Another year, another set of lessons to learn for Reading. Will they heed them? Well, seeing as one also featured in last year’s similar column, no, probably not. Still, the appointment of Mark Bowen as a director (or ‘head’ in his words) of football is a somewhat encouraging way to start the summer.
Let’s look at ways he and the whole on and off pitch teams at Reading can help the club improve next season.
Fit the system to the players, not the other way around
If we start the 2022/23 season in some form of a 4-2-3-1 with players that don’t suit those roles, I will throw my laptop from Maine to the Madejski in protest.
Our haphazard squad construction, and Lucas Joao’s clear status as our most potent attacking threat, has made too many managers revert to some form of 4-5-1 over the past few years. That would be fine if it had forged in us an identity as a football team and led to good results, but realistically, it’s a system that has been only reasonable successful.
Even Joao doesn’t play particularly well in this system that often - or at least not in a way that suggests he’d be totally useless in some other system. When he’s not available though, our insistence in the continued use of a lone striker has cost us any attacking potential in games.
Cast your mind back to Joao’s absence in the first half of the season, when the club had to turn to George Puscas as its main scoring threat. Just two years removed from a season with 10+ goals, it was certainly reasonable to expect more from him, but by trying to play him as though he was Joao, and asking him to do things he isn’t adept at, naturally he struggled.
It would’ve been reasonable if it had taken Veljko Paunovic three or four games to spot that Puscas was never going to pick up the lone-striker role, but deep into the fall, we were still insisting on starting him alone. The vast majority of fans could see the issue, but seemingly the management team couldn’t. Adjustments win games. Stubbornness wins relegation.
This has been made embarrassingly apparent by Puscas’ form since joining Pisa on loan. Georgi has helped Pisa to the playoffs and become their top scorer despite playing less than half the games. He’s done so by playing either as a striker in a partnership or as a slightly wide forward in a 4-3-3 that deploys a false nine. What a shocker to see that when a player is put into a situation that suits their particular talents, they are able to thrive.
This is one example then that speaks to a greater point. Whoever is coaching Reading next year needs to realise that forcing square pegs into round holes only wastes precious games and opportunities for points. If we want to play some variation of the 4-5-1 next year, our recruitment MUST match that ambition this summer. However, in early September, if our completed squad is not particularly suited to that formation, the team must be willing to experiment to find a more successful option.
Reading do not have any particular “footballing identity” to speak of at the moment. They’ve chopped and changed the manager too many times in recent years for that to be possible. Every cloud has a silver lining though, and if we can’t make our prevalent system work again next season, the bravery to make system changes and put players in situations that will allow them to succeed must be on display.
Stop isolating players out of the team… AGAIN
How are we back to begging the club to stop doing this again? Two seasons ago, it was Garath McCleary and Chris Gunter who were quite literally excluded from the team by Jose Gomes. Last season it was Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock who, while not perfect, were never given any opportunity to build up a head of steam and get games under their belts. This season, after impressing as a replacement for John Swift’s creativity in the early stages, Alen Halilovic was totally removed from any consideration for the team.
Yes, we don’t know what’s going on at the training ground. Yes, Halilovic has a history of issues: it’s why an ex-Barca player was available in the first place. But at this point, WE have a recent history of seemingly deciding a player isn’t good enough and then spitefully ending their season when their talent could have been helpful. We are not yet blessed with such a deep squad of players that, when a talented one comes along, we can simply choose to go without their impact.
We will not be deeper next season either - we will be cobbling together a team in the free-agent and loan market. We will be looking for a few pieces of top-quality talent available on a budget, and that kind of ability is probably only available to us because of issues like Halilovic’s. Our management team cannot then act surprised when those issues arise again.
This was particularly frustrating when Swift was injured towards the end of the season. We had a perfectly reasonable replacement available in the form of Alen (two if you count Ovie), and yet management had decided he was superfluous to requirements, so he wasn’t afforded a sniff. Instead, the club chose to play Josh Laurent out of position. Laurent is a Cadillac of a player and made more than a good attempt at being a 10, but his limitations were exposed as Reading’s season petered out without scoring In their final three games.
A constant complaint: the manner of communication on these matters serves to further promote hostility between the fans and management team. It is reasonable to expect that, for sporting reasons, the club wants to operate under a fog of war and not give hints about available players to rivals. But when the manager is telling us the player is unfit or unavailable, yet the player is openly contradicting that information on social media as Halilovic did this season, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that the club is lying, again, about excluding a player.
Given that this is now a consistent pattern of behaviour, the club needs to do better and realise the issues it is creating with its own communication. We’re living in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, and players can communicate more directly with fans than ever before. Getting ahead of the story is a cliche for a reason: it’s crucial to clear communication.
This leads well into the final lesson.
Communicate clearly, consistently and less contemptuously
This season has been an absolute PR disaster for Reading FC.
There was certainly trepidation in the fanbase that we’d fail to reach the heights of the previous season, but we were enjoying the new kit designs, excited about the 150th anniversary celebrations to come and thrilled by a video casting Tom McIntyre as a Berkshire-branded He-Man. Considering the pessimism about the summer’s personnel losses, fan sentiment was fairly good in August 2021. By the late autumn, the club had killed it entirely.
The decline of our performances under Paunovic certainly didn’t help the club generate positivity, but the club’s hemming and hawing on removing him, and providing no communication on the issues (not even the dreaded “vote of confidence”) especially once the endless losing run started, only served to create a toxic atmosphere.
Now that we’ve stayed up, I can say that I honestly feel so sorry for Paunovic and the way things ended. He wasn’t up to snuff as a coach in this division, but as a human, he didn’t deserve to be dragged through the mire by a front office that couldn’t make a decision. The situation that took place at Peterborough United in which fans confronted players and repeatedly stopped the bus from leaving was enflamed by poor results, but created by a bumbling front office.
Our struggles caught the attention of the national outlets, with our demise and financial troubles becoming column fodder. Suddenly in January, a segment of the football world had remembered we existed, but not for good reasons.
On technically lighter matters, the anniversary game against Coventry City was by most comers’ assessments underwhelming. The club admittedly had to scramble after the original date was pushed back, and thus I have some sympathy, but seemingly obvious opportunities to celebrate were missed. Many ex-players attended the game and yet none were mentioned unless you’d brought your old transistor radio to the SCL to listen to BBC Berkshire.
Further, the kit situation and attempted explanation were a farce. Reading are lucky enough to be one of the first football clubs in the world to celebrate its 150th: a truly special milestone in team sports, let alone football. It was obvious to anybody that the kits produced to honour our history would be hugely popular, especially after a year in which fans were forced to watch from home. But the club weren’t capable of seeing that, instead ordering far too few shirts.
When they inevitably sold out, they stoked the fire by stating that they “didn’t expect” the demand, and then continued to promote shirt sales, despite the fact that only 3XL replicas were available. This lack of an ability for the club to “read the room” reached an ugly conclusion as the club poorly chose to remove the presentation of the fans’ player of the season award from the last home match and instead have it done in private at a gala.
The worst thing about these communication issues is that the club has had the gall to complain about the reaction they’ve received from fans in recent years. STAR meeting notes this season have read as though the club is willing only to be defensive, to possibly lie about important topics (such as with reported Kia’s involvement), and to overall offer only a hollow semblance of transparency.
Let me make this plain for the employees of Reading FC. We as the fans are your boss. If we stop showing up, the football club dies. If I performed poorly in my role for several years on the bounce and my boos had made that clear to me, I certainly wouldn’t rock the apple cart by complaining that my boss is having a “negative reaction” to everything. Such complaints would be liable to lose me my job, and those in charge of communication at Reading would do well to consider that.
The fans are crying out for a return to the communicative and community-feeling-club days of 2000-2013. Higher ups at Reading FC: If you give us reasonable amounts of information, create expectations on when that information will be available and commit to meeting those expectations, fan sentiment will improve.
Nobody likes being treated like idiots, and at the moment, that appears to be how the club feels it can treat its fans. That HAS to change before the atmosphere around the club can. We are going through an unprecedented time of struggle with our club right now; the fans have a right to know what’s happening, and how competitive we expect to be moving forward. Fail to improve here and the atmosphere will only continue to sour.