“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Those are the words uttered by vigilante Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight and there is a sense that this is what is currently happening with Veljko Paunovic. For a while, he was the next Royal king in waiting. The man to lift Reading from their Championship slumber to an unlikely promotion to the Premier League.
It was one year ago last Saturday (January 29) that Paunovic guided Reading to a 3-1 win over Bournemouth that moved the Royals level on points with the Championship top two and eight points clear of seventh place. With slick, free-flowing football, they tore their fellow promotion contenders apart and were three goals up at half time.
Unknown to Paunovic, or indeed any of us, that game proved to be the peak of his tenure. Reading have just 13 victories in the 12 months since then. They had won 14 in the previous four months alone.
If you needed reminding, Saturday’s 4-0 defeat to Queens Park Rangers was Reading’s sixth consecutive loss and brought the bubbling frustrations of the fanbase to the fore again. There is anger towards almost all areas of the football club at the moment, but it is increasingly being directed at Paunovic. It is increasingly easy to see why.
Let’s be clear here. There is a lot wrong with Reading at the moment: a lot that will not be resolved by the manager leaving. Paunovic is not the cause of all Reading’s problems and nor would his departure be an all-encompassing solution. But as the defeats stack up - because losing is no longer a possibility but an inevitability - he becomes more and more a figure of ridicule.
And quite frankly he doesn’t help himself. Results, tactics and in-game issues aside, Paunovic continues to alienate supporters with naive and ignorant post-match interviews. He rarely refuses to accept blame even after the most harrowing of results and continues to give rationalisations that people are sick of hearing.
Take last weekend’s loss at QPR for example. To suggest that, “between the goals, we played well” is an insult to fans and only worsened the mood after the game. While it would be untrue to say that having a better grasp on the fanbase’s feelings and concerns could keep Pauno in a job, there would certainly not be as much hostility towards him.
It does not feel like it amid all the current fury and resentment, but there is a lot to commend Paunovic for during his time at Reading. Forget excuses, reasons or whatever you want to call them, the hard fact is that he has worked under more difficult circumstances than any Reading manager in the modern era. Amid chaos behind the scenes, Paunovic has probably taken on more responsibility than we will ever know.
In the transfer market, he has never been able to operate without some form of restriction in place. Whether it has been a transfer embargo, having to adhere to the EFL’s agreed business plan or just simply not being able to spend a single penny on a permanent signing, at least one of his hands has always been tied. That’s without mentioning that Kia Joorabchian reportedly has a near-monopoly on recruitment.
An unprecedented amount of injuries have made life incredibly difficult for Reading this season and squad depth was also a major undoing last year, which was also out of Paunovic’s control. Then there’s the six-point deduction that punished the club for things that happened before he was even in Berkshire.
Consider the fact that he was appointed just six days before the start of last season and, due to quarantine rules, only took his first in-person training session in the week leading up the first league game against Derby County. The fact that he guided Reading to 22 points from the first 24 available, along with six clean sheets, is nothing short of remarkable and shouldn’t be forgotten no matter how badly is tenure is destined to end.
Barring three games in December 2020 when 2,000 were permitted to attend, Paunovic managed his whole first season behind closed doors, making it much more difficult for him to forge a relationship with supporters among whom he was not a popular appointment. Despite this, he became hailed as a savour incredibly quickly.
It seems a never-ending cycle at Reading that managers enjoy a brief period of favour with fans before the mood quickly turns sour, but Paunovic has gone on an intensified form of this journey. Against the odds, he managed to rise higher than many of his predecessors, but he is now sinking lower too.
Because we’re now at the point where Reading’s form - six consecutive defeats and two wins in 17 - seems so unsalvageable that Paunovic is risking his reputation both among the fanbase and in the wider football world. Maybe that is incredibly brave in the face of adversity or perhaps it’s just plain stupid.
Many would argue that his relationship with Reading supporters is broken beyond repair and that is probably true for the duration of his tenure. But with the passing of time, wounds deserve to heal and history should note that Paunovic was not as bad a manager as he is currently being portrayed. Over recent weeks there seems to have been a forgiveness of, and yearning for, Jose Gomes, a man with a significantly worse win ratio at Reading than Paunovic. Yet the longer Paunovic goes on in such an ignorant way towards fans, the less chance there is of him being afforded the same exoneration.
Outside Berkshire there will be owners and sporting directors looking at the way Paunovic’s Reading tenure is ending and making a note to steer clear of appointing him in the future. This must surely be in the back of his mind: the current rut - no matter how much blame you pin on Paunovic - will not be good for his career prospects.
It says a lot about Reading’s poor track record of appointing managers that only two of the club’s last seven bosses - Gomes and Steve Clarke - are currently in managerial roles and Paunovic is currently heading the way of the five also-rans.
There must have been times over the last 18 months when he would have thought about walking away from the club. He has cut an increasingly frustrated figure as everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Quite frankly, I’m not sure anyone would blame him for resigning.
As the prospect of League One looms ever larger, Paunovic does not deserve the undignified end to his time in charge that we can all see coming. If Reading as reported really cannot afford to sack him, or Dai Yongge really does have such blind faith in him, then Paunovic should do the best thing for all parties and step down as manager.
To quote Oliver Cromwell, Leo Amery and latterly David Davis: Pauno, in the name of God, go.