading FC, so let’s examine what it could mean if it happens. Whilst it’s never been a good thing, our recent experiences of it have only been back to the Championship. If you can’t remember the millennium, then prepare for a hefty reality check!

Rolling back to 1998 when Reading last dropped into the third tier, the club and football overall was another world. The soon-to-open Madejski Stadium would be one of the very few brand-new, purpose-built, modern all-seater stadiums in the game. Add RFC’s business pioneering chairman in John Madejski, relegation felt like a bump in the road towards greater things for both club and town. Despite their circumstances, the Royals epitomised the ambitious “new money” image of smaller clubs looking to change football. Plus, with a manager of Tommy Burns’ calibre, attracting players to Berkshire didn’t seem too much of an issue – initially.

Back to the present day, there’s arguably nothing that makes RG2 a “unique” or “favourable option” against our rivals as we had back then. Should we go down, we might be deemed “one of the big clubs” in the league but our current predicament puts us at frankly a disadvantaged position. The EFL’s Financial Fair Play-related embargoes on RFC hamper things significantly. Freedom from those restrictions won’t occur (so to speak) until 2023/24, so in the meantime we’re running within their set business plan.

That means tighter finances, lower wages and still not buying anyone. League status aside, the Royals need to wipe around £5m off the wage bill this summer. Whether you agree with those rules is irrelevant – turning them over would take months and involve getting all other EFL clubs to agree with us. That’s not happening, so one hopes in the long run the owners learn a lesson.

Therefore, realistically rule out being contenders to go straight back up. The likes of Rotherham United and Wigan Athletic only do so because they keep most of their squad and managerial team intact. Not to mention staying within FFP rules. Also look at Charlton Athletic, Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday etc. A hard road potentially lays ahead as they’ve dropped out the Championship in similar acrimony and not been seen again.

Fleetwood Town v Wigan Athletic - Sky Bet League One - Highbury Stadium Photo by Clint Hughes/PA Images via Getty Images

Some believe relegation could be the big reset the club needs. Whilst there’s something to that, the few (if any) positives it could spring won’t be afforded to us due to our ongoing issues. The exodus of nearly the entire squad come May means big changes are afoot wherever we are. Pauno and crew look set to be among those departures, if not before.

Remember those doubts about signing Scott Dann, Junior Hoilett and Andy Carroll? Being in League One we’ll be lucky if one or two signings have the professional stature of those guys. Now imagine having those thoughts on nearly an entire squad of incomings and an under-23s team that needs the same rebuild.

Furthermore, high earners in Liam Moore and George Puscas could still be on the books, meaning the club finds itself in a standoff to even make signings. They’ll have to go just to balance the books before any rebuild and the same could go for Ovie Ejaria and Yakou Meite. For reference, look at the Sunderland and Jack Rodwell scenario. In 2018 as Sunderland dropped into League One, Rodwell had a year left on a lucrative deal signed in the Premier League and the two parties had a very public impasse. Perhaps this could explain the pariah status Moore now finds himself in?

It’s hard to find anyone currently in the squad fans universally want to stay. Yet in just a few weeks we face the prospect of not even having a recognised starting eleven at all. Whichever league we’re in, someone must start the rebuild so needs to be in place ASAP. It’s worth remembering Paunovic’s appointment was so late he missed the first game of the season due to Covid restrictions. If that wasn’t late enough, decisions on his departure are dragging out. Given all the above, the idea of a quick appointment seems fanciful at best, but it really is required.

Reading in League One will need every advantage it can grab, especially with keeping and attracting talent. Our restrictions dictate money won’t do it, so logic implies vision and reputation must. The advantage we can give ourselves either needs to be a grand plan (probably my blind hope) and or a big name fronting it that players (and fans) can buy into. Put bluntly, if our plan isn’t obvious or successful then the club will continue to slide. We’re not there yet but it could certainly happen, especially given the lack of clarity fans are currently demonstrating for.

Reading v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images

Sticking with club affairs, dropping into League One could inflict the biggest turbulence of all: the status of Reading FC’s owners. A lot has been said about Dai Yongge and co. recently, so let’s just keep this simple. Will they stay interested?

It might sound hyperbolic, but owners who have backed a winless manager since November suggests either blind faith or ignorance to current ongoings. Twinned with demonstrations from fans unhappy with how the owners run RFC, change is certainly in the air. If they’re not focused on RFC’s plight in the present, then what of its future and their place in it? This has to be asked because their plan for the club hasn’t worked and fan sentiment towards them is going downhill quickly.

Relegation will put Dai’s investment into the spotlight and the listed issues here present the Royals as arriving at an important junction which could create a vacuum for wholesale change. Whilst other football clubs the Dais have owned have gone to the wall, I doubt they saw the money that’s been spent in Berkshire. That’s something at least. Ultimately however, our plight is this regime’s making, leaving few options going forward:

  • Change course and operate a new model of Dai either being hands-on or putting someone in place who will be. The perceived agent-led approach at RFC is arguably causing its downfall. Fans simply won’t tolerate more of the same style of ownership we’ve seen so far, thus change must be an option.
  • Cut their losses. Here we’d follow Derby County as Dai imitates Mel Morris by pulling all funding whilst still owning parts of RFC. This would leave our already debt-ridden club to fend for itself and be sold off piece by piece as it calls in the administrators. Don’t forget that triggers another points deduction and a likely spiral down the leagues.
  • The shoe-string option. Think Newcastle under Mike Ashley, where the club is given minimal investment to tighten finances and make it a good prospect for those looking to buy. This could compromise any on-field success and roll over several years as the owner doesn’t wish to commit on an investment, he wants rid of.

Whilst the above scenarios might not happen, it’s hugely important to factor in that two of them would likely be the death knell of Reading FC as we know it. Put into perspective, Derby’s average home attendance is 10,000 fans per match more than we see at the Mad Stad. In short, the Rams generate greater revenue despite their woes and ultimately have a larger pool of supporters willing to act and step in.

Similarly, whilst Newcastle gleefully celebrated Ashley’s departure, they’re one of the best-supported football clubs in the country, meaning any owner-directed boycott had negligible effect. Thus, they remained solvent despite fans wishing to aggravate Ashley’s pockets into action. Reading doesn’t have the reach of either club to sustain a similar fight the club’s future may need. It’s sad but true. If the worst were to happen, then the Royals’ story could pan out like Bolton or Portsmouth.

Bolton Wanderers v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

Now to life in League One.

Are there any upsides? Sure, if you’re aiming to do as many of the Football League’s 92 grounds as possible. We could even see the return of local derby games against Oxford United, Swindon Town and Wycombe Wanderers! But let’s take a closer look.

You might be willing to pay Championship prices for a League One ticket, but what about others? If they don’t, it doesn’t make them any less of a fan at all as people’s situations change. But crowds at the SCL have undeniably been shrinking since before the pandemic and even more so the last few months. Why should anyone pay the same price for a game in a lower division?

There are numerous fans expressing they’re already priced out or it hasn’t felt value for money. Not to mention recent seasons just haven’t been fun, so why would they keep coming? As pockets are being squeezed, it could come down to a choice of renewing your Reading season ticket or your football TV subscriptions?

Think of it this way. Imagine your supermarket asking you to pay the same for the budget and standard range of groceries? You’re not likely to pick the budget version, are you?

There’s also the car park debacle. The SCL’s car park is reportedly still owned by RFC’s former owners who wanted to build “Royal Elm Park.” Again, the club has faced negativity for parking prices, but how much control do they have here? This alone presents a barrier towards fan attendance.

Historically the Royals are often the “second team” of locals who also support a Premier League side. I’d argue that, given Reading’s location and demographic, this is a problem we suffer more from than others. Again, it doesn’t make anyone a “lesser fan,” but it is a factor the club has been forever battling. Dropping down a division will lessen its ability to convert passive fans into active ones, as experiencing a League One game just won’t compare to a short trip up to London to watch a top-flight match.

In League One crowds will inevitably decrease further and ticket prices would have to follow suit. Especially for younger fans as they’re Reading FC’s future. They must be encouraged to keep attending as they make up a significant proportion of match attendees. But all of this will eat further into the club’s shrinking pockets whilst costs for running games remain the same. Unlike players, you can’t dock stewards and ticket office staff salaries because we’ve been relegated. However, you can employ fewer of them.

As stated, Reading’s base costs won’t decrease, therefore relegation will weigh heavy on the staff we take for granted. The administrative side of the club, along with match-day staff could face redundancies. It’s a harsh reality. If you think the club’s run badly now, imagine trying to do it with less resource.

Efficiencies would have to be made and we could return to seeing sections of stands closed off and fewer staff at matches. For some games, stands or sections of them may not open at all. Initiatives like Club 1871 could be asked to move so that the club can keep costs down by not opening the entire SCL. All of this whilst the Royals will be playing more matches. Yes more.

Despite dropping a league, more will be asked of the playing squad. We’ll be entering the FA Cup earlier and playing in the EFL Trophy, which will add at least three extra matches into the schedule. This will mean more evening games and potentially more rearrangements, which in turn could mean lower attendance gates. See where this is going?

Roll back 20 years and some nights at the SCL could be quite depressing especially if results weren’t going well. Sections of covered seating acting as crowd control because there wasn’t demand in the home stands. As only half the South Stand would open for away fans there was constant chanting of our ground being too big for us. Even worse on the rare occasions away followings took the whole stand.

At times it certainly felt apt as we couldn’t fill the sections made available. Some cup games saw only the East and Lower West stands open at all. Back then Reading was a club future-proofing itself for better days. A full house inspires an atmosphere and can quell chides from oppositions fans. But knowing now the SCL isn’t as full as it has been, this could embolden teams to come at a club seemingly on its way down.

Reading v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Now comes the biggest blow.

Being in the Championship, the Royals receive around £4.5m as their share from the distribution of the Premier League’s TV deals. Clubs in League One get circa £700k each. Such a change to the club’s incomings is catastrophic. Can you imagine living off £45 a week to then having to do it on just £7? Whilst extra money can be made by being on TV, a third-tier match appears on Sky every two months at best. Relegation will trigger a one-off parachute payment around £500k, but frankly we won’t see that given our ongoing issues.

There’s also the inconvenience that Reading games will continue over international weekends. That’s if they’re not postponed due to player commitments here, meaning more rearranged fixtures. The cycle continues…

There has been talk that the Category One status of Reading FC’s academy could be in jeopardy should we be relegated. Interestingly Sunderland have kept their status despite having been in League One for some time. Whether the Royals can maintain theirs, given financial burdens, only time will tell.

This isn’t the worst time to be a Reading fan, but with so much at stake there hasn’t been a more important time to be one since Robert Maxwell’s attempted merger. The club’s next few years hinge beyond this season’s remaining games. But there’s no shying away that two decades of progress could be frittered away very cheaply in just a few weeks. Relegation won’t be a blip, but a very different place.

Owners aside, it really is us against a very different awaiting world.