A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the excellent one-man immersive theatre show The Final Whistle, which was performed in the home dressing room at the Select Car Leasing Stadium.
It was a really entertaining and interesting run-through of the history of Reading Football Club, and one part involved actor Benedict Sandiford recounting how our place in the football pyramid has fluctuated over the last half century. The audience were required to stand up for every promotion and sit back down for every relegation.
It was actually quite a tiring exercise because the club has changed divisions like a girl changes clothes (copyright Katy Perry). To be precise, between 1975 and 2013 there were a total of 14 promotions and relegations - one every 2.7 years on average.
The last decade, however, has seen Reading become the most Championship club of all Championship clubs. Nottingham Forest’s promotion and Derby County’s relegation means that, out of next season’s crop of 24 clubs, only Birmingham City (11 years) have been in the second tier for longer than the Royals.
2022/23 will be our 10th consecutive season at this level. That’s the longest the club have stayed in the same tier since 40 successive years in tier three between 1931 and 1971. During the 1960s, supporter interest dwindled and attendances fell as the club stagnated. Sound familiar?
Long gone is Reading’s reputation as a forward-thinking, upwardly mobile club. In fact, the Royals have become associated with being quite the opposite - poorly run, unappealing and in danger of dropping out of the Championship altogether.
Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that good players are choosing to leave. John Swift and Josh Laurent have departed at the end of their contracts, with Andy Rinomhota expected to follow them.
Deep down, all supporters probably knew that it was wishful thinking to believe that the trio would stay, but there has been uproar about their choice of destinations: Swift to West Bromwich Albion, Laurent to Stoke City and Rinomhota (reportedly) to Cardiff City. It’s been suggested that they are sideways moves, which I can understand on face value given these clubs’ finishing positions in the Championship last season were 10th, 14th and 18th respectively.
But it feels incredibly generous to say Reading are on a level playing field with them right now. The sad reality is that all of these clubs are above Reading in the Championship food chain. They can offer significantly better career prospects and higher salaries. There’s been no disloyalty from Swift, Laurent or Rinomhota - they have simply made sensible decisions for the progress of their careers.
West Brom have spent nine of the last 12 seasons in the Premier League and will have aspirations of getting back there next season, while they have recruited in earnest as Jed Wallace has followed Swift through the door at the Hawthorns. Stoke have underwhelmed since their relegation from the top flight four years ago, but they have the infrastructure in place to mount a promotion push. Cardiff were atrocious last season but finished fifth and eighth in the previous two years and have been busy constructing a promising squad for the new campaign. That’s without mentioning the potential attraction of training and playing with Gareth Bale.
Meanwhile, Reading remain bound by EFL restrictions when it comes to transfer activity and cannot offer significant wages. The Royals have battled relegation in three of the last five years and would have dropped into League One last season based on points earned alone. Everyone is happy to admit that next season will be a struggle again and even Paul Ince has said it will be “a challenge”. The bookmakers have Reading as among the three favourites to go down. Being honest, if you take personal allegiances out of the equation, is that a club you would want to play for?
Swift and Laurent are both 27 and in their theoretical prime years, while Rinomhota is 25 and approaching the same stage. They will feel that now is the time of their career when they should be playing at the top end of the Championship and pushing to get into the Premier League. Will that happen at the clubs they have joined? That’s up for debate, but there is certainly more chance of it happening then there is at Reading.
“But what about the players who have joined?” I hear you cry. Well, let’s look at the players who have signed or agreed contract extensions so far. It seems unlikely any of them have signed because they truly believe in Reading’s chances of success.
Andy Yiadom and Tom Ince were two of the team’s better performers last season but they are both 30 years old, the wrong side of their peak and probably won’t significantly improve. Three-year deals provide security for the pair as they reach the latter stage of their career and are unlikely to have been on offer elsewhere. There’s also the small fact that Ince’s dad is the manager.
Goalkeeper Joe Lumley arrives with concerning reviews from Middlesbrough fans and stated in his first interview that his main reason for signing was the chance “to play 46 games”. In other words, he wouldn’t get that at any club higher up the division. Finally there’s Tom Holmes, who is arguably the best (re-)signing so far given his age (22) and therefore room for further development. But his new deal is swayed by an emotional attachment to the club, being a boyhood fan who is from the area.
Of course this is not where Reading were meant to be. Not in the megalomaniac mind of Dai Yongge. You do not spend approximately £30million in five years (and that’s just on transfer fees) and expect to be considered a bottom-six Championship club who can’t attract players in their prime.
The plan was certainly not to still be in the second tier at this stage. Dai took over as owner on the night the club reached the play-off final, but it’s a damning reality that that is the closest we have been to the Premier League in the entirety of his five-year tenure. Of course it’s through his own poor judgement that that is the case and if you want to be angry at anyone, be angry at Dai. He is the one to blame for Reading falling down the Championship food chain and he is the one to blame for these players not re-signing.
What happens next is the crucial part. In one direction, there is relegation. The club’s financial issues would worsen, Dai’s commitment would be called into question more than ever before and there would be a genuine fear for the future of the club. In the other direction, there is a rebuild. A patient restructure where lessons are learned, strategies are formed and spending is regulated.
An ongoing shake-up behind the scenes with a few promising appointments suggests that it is possible, but there is still a glaring lack of both quality and depth in the squad. Signings will arrive, but do not expect glamorous names. Reading are in no position to be fussy right now.