Just like in dating, football managers and fans need the right ice-breaker if they’re to properly warm to one other. That can come soon after a new gaffer’s arrived, perhaps even before they first take charge of a game: Jose Gomes won over plenty of sceptical fans with a confident first interview, while Jaap Stam earned plenty of brownie points by digging out the unpopular departing Hal Robson-Kanu for his lack of consistency.
At other points it’s better described as a slow thaw, although that can be more down to the circumstances of a manager’s arrival than the man himself. Mark Bowen faced a storm when he was appointed due to the perception that he’d essentially stolen Gomes’ job, and had to earn respect with results on the pitch. And while Veljko Paunovic didn’t experience that same early hostility, games being played behind closed doors meant he felt like a much more distant individual than he would have otherwise.
Paul Ince had his own difficult beginning. At first his appointment seemed like the symptom of a dysfunctional club that wasn’t even trusted by its own fans. While the club portrayed Ince’s presence as that of a short-term interim boss as the search for a long-term manager was ongoing, the worry among many supporters was that the appointment didn’t sit right. Gossip about the potential relevance of Tom Ince’s recent arrival and/or Kia Joorabchian’s possible involvement didn’t help.
Neither did a slow start on the pitch. After winning his first game, Ince oversaw a run of three straight defeats, including batterings by 4-1 and 4-0 at Blackpool and Nottingham Forest. Concerns at the time about Ince’s management were numerous and substantial: there was no uplift in performances, his inaction with substitutions was frustrating, and he had the habit of making some odd comments in the media.
But then things started to pick up. Since the 4-0 loss at Forest, which Ince labelled “embarrassing”, Reading have recorded three wins, three draws and one loss. That solitary defeat - a frustrating 2-1 home reverse to Cardiff City - stalled Reading’s momentum somewhat and meant the chance to go 11 points clear of the bottom three was blown, but the result was far from a disaster. The impression of Ince was still that he had us on the right track, even if we weren’t coasting to safety.
The real game-changer however, Ince’s pièce de résistance, was a sublime Good Friday/Easter Monday double when Reading took a huge step towards survival. Four unlikely points, sealed in dramatic fashion thanks to a late win at Sheffield United and even later draw against Swansea City, meant the Royals are now on the cusp of Championship status being mathematically certified.
Last weekend was also when we really began to see Paul Ince come into his own as Reading manager - when the ice was truly broken. While he’d previously seemed a bit out of place in the Reading dugout, he now felt part of the family. That first shone through at Bramall Lane when he pumped his chest in jubilation in front of a rowdy away end, shouting with joy at what his side had just achieved.
...and then the shock of yet more late drama on Monday overcame him in his post-match video interview with the club. He couldn’t do anything to prevent a gleeful smile and barrel of laughter.
Sheer passion and sheer delight - exactly how every Reading fan felt, whether in the stands, watching from home or anywhere else. It’s so heartening and disarming to see our own raw emotions reflected back at us by the man in dugout.
But we’ve also seen real personality on the pitch. Reading’s Easter performances were defined by spirit, belief and all the other cliches that sound so grating when your team lacks them but are so sweet when they’re there in abundance. Hyperbole or not, it says so much when fans start to seriously ponder whether the Royals’ current attitude is the best it’s been in many years. That would have been a ludicrous thought not all that long ago.
This feels very much like a definable Paul Ince Team. Up to and including the thrashing at the City Ground, the side didn’t seem substantially different to how it’d been under Pauno, whether relating to tactics, results or performances.
But now? Not at all. In the last seven games, Reading have sealed three draws from losing positions (picking up solitary points had been a problem throughout this season) and ground out three wins, and haven’t really looked like relying on luck in doing so. The Royals have had that extra bit of resolve to see out leads and, even when going behind, Reading have generally continued to push as if a result is possible.
I’m actually reminded of Derby County. The Rams’ 21-point deduction meant they were written off as relegation certs, but they creditably fought on to mid-April before finally being relegated. That longevity was ultimately down to their mentality, instilled by a gaffer who made up for his lack of managerial experience by inspiring dedication from his players.
Their never-say-die attitude was encapsulated at the start of January in a late 2-2 comeback draw, a game which amplified our own relegation concerns. Ironically, those worries were pretty much put to bed on Monday thanks to the never-say-die attitude shown by Reading in another late comeback draw at the SCL.
In Reading’s case, the fighting spirit has been evident throughout the team - not just limited to a few players. It’s been true of academy graduates who’ve shown plenty of maturity recently to step up to the task (such as Tom McIntyre and Tom Holmes), more established players who’ve had to adapt their game (Josh Laurent moving to the 10 role and Lucas Joao upping his work rate out of possession), and newer arrivals who’ve bought into the cause - particularly Tom Ince and Danny Drinkwater.
Accordingly, the connection between players and fans feels stronger than it’s been in a long time: from players charging over to the away end at Bramall Lane to celebrate as soon as the full-time whistle went, to the previously maligned Danny Drinkwater being serenaded with his own chant after a great bit of defending in the first half of that game, and McIntyre starting a chant himself after the Swansea comeback.
Absolute scenes at full time— The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd) April 15, 2022
What a win, what a day
You f*cking Royals pic.twitter.com/3XUZArHlgj
Such attitude and passion don’t come about by accident - they emanate from the top. Paul Ince has helped breathe new life into Reading just when it was badly needed and should take huge credit for that.
I’ve previously had my doubts over his suitability as a longer-term manager, given his lack of managerial experience in the last decade or so. And while I’ve not completely lost those concerns, or the feeling that Ince will eventually be undermined by how this club is run behind the scenes - as all of his recent predecessors have to some extent - I can’t help but be excited by the prospect of seeing his project evolve.
After all, the inevitable huge squad overhaul this summer means Reading have a blank canvas upon which to work. That provides the opportunity to reset the culture at the club, both on and off the pitch, and on the evidence we’ve seen so far, there are plenty of worse managers to oversee that than Paul Ince.