Reading fans have been crying out for someone experienced to come in behind the scenes and give the club some direction, and we’ve finally got that man. It’s none other than Mark Bowen. The Royals’ former player and manager, who also had stints behind the scenes as a technical consultant (late 2018/19) and sporting director (August-October 2019), has returned to Berkshire in the role of head of football operations.
The club’s official statement explained Bowen’s role as so:
“This multifaceted role will provide strategic leadership across our club’s football-driven operations - our coaching values, the club’s player recruitment approach, the use of sports science, analysis and medical data whilst vitally integrating our Category One Academy programme into the club’s first-team philosophy.”
He’s actually been working behind the scenes since last week, with Berkshire Live reporting the move initially and Bowen appearing to accidentally post the news on his own LinkedIn page before deleting it. One of the tasks he’s already had is to attempt to keep playmaker John Swift, and Berkshire Live had this to say on Bowen’s involvement:
“Representatives of [Swift] are believed to have been extremely impressed by the Royals’ new head of football Mark Bowen in a meeting this past week, with the Welshman outlining the club’s position and plans moving forward.”
Bowen’s return is a little surprising given the nature of his departure and what he’s been up to since. He was abruptly replaced in the dugout by Veljko Paunovic on the eve of the 2020/21 campaign before refusing the offer of a behind-the-scenes role and departing the club. He told The Athletic last year:
“We finished the season, and I knew there were going to be financial constraints, but I was already planning to add one or two and give it our best shot this year and push for the play-offs. But there was a strange two or three-week period when I was having phone calls with the hierarchy. Then, dropped into the conversation, came the suggestion of me going back to being a sporting director.
“The owner saw it as a promotion because he wanted me to run his club. But I pushed back because that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a coach or manager.
“I was thinking it was going to go away but it always came back. It almost got to a stage when I had to decide if I was going to do it or not. I decided that if they wanted to get a younger coach in and see me doing that, then I’d do it.
“But within a next week or so, I just wasn’t happy doing it (the sporting director role). I wanted to be a coach. If I continued doing it, I would literally be jumping in my car, driving in, picking up my money and not enjoying my work.”
So what’s changed his mind? Perhaps his fortunes in the dugout since August 2020. Bowen had to wait until the end of this season before getting a managerial offer: a short-term posting at AFC Wimbledon with the brief of keeping the Dons in League One. However, he failed to achieve that, with relegation confirmed on the final day of the season.
At Reading’s end, Paul Ince - now confirmed as permanent manager - spoke publicly in late April about the need for changes behind the scenes at Reading. Whether or not he pushed for Bowen specifically isn’t known, but Ince could well have indirectly got the ball rolling in the club’s decision to bring Bowen back during recent talks with owner Dai Yongge.
On the face of it this appointment ticks some boxes. Bowen:
- ...has some experience as a DoF - he’s not a complete novice
- ...knows plenty about English football in general, particularly from his extensive coaching career
- ...already has a relationship with the owner, who evidently rates Bowen
- ...is familiar with the club. Reading have changed a bit since he was last here, but not drastically
- ...has an eye for a good free-agent signing (Bowen was behind the Josh Laurent move and was probably responsible for bringing in Michael Morrison)
- ...was available immediately so could get up and running straightaway
That last point is important. For any new appointment behind the scenes to have an impact this summer, they’d have to be able to hit the ground running to sort out contracts renewals and recruitment. The fact that Bowen’s already been working behind the scenes and having an impact is therefore encouraging - he’s got plenty on his plate in the coming weeks.
On the flipside, he doesn’t have extensive experience in this kind of role specifically - Bowen’s knowledge is primarily from coaching and management. So while I’m encouraged by some aspects of his expertise as listed above, we don’t really have a lot to go on. If Bowen’s to have a lasting, positive impact in this position, he may well have to learn on the job.
The elephant in the room here of course is Kia Joorabchian, who’s been long rumoured to have significant influence over Reading’s recruitment. Should that still be the case, it would likely be an impediment towards Bowen doing his job. Then again, Bowen will know the ins and outs at Reading already so surely wouldn’t have returned if he didn’t feel confident about his working conditions.
The bottom line for me though is that, given how poorly the Royals have been run behind the scenes in recent years, getting anyone into a DoF-style role would have been a good idea. Reading have lacked such a figure for years - well, ever since Bowen last had the job in 2019. The failure to replace him in the intervening period was a serious oversight, so bringing him back is a step in the right direction.