You certainly don’t envy the job of Paul Ince, Mark Bowen and other recruitment staff at Reading this summer as they attempt to build a competitive squad for the new season.
Of the 36 players who made a Championship appearance for Reading last season - the most used by any club in the second tier - only 19 remain at the Select Car Leasing Stadium. Six of those 19 are under the age of 20. In Bowen’s words during an interview with BBC Radio Berkshire, “we’ve got a huge gap to fill”.
If that wasn’t hard enough, they have got to fill that gap while sticking to a number of EFL-imposed restrictions. Namely: no transfer or compensation fees, no loan fees, a total player wage bill cap of £16 million, an average player salary cap and an individual player salary cap. Fail to comply with these regulations and the club will get whacked with another six-point penalty.
In other words, the pool of players that Reading are able to sign is significantly reduced. That’s without factoring in the number of players who would actually want to sign for the club as it’s hardly the most attractive of places to be right now, while the scouting department has seen cut backs in staff in recent years. So not ideal when you desperately need to get bodies through the door.
As a result, Ince and Bowen have had to use any allies in the game, any long-time associates, any distant connections to give themselves a boost in the transfer market. Again, in the Welshman’s words, “you’ve got to have the right contacts in the game which I feel myself and staff have now”. Look deeper into all of Reading’s six summer signings so far and a web of affiliates does seem to emerge.
Firstly, the obvious. As soon as Paul Ince was handed a permanent contract as manager, it was as inevitable as Jeremy Hunt’s Tory leadership bid collapsing that son Tom (or Thomas, as we must call him) would follow him through the door after his contract expired at Stoke City. There’s not too much disdain for that though, considering how good the 30-year-old was in his loan spell last season.
Ince Jr has also proved instrumental in a couple of other signings too. Jeff Hendrick, who has arrived on a season-long loan deal from Newcastle, revealed that Tom is a “good friend” who spoke highly of the club. The pair played together for two seasons at Derby County. Similarly, Ince and new goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis have been team-mates before and remained in close contact. They were both in Liverpool’s academy at the same time and part of the team that reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2009.
Arguably Bowen’s greatest legacy from his first spell at Reading was the signing of Josh Laurent, who he never actually got to manage as he departed soon after the midfielder arrived in the summer of 2020. But Bowen had followed Laurent’s career ever since he had seen him in QPR’s academy while the Welshman was assistant boss to Mark Hughes at Loftus Road. The same link came in handy when recruiting Joe Lumley on loan from Middlesbrough, who was also in Rangers’ academy during Bowen’s time at the club.
Bowen also worked with Shane Long in Hughes’ nine-month spell as Southampton manager in 2018. How much impact that had on the Irishman making a dream return to Berkshire isn’t clear. We know Long asked his agent to contact Reading about making the move, but familiar faces can always help push a transfer over the line.
In that respect, his compatriot and former Royals striker Noel Hunt, back at the club as under-23s manager, could have been involved too. It’s certainly true that the stars have aligned - Long’s contract expiring at Southampton and his career winding to a close - but the presence of Bowen and Hunt may well have sweetened the deal.
The boy looks a million dollars!! What a great day this is!! https://t.co/1SJQ1Ik3bQ— Noel Hunt (@Noelhunt20) July 13, 2022
Finally, a brief mention for the only new signing we haven’t mentioned yet: Tyrese Fornah. No obvious link to Bowen or Ince here - apart from the 22-year-old’s desire to learn off “one of the greatest midfielders England has ever produced” in the latter - but rather to members of the squad. Fornah was in Reading’s academy as a 13-year-old before heading to Brighton and Hove Albion and then Nottingham Forest and was (well, still is) in the same age group as Tom Holmes. Fornah stayed in touch with Holmes and also revealed that he is close with Ovie Ejaria.
Football is one big network and Reading have used that to their advantage. We’ve been on the wrong end of it too, with Tyrese Campbell seemingly persuading his former Shrewsbury Town teammate Laurent to join Stoke.
A disclaimer should be added that we don’t know for definite that this is the way Reading’s recruitment has worked this summer. There is some speculation involved. It could just be a coincidence and some of the above links might seem a little tenuous. Certainly if you take each signing in isolation then nothing jumps out, but put them together and there certainly appears to be a trend.
It highlights the importance of bringing Ince and Bowen into the club. Both have their faults and detractors - Ince especially was not a particularly popular appointment - but between them they possess over 65 years’ experience of playing and working in British football, giving them that contact book and network that is proving vital this summer.
In this respect, they are certainly upgrades on those that came before. Head of football operations Bowen of course filled a previously non-existent role, while Ince succeeded Veljko Paunovic in the managerial hotseat. That certainly isn’t to say British bosses are better than their foreign counterparts - we looked at the stats which dispelled that myth a couple of months ago - but Paunovic may not have been as equipped to personally recruit effectively in this scenario.
In the absence of any great British football network that the Serbian had, Reading reportedly relied heavily on the influence of Kia Joorabchian. That name makes many fans shudder and while it would be unfair to call all of ‘his’ apparent signings bad for the team, you at least feel more comfortable that under Ince and Bowen deals are being done in the best interests of the club. That was not always the case with Joorabchian, who Bowen confirmed in his BBC Berkshire interview will have no “personal involvement” in transfer decisions going forward.
Being cynical, this transfer strategy could be described as cronyism and there’s no guarantee it will even prove successful. Reading are still likely to face a relegation battle this season. But to be honest, there’s not really any other option given the restraints imposed by the EFL. Ince and Bowen are doing all they can to make the team as competitive as possible in testing circumstances.
The signing of Long takes Reading’s number of “permitted players” - those with three league starts in the same or higher division - up to 17, one off a matchday squad’s worth. With two weeks until the start of the season and seven until the close of the transfer window, that’s not a bad place to be.