To anyone with even a passing understanding of the subject matter, Reading’s long-term problems have been increasingly clear to see. Put performances, results and league finishes to one side for a moment - the club lacks direction, the right experience in positions of authority behind the scenes and proper communication between board level and fans. It’s a long-gestating mess, and one that’s put Reading on course for League One, even if relegation has been averted this season.
Supporters have been desperately trying to communicate their concerns about all of this to the club for a long time now. That’s been attempted through social media, fan media, professional media, a protest before the Coventry City match and STAR. So far though we’ve had radio silence from Dai Yongge. There’s been little to no indication that either him or anyone else at the top level of the club - not least the elusive CEO Dayong Pang - has actually been listening.
If Dai won’t listen to us though, maybe he’ll take advice from well-known individuals who are highly qualified to analyse Reading’s problems, albeit for different reasons. Perhaps it’s the messenger, not the message.
If anyone knows what an effective behind-the-scenes makeup at Reading looks like, it’s Brian McDermott. This week on the 1871 podcast, he stressed the need for the Royals to appoint the right people behind the scenes (video clip of the quote here, full episode here).
“I actually think the manager’s the last piece of the jigsaw at the moment. So I look at what is going on with the football club and I think the structure of the club needs to be sorted out and then get your manage in. So whoever the manager is - wherever he comes from, it wouldn’t bother me particularly.
“I just think the most important thing is: get good support around him, get your recruitment right, get your contracts sorted out, get your director of football in place, get all your admin people in place, get your chief executive in place and then get your manager and stick your manager in there, and support the manager.
“I mean, that’s the ideal situation and that’s not happening. I think what’s happening with Reading over the last seven, eight years - they’ve just thrown managers at the problem and that hasn’t solved the problem. So you have to just try to get the structure and infrastructure, correct.”
And then, in his pre-match media duty ahead of the West Bromwich Albion game, Paul Ince spoke extensively about the club’s need to improve behind the scenes. He discussed the need for change from the club and communication with the fans...
“I’m happy to sit down with the owner and have a conversation. You have to have a project. This club needs to change in a lot of places, it really does. I’ve seen that in the past two months. We’ve got to be willing to change as a club. We’ve got to get that message out to the fans.”
...the benefits of a director of football...
“The biggest thing in football is recruitment. It has to be. You can’t expect the manager to drive up and down the motorway every week watching players. You want to come in, have a dossier of players on your table. They are there to support and help you so I’m never against something like a sporting director.”
...and his thoughts on Reading at boardroom level.
“I’m not going to discuss boardroom level, but when you come into a club and there are no scouts... every club should have scouts. It’s hard because you see things you could change but because your focus is on the team, you put them to one side.
“There are things that need to change - probably a few tweaks, but not a lot. There are little things where we need to be more professional and do things like how a club should be run. They are things we’ll be talking about with the owner.”
That last sentence - Ince saying he would actually discuss all of this with the owner - has been my biggest (and only) source of real optimism about the club’s long-term future in ages. Paul Ince gets it and he’s willing to not only voice his concerns in public (of course in a different way to McDermott, given that he’s currently employed), but also to Dai himself. Finally it looks like the message might get across to the owner that the club has to change. Finally we might be about to get onto the right track.
On the other hand though, it’s so very telling about how poorly Reading are run that I can get solace from just one press conference. We’ve had better communication and more of an understanding about the Royals’ predicament from an interim manager on one afternoon than we’ve had from the club’s upper hierarchy in ages. Even when Dai Yongge and Dayong Pang wrote an open letter to supporters on the eve of the protest at the Coventry City match, the substance of their communication fell short.
It’s no surprise that we’ve had to rely on Ince to speak up though. After all, who else is there at the club with the expertise to identify problems in the running of the organisation and then get them across to Dai?
Formerly we’d have been able to rely on an experienced CEO such as Nigel Howe or sporting directors with extensive football knowledge in the mould of Nicky Hammond and Brian Tevreden. Now though, Reading have a CEO with no obvious relevant experience for the job or desire to engage with supporters, no director of football, a reportedly opaque reliance on Kia Joorabchian behind the scenes and an apparently crumbling scouting department.
Have it on good authority the #readingfc scouting network is falling apart due to Kia's overbearing influence. Senior scouting staff with many years' service and experience are off. Big worry.— Anthony Smith (@Smudgersport) April 26, 2022
Perhaps I’m being harsh and there are people behind the scenes who can troubleshoot problems. I want to be able to believe that. Certainly there’s a significant number of committed, hard-working people behind the scenes at Reading whose efforts shouldn’t be overlooked.
However, from an outside view, there’s little reason to have confidence in the running of the club. It’s up to those in charge behind the scenes at Reading to earn fans’ faith with ideas, results and open communication, but we’ve had scant evidence of any of those three.
Ultimately this goes to the top: Reading have been poorly run because Dai has allowed that to happen. But I still believe he’s got the club’s best interests at heart, evidenced if nothing else by his financial commitment, even if his ownership style beyond that has been naive and erratic.
So when Paul Ince gets his chance to talk to Dai, I hope he’s able to recommend courses of action which can mitigate that naivety and chaos. In practice that means - as McDermott said - getting the right structure and support around the manager. Having a stronger set of personnel behind the scenes, particularly around recruitment, can provide the backing Ince (or anyone else in the dugout) needs in order to be successful.
Will Dai listen to recommendations in relation to personnel and getting the message out to the fans, as Ince puts it?
On the last point: very probably not, at least in relation to Dai. Realistically he’s not going to properly address the fans and I’d expect similar silence from Pang. There is however room for better communication to come from elsewhere, particularly from any new director of football. Such a person would be well placed to talk to supporters about the club’s strategy.
So would Dai listen to the suggestion of a DoF? As much as the cynic in me wants to simply say no (Reading have gone without one for coming up to three years), I do feel there’s potential here due to Reading’s previous use of DoFs in Dai’s time (Brian Tevreden, Gianluca Nani, Mark Bowen). Indeed, Dai apparently wanted to restore the latter of those three to this position, and there were plans to appoint Alexandre Mattos as DoF in early 2020. So, all in all, Dai’s clearly not opposed to the idea of a DoF in principle.
And when it comes to recruitment, strengthening this department with extra scouts is a no-brainer. Ince made it very clear in his comments that more can be done here, saying:
“I don’t think the club has got any scouts - me and Alex Rae always go to the games! Seb Ewen and Jason Lawson do the recruitment, they’re a good team and work hard. It’s tough, finding free agents and loans and asking for favours from Premier League clubs.”
Of course, any changes in relation to recruitment (whether a DoF or scouts) could be complicated by any possible involvement from Kia Joorabchian. The Guardian wrote that “all of the club’s recruitment seems to go through one person”, while The Athletic called him a “central cog in the Reading machine”. If those lines are accurate and Joorabchian is that influential, it’d be something else for Dai to consider before altering the club’s makeup behind the scenes.
Either way, there’s still room for improvement. But Reading can only get the ball rolling when Dai takes the right advice from people who know what they’re talking about. Hopefully that’ll start in his upcoming meeting with Paul Ince.