How on earth we managed to survive this season is beyond me, even with Derby County’s poor form in recent months. Off-field turmoil has marred what has been a horrific 150th anniversary year and although it will be a season we will never forget, the 2021/22 campaign marks the loss of our club’s dignity.
Once known as a stable ship, we have grabbed the national headlines for all the wrong reasons and there will need to be radical changes made in the coming days, weeks and months if things are to improve.
The onus has to be on Dai Yongge to make these changes as the main man at the top - because he has been the person responsible for steering us to our current destination and will have a big say on what the future holds for us. But what can he do to provide a brighter future for the Royals?
Firstly, the short-term situation desperately needs to be addressed with several key players out of contract and the Royals potentially needing to recruit a high volume of players to be competitive during the 2022/23 campaign.
If officials at the Select Car Leasing Stadium can put their pedal to the metal and get off to a positive start this summer, that could set the tone for the coming months and that may be crucial to the club remaining afloat in the second tier once more next term.
If things don’t go exactly to plan though, the club should be prepared for it, with plans for next season needing to be created months ago. We may not have known our fate until after the final whistle at Hull City, but that’s why different plans should have been created for life in the second and third tiers.
The EFL had given the club the limits we needed to work within way back in November, so there was scope to look ahead way back then and this is why there can’t be any excuses going into this transfer period.
Knowing how big this summer would be many months ago with several key men out of contract, planning for the coming months had and has to be nothing short of forensic - the least the club could do considering how much of a shambles the past 12 months have been.
Of course it could be argued that not having a permanent manager in place at this stage has made things harder in terms of targeting potential new signings for the summer because different head coaches will want different players, but the fact there’s no longer-term appointment in place now is arguably of the club’s own doing, unless financial restrictions have prevented this at this stage. If that’s the case, they had to let us know.
The recruitment team should also have plenty of names on their longlist at this stage with so many players needing to come in when the transfer window opens, so that permanent appointment shouldn’t have a shortage of options even with restrictions to abide by.
This is where a Director of Football also comes into play - because they are the person that would drive the club’s vision and this long-term vision had to be created months ago along with their summer transfer strategy - again planning with both the second and third tier in mind.
Ideally, this DoF would have been appointed months ago if financial restrictions allowed that to happen, because they could have spent a few months monitoring the first team’s performances before judging who should be offered a new contract, who should be released, who should be sold and who may be ready to take the step up from the academy.
Unfortunately, the club’s inability to make this appointment has made this summer an even trickier one to deal with, However, what would make this summer go from tricky to almost impossible is not appointing a DoF at all considering how busy the club are likely to be in the coming months.
Paul Ince or his successor will be working tirelessly over the summer to recruit players, but they will need an extra hand when pre-season starts with the need to focus on their existing players ahead of the new campaign.
Mark Ashton was nothing short of superb at Ipswich Town last year, helping Paul Cook to recruit 19 new players at Portman Road, and although that many may not be needed in Berkshire, we still face some big changes over the summer period. Ashton may be the Tractor Boys’ CEO, but he almost acted like a Director of Football, and with Dayong Pang’s role in transfers currently unclear, it would be reassuring to have a footballing figure playing a similar role to the third-tier outfit’s official.
That figure, ideally a DoF, would have not only played a role in devising the Royals’ transfer strategy, but would have also used the past few months to create a longer-term plan (as mentioned above) for where they want the second-tier side to be heading in the next few years.
We may be hamstrung by the business plan we have to abide by, but those who arrive during the upcoming window need to be inspired by the club, even if they can’t offer more than a one-year deal in some circumstances.
That player will be interested to know what the future holds if they remain at the Select Car Leasing Stadium for the next few years, so a vision needs to be sold if they are to be inspired and this could potentially allow us to fend off interest from elsewhere in the player’s signature.
Many people would point out that some of the signings are likely to be older heads if we can only offer out short-term deals - but some of those players could be needed for the next couple of years to provide experience and support some of the younger players that may be promoted from the academy. That’s on the condition they can still do a job as they get older, like 37-year-old Curtis Davies has done at Derby this year.
Not selling a longer-term vision may mean some players just coast through next term and this can’t be good for our survival chances. It could even be argued that this season’s short-term approach with no bright end goal was part of the reason why we were so poor on the pitch - and it just goes to show how crucial off-field factors like this can affect on-field performances.
But because we haven’t appointed a DoF just yet, this probably hasn’t been put in place, though someone like Brian McDermott who has probably been monitoring the Royals closely this season may be able to come up with a plan quicker than most. Not only does the 61-year-old know the club inside out, but he understands how different departments at a football club work and wouldn’t be afraid to tell Mr Dai some home truths either.
Unfortunately though, we look set to fall behind some of our league rivals already, including Cardiff City and Preston North End, with both of their managers preparing their plans for the next few months. It doesn’t look as though the Royals have a plan in place at this stage, though I would love to be proved wrong.
It’s just a shame that this DoF appointment hasn’t materialised and that may come to bite the Royals in the next few months as they look to build a competitive squad. Even towards the end of Veljko Paunovic’s time at the SCL it was clear another voice was needed to deal with off-field matters, and this is where McDermott or someone similar could have been valuable.
Communication with the fans may have been better too - but we are where we are and this leaves Mr Dai and the CEO with a big workload in the summer with the playing squad and other things to address as well including the matchday experience and the relationship between the club and the supporters.
There are three main messages that I would want to send to the club at this stage though.
Firstly, I desperately hope a long-term vision has been created in the past couple of months even without a Director of Football - because we need to create a project for the future and not just hang on to the coattails of the EFL business plan.
Secondly, please recruit players based on their ability and how well they would mix with others in the first-team squad as opposed to having your transfer strategy dictated by potential external influences.
And finally, please communicate what your specific aims are for the future to the fanbase now safety has been guaranteed. A feel-good factor can’t be created without the club-fanbase relationship strengthening so rescue and rekindle this relationship whilst you can.
Supporters can only be pushed so far and with articles, podcasts and social media posts expressing our discontent not being fully addressed in recent months, it will only be a certain amount of time before other courses of action like more protests will be happening.
We cannot help you unless you help yourselves.
This article may be an idealistic view of what should have already happened considering a potential shortage of staff - but the fans deserve this level of detail following this season’s disappointment.