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Who Should Replace Veljko Paunovic?

With Pauno’s exit seemingly not far off, who are the key candidates to keep an eye on?

Reading v Huddersfield Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by John Early/Getty Images

Veljko Paunovic has to go. We’ve known this since the Kidderminster Harriers defeat, and yet the club has ummed and ahhed for a month, wasting crucial time in our battle against the drop. Arguments to the contrary have entirely dried up in the month since that FA Cup defeat and indeed the now unclear reports that Pauno was due to be fired on Valentine’s Day sent the #readingfc hashtag on Twitter into a frenzy of celebration.

Now though, the situation remains as murky as ever, and it’s even worth questioning again how easily Reading can financially afford to switch manager within the terms of their “business plan”. That doesn’t mean no replacements are available though, especially ones who could at least change the atmosphere around the club before we even get to results. While we rail against the club and call for Pauno’s immediate sacking, it’s worth being educated on which coaches are actually available to a lower Championship club, and what options exist within the club.

The internal(ish) candidates

Nottingham Forest v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

The first man to mention is obviously Michael Gilkes. Indeed, many of us thought he’d be in the role by now at least in an interim sense. He would be the obvious go-to for the role right now given his position as academy manager.

One of the few positively social posts from the club was an interview he gave about the progress of the academy this season. Gilkes spoke clearly and confidently about successes and failings in the academy this year, and generally gave the perception of a man with a plan: something that has been sorely lacking in Pauno’s press appearances in recent months.

It is worth noting though that while Reading have a reputation as a club with an excellent academy, the under-23 side has won just three league games all season and is rooted to the bottom of the Premier League 2 Division 2 table. I’m willing to accept that disruption to the squad caused by constant injuries may have affected the performance of the team, but you’d ask questions of any manager in that situation. Expect Gilkes to be installed as interim manager when Pauno goes, but don’t be surprised if the appointment doesn’t last long.

Tottenham Hotspur v Reading - Premier League Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images

Two candidates previously connected to Reading I’ve seen doing the rounds are Graeme Murty and Jobi McAnuff. I think these two go together as a nice pair. They’re both captains from a previously successful Reading team. They’ve both had some recent experience of management, but for both a Championship head-coaching role would be far and away their biggest responsibility so far. Their names are both most likely brought up affectionately rather than particularly seriously when discussing the management post.

Reading are seriously in need of a feel-good factor though. You could see that in the way the positivity of Andy Carroll joining was enough to gee up the team for a few weeks and help the team to a victory on the road in Swansea.

All that said, you do wonder what the current team will think of the appointment of old players, especially those that didn’t come up through the academy. To Toms McIntyre and Holmes, Murty may be an absolute legend. To Alen Halilovic or Junior Hoilett though, he’s a Championship-level Scottish right back who hasn’t played or coached for a long time. Perhaps, to suit this team, it would be better to choose players that the team actually know…

Michael Morrison as player-manager

Reading v Crystal Palace - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Here’s a preferred candidate of the Twitter masses that I can potentially get behind. Morro, scorer of silky goals and hairdresser extraordinaire, has been one of Reading’s most consistent performers since arriving at the Madejski three summers ago.

Now, on top of his on-field contributions, Morrison has started to try his hand at coaching, being present on the sideline during recent youth games. We obviously know nothing about his coaching strategies, management nous or tactical style at this stage; it’s far too early for that. But what are we getting out of Paunovic right now? Certainly not the benefit of his years of experience coaching.

Moreover, while Morrison was undoubtedly our best defender through his first season and a half with the club, his performances have slipped somewhat in the last year as injuries have begun to pile up. Perhaps splitting his duties between coaching and playing when there isn’t a better option available.

Reading’s defence must be improved. This side has shown that, when fully fit, there are goals to be scored (when Pauno hasn’t tactically neutered his attackers). The issue appears to be that we have to score at least three to have even a chance of a win right now - something that cannot continue. In his capacity as a captain for both Birmingham City and Reading, you would be shocked if Morrison hadn’t developed knowledge of a wide variety of defensive schemes and preferences for the way a side should be set up. If he can convey that to the players, perhaps Reading’s leaky back line could tighten up just a little.

In an ideal world, this appointment wouldn’t happen until Scott Dann came back, but we’re 21st in the Championship - we’re not in ideal-world territory. McIntyre’s reintroduction into the side could be a catalyst to make this happen. With two Championship-ready players at CB in the form of the academy Toms, Morrison should have more than enough.

Garry Monk or Gareth Ainsworth - younger project builders

Sheffield Wednesday v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mick Walker - CameraSport via Getty Images

When assessing the available names out there in the EFL world, the big shame is that Alex Neil was given the Sunderland job recently. Sure, the fact that the Black Cats snapped him up suggests Reading might not have had the funds to tie him down to a long contract, but if we were talking dream appointments, that would have been it for me.

The big question this train of thought raises is whether the club needs a project-builder or a firefighter. With the relegation zone just two points away, the firefighter would seem like the better option, but also smacks of yet another short-term strategic plan at the managerial position. Reading desperately need to plan with more than just the next three months in mind, and installing a younger manager who will want to begin a project with Reading shouldn’t mean the club has to accept relegation to do so.

With no Neil available, Garry Monk might slip into this discussion. Prior to joining two FFP-restricted teams in Birmingham City and Sheffield Wednesday, Monk had an average Championship winning percentage north of 40%. At Birmingham, his failings were often let off by a press which acknowledged that issues above his head were letting him down. Despite that, he did all he could to stop the club’s perpetual cycle of relegation struggle - something Reading could desperately deal with right now.

Reading v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Meanwhile, down the road at Wycombe, Gareth Ainsworth’s high-flying Wanderers appear to be having a great time. Results in recent weeks have meant their promotion charge stalling somewhat though, and you wonder if the locally based Ainsworth could be tempted to make the step back up to the Championship.

You can argue that he would be mad to leave a job he’s been in for 10 years for us, and I’d be sympathetic to that argument. But consider the wave of positivity Ainsworth would have behind his back in the summer if he did come in and keep the Royals up. In just two months he could take a bad situation and turn it into one that would be incredibly promising for himself and his career. Remember how much goodwill Jose Gomes had generated in the summer of 2019? Now imagine adding managerial talent to that, and we might be looking at a dream appointment!

Tony Pulis/Neil Warnock - the elder statesmen

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Dread it, run from it, route-one football arrives all the same. To argue the devil’s advocate to the above, Reading have to stay up this year. Working our way through the EFL’s business plan over this season and next is going to have us struggling to compete with the free-spending clubs at the top of this league, but could allow us to turn the corner afterward. However, if we dropped into League One, the damage done to our finances could be irreparable for a decade.

What’s more, teams just do not seem to be coming back from League One with any regularity these days. It took Sheffield United years and an inspired managerial situation to work their way back. Meanwhile, Sunderland are recording some of the biggest attendances ever in League One… and still can’t find their way up. Getting relegated into that division could be the end of Reading’s relevancy for years to come, and so must be avoided by any costs.

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

If you want to avoid relegation, you need to become hard to beat, and when it comes to being hard to beat, Pulis and Warnock are parked-bus masters supreme.

The obvious response to this is that we can’t afford them. You’re probably right about that. But are they as expensive or in-demand as they were just a few years ago? Warnock has been a Championship manager this year, despite telling his wife it was time to retire after being fired by Cardiff City. In that time he was much derided by Boro fans, and left in no great shakes before Chris Wilder made his contributions seem irrelevant.

The star of many formerly successful Premier League/Championship yo-yo managers has really started to decline in recent years, and Pulis is no different. The long-time Stoke City boss has never really settled since leaving the Potteries, and hasn’t worked since a spell with Sheffield Wednesday in 2020. It may be hard to convince him to pick up Pauno’s mess, but with a break like that on his CV, it couldn’t hurt to ask!

A compromise pick: John O’Shea

Reading v Chelsea - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

Is it possible that we let a fantastic candidate for our managerial position slip through the cracks a few months ago? Although it seemed fairly innocuous at the time, it now appears that letting John O’Shea leave in the summer could have been one of the worst decisions of the season.

Indeed, the loss of O’Shea (and Eddie Niedzwiecki) over the same already uncertain summer appears to have been one of the direct contributors to Reading’s defensive decline. It’s not impossible, but unlikely that the workmanlike O’Shea was having a huge impact on coaching the attackers. More likely the lack of O’Shea’s presence in the coaching staff was a contributor to deficiencies and details missed in defensive coaching. Taking this wild speculation a tad too far, is it possible the set-play defending issues at the start of the season were a direct consequence of the loss of two long-time coaches?

In any case, O’Shea clearly has a desire to get into management. If we’re looking for a coach who’s hungry for success, knows the club and has experience at the highest level (albeit as a player, not a manager), he’s more than likely the cheapest possible option for ticking all of those boxes.

Not one of the above mentioned men could fix the issues at Reading in a heartbeat. Any one of them would provide evidence of some sort of plan though - something that has been lacking both on and off the pitch for what seems like an eternity. More importantly, any one of them would go a long way to changing the atmosphere around the club and giving us a fighting chance of staying up this season.

There is still time, and if the club makes one single correct decision, we could end the year well clear of relegation. Whether they will… that remains to be seen.