Well, the great Paunovic experiment has failed.
Early in the 2020/21 season, with Reading flying high in the Championship at the beginning of Veljko Paunovic’s reign, I put out a purely speculative tweet. In summary, I asked whether, should Reading not make the play-offs, Mark Bowen’s sacking and Paunovic’s subsequent appointment was pointless.
Needless to say, that tweet went down like a sack of bricks. I was deemed ‘total cock of the year’ by one Reading fan on Twitter.
As I write this just after the news broke that Paunovic left Reading sitting 21st in the Championship table, with one win in 10 games and the most toxic atmosphere that has existed around the club in the 21st century to date, the question I posed two autumns ago seems less absurd.
Bowen’s short tenure at the helm was imperfect, but by no means as bad as some fans remember it to be. In the summer of 2020, most would likely have hoped for an upper-mid-table finish to build on the previous season’s 14th-place finish, but little more. However, it did seem that we had a man in charge who knew the English game, and more importantly, the Championship.
That summer provided a brief respite from the Covid-19 pandemic. As the new season dawned and August drew on, it seemed like the club had lulled into a sense of stability. Aside from the rumoured tiff between Bowen and ex-captain Liam Moore (which, considering recent events, may have been more understandable than it seemed at the time), things looked vaguely positive.
Josh Laurent had joined on a free transfer from Shrewsbury Town earlier that summer, a signing that embodied the distant memory that was the ‘Reading way’. The squad size had been decreased, and Ovie Ejaria had completed his permanent move from Liverpool. With a good mix of younger and more experienced players blended throughout the squad, things seemed relatively steady.
Nigel Howe had left the club four days before Ejaria’s transfer was completed, but his departure as CEO didn’t cause a significant stir. Looking back, perhaps this moment was much more important than it seemed at the time.
What happened five days later did.
Social media went into meltdown as rumours began to fly around that Bowen had lost his job. The rise of Eddie Wallbank, the all-seeing and all-knowing fan informant, began amid it being widely reported that Mr Dai had set his eyes on an all-guns-blazing approach to beating Financial Fair Play and making the Premier League with the EFL hot on his heels. Also rising in prominence at Reading, although on a much more covert level, reportedly, was Kia Joorabchian.
A phantom ‘big name manager’ and spending spree was apparently about to be announced. Yet, the announcement that came was… well… neither of those things.
Reading appointed ex-Chicago Fire manager Veljko Paunovic. ‘Pauno’, as he was to become known, was an entirely unknown entity. An impressive track record with Serbia’s youth teams and a playing CV that included time at Atlético Madrid was apparently good enough for Mr Dai.
And, for the first half of the year, it was more than good enough for everybody connected to the club. The Royals started the season on fire, racing to the top of the Championship. Paunovic was awarded the league’s manager of the month award for September, and it took until the end of the following month for Reading to lose – the defeat coming away on a foggy night at St Andrew’s against Coventry in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
Michael Olise had broken onto the scene and was setting the Championship alight in an attacking quartet comprised of himself, talisman Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite and Ovie Ejaria. Reading looked unstoppable, and despite form faltering towards the end of 2020, 2021 started fantastically. January was an unbeaten month including a sublime 3-1 victory over Bournemouth that kept Reading solidly in the play-offs.
Then, slowly but surely, things began to go downhill. After the 0-0 draw away at Stoke City on February 6, Reading would take only 15 points from a possible 66 as the season tamely filtered out. Injuries and a thread-bare squad had taken their toll, as the team stumbled to an ultimately disappointing seventh-place finish.
I had been covering a selection of EFL games over the second half of the 2020/21 season, spending a considerable number of Saturdays reporting on Oxford United ironically doing exactly the opposite of what Reading had been: powering their way to the League One play-offs.
I remember covering Reading’s final game of the season at home to Huddersfield Town. In the post-match press conference, I asked Paunovic whether he had considered the season a success overall, despite missing out on the play-offs. He answered in the affirmative to this and proclaimed that the play-offs were very much the target for the 2021/22 campaign.
There’s not very much point in going over the events of the last sixth months or so. Everybody connected with Reading is fully aware of the club’s circumstances. However, now looking back on Paunovic’s time in charge of Reading, there are a few things to pick up on.
Firstly, Paunovic himself. It has to be said that the Serb is a poor tactician. However, every Reading manager in recent history has been deemed ‘tactically inept’ by one person or another. He attempted to implement a possession-based style of football that, for the first time in Berkshire, was more or less suited to the squad at hand rather than the ‘square pegs in round holes’ approach of Nigel Adkins and Jaap Stam, but which ended up looking like a personification of Storm Eunice by the end of his reign – messy.
The 4-2-3-1 set-up was generally effective over the first half of the 2020/21 season despite our lack of out-and-out wingers. However, how much of this energy was down to the ‘new manager bounce’ is up for debate.
The infamous zonal marking-gate early in the 2021/22 season has been contentious, and undoubtedly did lead to a one too many concessions. It was a prime example of the seeming stubbornness that would come to define much of Paunovic’s reign in a tactical sense, yet it must be noted that – as we’ll come onto – this was as much a fault on behalf of those on the pitch as those off it.
Substitutions – one of the most fundamental aspects of a manager’s role – was an area that Paunovic consistently failed in. His choices were often neither appropriate to the condition of the match or the players he had at his disposal, despite his hands being tied with what, at one point, seemed like an infinite injury crisis.
Furthermore, the ever-more frustrating rhetoric he took with the media towards the end of his tenure bordered on either outright lies or simply delusion. On paper, Paunovic did few things right during his time at Reading. However, his reign (as we all know) just wasn’t as simple as ‘on paper’. Indeed, if we were a club who were (bar the financial difficulty) befitting of our status on paper, we’d likely be gunning for promotion again this season.
And that brings us onto the playing squad, who must take a huge, huge portion of the blame for the mess Reading find themselves in. Yes, injuries have made it difficult to find a consistent rhythm. Yes, the points deduction was damaging to morale. Yes, sometimes, things just don’t go your way.
However, Reading have more than enough senior, experienced and particularly able professionals in their squad to have managed this situation much better on the pitch. A plethora of leads thrown away, in my view, comes down to the mentality and performance of the players on the pitch. Game management is a vital part of a player’s footballing arsenal, and senior pros should have had the initiative to organise the team and set the tempo when seeing out a lead.
As a prime example in the Preston North End game just gone, Tom Holmes’ last-gasp clearance stemmed from Yakou Meite not running the clock down by taking the ball to the corner flag. Would Paunovic have been to blame for that?
Some will point to a lack of motivation that Paunovic failed to instil in the squad. Yet, professional footballers aren’t robots that need to be programmed or children that need to be spoon-fed. Motivation and commitment should be a given as a professional footballer, and it was this apparent lack of direction, desire and agency that has made our recent demise so troubling.
The likes of Andy Yiadom, Michael Morrison, Danny Drinkwater, Josh Laurent and, dare I say, Liam Moore, among others, have shown a stark lack of leadership on the pitch. Some have attributed this to not playing for the manager. If you’re not going to play for the manager, then have some alternative ideas about you or hand in a transfer request. It’s not an excuse to fold in the manner that Reading have done in recent months.
Footballers are human, and to play amid thousands of boos and jeers is something few of us will ever be able to empathise with. On the pitch, they can undoubtedly feel the tension and angst around the stadium. It’s not nice, and nobody wants to be in that situation. Yet, on too many occasions, instead of rising to the challenge, the squad has done the opposite.
And then we come to the board. The less said about the management of Reading Football Club, the better. To keep it brief, I’ll leave you with this thought:
If Reading do get relegated and Mr Dai decides that he has had enough, then things are about to become a lot worse than relegation. The interim appointment of Paul Ince is incredibly fishy (in the words of Jem Karacan, it ‘stinks’), but, as with so many things, only time will tell if this is the masterstroke that Dai finally pulls off.
When you look at great managers – the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson – one thing that stands out about them is the way they protect[ed] their team in the media. Paunovic has been dragged through hell doing this, to the point of mockery. One thing you cannot fault the man for has been his commitment to his team, often blindly defending performances and players when many others may have been brutally more honest.
Paunovic should have been sacked weeks ago, and perhaps at any other more ‘normal’ club, he would have been. BBC Radio Berkshire’s Tim Dellor reported, after interviewing Paunovic for the final time, that a friend of his from Spain had been there to watch today’s game and left pitch side with Paunovic. He was supposedly there to provide moral support, with Dellor reporting that the now ex-manager’s wife had been becoming increasingly worried for his welfare given the circumstances he’d been working under.
Paunovic’s final interview published on the club’s official social media channels was earnest and rather poignant. He thanked the staff at the club wholeheartedly and, ironically, his message was tinged with pride. This would seem odd to those outside Reading FC, but when you think that little bit deeper about it on a more human level, it’s understandable.
"This club has a special place in my heart."— Reading FC (@ReadingFC) February 19, 2022
Veljko Paunovic reflects on today's win at Preston North End, and his time as manager of our club, after it was confirmed he'd be departing by mutual consent. #PNEREA pic.twitter.com/Zidt49hbSk
As the sun set on Deepdale and the Reading faithful headed back down to Berkshire after one of the most turbulent days in the club’s history, our first three points of 2022 were second on the list of talking points on the journey home. Despite the vitriol that had surrounded him for so long, I think there will be many who, deep down, do feel for Pauno.
With Joorabchian reportedly still floating like a phantom in the wings of the tragic show that Reading FC has become, and Mr Dai appearing to place a great deal of faith in him, what’s next for Reading Football Club is – quite literally – anybody’s guess.
But, for now, all we know is that the great Veljko Paunovic experiment has failed, and – on Pauno’s part or not – boy has it failed badly.