Wind the clocks back to early August 2021 and, while none of us quite knew what to expect from this season, we all had the strong suspicion that it would be more difficult than last term. None of us though had any idea the full extent of what was in store. The Royals’ 2021/22 campaign proved to be a true horror show, a nine-month fever dream for those unlucky enough to follow it, and a damning indictment on the current state of Reading Football Club.
Just trying to get your head around it all is exhausting. We’ve witnessed a litany of poor performances, incompetence behind the scenes, bouts of horrid bad luck and moments of bizarre randomness.
Reading were beaten by a sixth-tier side, recorded a heaviest home league defeat since joining the Football League in 1920, lost eight games in a row, shipped a whopping 87 league goals, recorded a lowest league finish in the last 20 years, and would have been relegated on goal difference if it weren’t for Derby County’s deduction of 21 points.
The stadium was renamed, season tickets went out after the start of the campaign, the club shop didn’t order enough replica kits when they were in high demand, Reading went through four goalkeepers (one of whom punched a whiteboard) and randomly signed Andy Carroll, we had an unprecedented injury crisis, Dai Yongge took part in a footrace on the SCL pitch, 150th anniversary celebrations were put on ice at the 11th hour due to Covid, the captain was abruptly stripped of the armband at 9pm on a Saturday night, someone out of work for eight years was appointed manager, and Rashawn Scott played in two matches on the same day because the season finale and Berks and Bucks Cup final overlapped.
Among the fans, anger at the club’s situation got so severe as to cause a protest before the (delayed) 150th anniversary match at home to Coventry City. Losing that match prompted a pitch invasion from some furious supporters, while an inability to beat relegation rivals Peterborough United led to a mass of fans blocking the team coach’s exit from the stadium.
Got all of that?
We’ve experienced a whole smorgasbord of emotions: anger, depression, boredom, frustration, relief, joy and - to cap it all off - an ever-increasing sense of existential dread about what may be around the corner. We all know how this sport goes and accept the need to take the rough with the smooth, but football should always be an escapism: a (mostly) worry- and consequence-free world to get lost in so you can take your mind off the hardships of daily life. Supporting Reading this season however has felt like a punishment to endure - like the thing that necessitates escapism.
It’s grimly ironic that Reading had this bad a season after fans finally returned to stadiums. Indeed, plenty of matches in 2021/22 were so painful as to make you long for the bland detachment of lockdown-era football, when we could switch off as easily as, well, switching off a device.
It certainly wasn’t all bad though. For all the horrid moments that broke your faith in Reading Football Club, somehow there were a few that reinforced it. Seemingly just to frustrate us by making it clear that this could be a good side when it wanted to be, the Royals managed to come out with big performances when we least expected it.
That typically came on the road, and Reading’s first away win of the season was the high point of the entire campaign. After one win, one draw and four defeats in our first six league games, understandably no one gave the Royals a hope of getting anything at Craven Cottage. But 90 minutes, an Ovie Ejaria brace and one big defensive performance (not least from makeshift centre back Josh Laurent) later, Reading were victorious. Fulham’s eventual record haul of goals as they won the Championship title only underlined the achievement, even if the reverse fixture was a horror show.
Not done there, Reading developed a weird knack for breaking long winless streaks with 3-2 wins away to sides playing in white on the same day as a national storm. A trip to Swansea City in the middle of Storm Arwen yielded a first win over the Jack Army since 2008, a rowing-boat celebration from Andy Carroll and - in the words of Andy Yiadom - a “f**king proper performance”.
The Royals then had to wait an entire three months for another win, but it eventually came at Preston North End on the same day as Storm Eunice. By then, many of us had forgotten what three points felt like, not least Veljko Paunovic, who subsequently bowed out when his departure was announced shortly after full time.
And finally, the Late Late Show With Tom McIntyre. Reading went into the Easter weekend in a precarious position: blowing a 1-0 lead at home to Cardiff City in the previous game had meant surrendering the chance to go 11 points clear of the bottom three, and you just had the feeling we’d end up regretting a missed opportunity.
Or not. While Reading were collectively excellent to shut out Sheffield United for so long at Bramall Lane, and then to claw their way back into the match at home to Swansea City a few days later, it was local boy Tom McIntyre who added the crucial final touches. One of those touches put the ball into the back of the net in front of an ecstatic away end, the other did the same for a gobsmacked SCL Stadium crowd, and both effectively saved Reading’s Championship status.
While there were occasionally feelings of sheer elation, that’s ultimately all they were: occasional. My overriding emotion from this season is anxiety - not only for the profound worry for so long that 2021/22 would end in relegation, but also for the ongoing nagging concern that Reading have merely delayed the inevitable.
After all, this season could and perhaps should have concluded with Reading dropping into the third tier. Few would have deemed it unfair had the Royals succumbed to relegation, given how hopeless the club looked both on and off the pitch, and in the end, luck played its part. We can consider ourselves fortunate that Derby County took a 21-point deduction and there were two particularly poor sides in Barnsley and Peterborough United. In many other seasons, we’d have been condemned to League One by our own failings.
And really, that has to be the key takeaway. This campaign brutally exposed the fundamental mismanagement at the heart of Reading Football Club that could well doom us next season. And while we avoided the worst, 2021/22 must act as a Christmas Carol-esque warning, a grim foreshadowing of the seasons yet to come if we don’t change our ways before it’s too late.
It’s entirely up to Reading whether that warning is heeded.