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TTE Roundtable: How Reading’s 2022/23 Will Play Out

Five of TTE’s finest minds answer the biggest questions ahead of the new season.

Reading v Brighton & Hove Albion - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Eddie Keogh/Getty Images

How will Reading’s season play out, and where will we finish?

OA: I’ll be honest, I find it hard to disagree with any pre-season predictions that have us down to be relegated. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with what I’ve seen in the friendlies and the signings we’ve been able to make, but I still think it is going to be one hell of a slog.

We deserved to go down last season on points earned alone and the squad – in my opinion – has got weaker. Reading have always seemed to just *find a way* to survive in recent years and it’s entirely possible that may happen again (probably after Paul Ince has been sacked), but I have to put us in the bottom three at this moment in time. 22nd.

HC: Despite having a better summer than I could have ever imagined, I still think you’d be looking through rose-tinted glasses to be not be expecting another rough season (which tells you all you need to know about how I thought this summer would go). Following season after season flirting with relegation, with perhaps the most treacherous flirt coming last time out, it’s no surprise to see us as every man and his dog’s favourite to go down this season.

I think it will be another tough, long season, but the recruitment has been strong and the feel around the club is a lot better than it was at the end of last season - even if outsiders may not be able to see it that way. I think we’ll have just enough to stay up and finish anywhere between 16th and 21st.

AJ: 21st. It’s nice to see the optimism on social media - but it’s still likely to be a very difficult campaign. This is a squad that still needs to gel together and just a few injuries could really put a spanner in our plans, so taking things one game at a time and not looking too far ahead will be wise.

There’s a chance we could make a slow start to the campaign considering this new squad will still need more time to get on the same wavelength - but as long as we have a decent number of players available, there’s always a chance we can pick up some points.

Reading v Brighton & Hove Albion - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Eddie Keogh/Getty Images

The likes of Andy Yiadom, Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite and Jeff Hendrick can all be game-changes in the Championship when on top form, so we shouldn’t be underestimated.

MM: A relatively comfortable opening set of games could see Reading get on a bit of a roll before the dog days of Christmas settle in, forcing a fresh push for signings in the summer and being dragged into a relegation fight. I genuinely don’t know if we’ll survive. If Joao stays fit yes, if not then no.

BT: What I want is for us to be consistent with the manager, win some actual home games and finish above the relegation spots. What we actually do is another thing altogether. I will say we will finish 19th.

Who’ll be the Royals’ top performer this season?

OA: The obvious answer is Lucas Joao, who will probably end up being the difference between survival and relegation this season based off whether he is fit or not. But I think Jeff Hendrick could really run the show in midfield. Fans always warm to a hard-working midfielder and Hendrick has shown in pre-season that he can chip in with a few goals too. They say never fall in love with a loan player, but I think that may be tricky to avoid with the long-haired Irishman.

HC: If he stays fit, it’s hard not to look past Lucas Joao really, isn’t it. He is our talisman and keeping him fit for the entirety of the season may genuinely be the reason between us going down and staying up. For what it’s worth, I think we would’ve had nowhere near the amount of panic regarding relegation had Lucas stayed injury-free last season - he’s that important to us.

Although his work rate and attitude may leave a lot to be desired sometimes, there is no doubting the quality he has and the fact he is a proven match-winner. Keep him fit, keep him happy and he’ll win us points - of that I have no doubt.

AJ: Yakou Meite. We are in desperate need of someone to come in and fill the void John Swift has created with his departure - and though the Ivorian won’t record as many assists as the ex-Chelsea man did last season - he certainly knows where the back of the net is.

Reading v West Ham United - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

He will be hungry to make up for lost time and record as many goals as possible - with his and Joao’s contributions likely to be vital in our quest to get to safety. Not only can Meite operate up front, but also on the wing, and this versatility could be useful when injuries start to creep in.

And he’s quite clearly a good figure to have around the training ground too, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him with the POTY award next May.

You would back Andy Yiadom to do well again too, but he will also have the captaincy which could take some time to get used to even though he’s been a captain before.

MM: Lucas Joao. He’s our best player and scores most of our goals. Simple (when he’s fit).

BT: Going on pre-season, Sam Hutchinson has bought a balance to the defence that we haven’t seen for a while. It’s still early days, but I’ve been greatly encouraged by his performances.

Which young player do you most want to see develop this season?

OA: I get the sense that Paul Ince won’t be using that many young players unless absolutely necessary, but I’d like to see more of Jahmari Clarke. With Lucas Joao’s patchy injury record, Shane Long now 35 and George Puscas likely on his way out, there could be opportunities for the Jamaica youth international. His brace off the bench against Birmingham City last year was as amazing as it was surprising, but we haven’t really seen enough of Clarke to make a full judgement on him. There’s certainly potential there though.

HC: I’m going to go with Femi Azeez. We didn’t get to see him develop as much as he could or maybe should have last season due to injuries. He started the season well, getting on the scoresheet against Preston and Bristol, but frustratingly failed to kick on from that.

He’s clearly got talent, but he’s also still very raw. I want to see him mature this season, upping his numbers a bit more, and if he does that I think we have a serious talent on our hands. Whether he gets the chance to do that is another case. Him signing a new contract is promising but Ince doesn’t strike me as the kind of manager who puts heaps of faith into his young players.

AJ: Just one? That’s tricky.

For the benefit of the whole squad, Dejan Tetek is someone many people will want to see thrive considering our current lack of depth in midfield and the possibility of an injury crisis.

However, Kelvin Abrefa is someone that could also contribute and will probably need to step up if Andy Yiadom becomes unavailable. Filling in for the Ghanaian will be a difficult task but he’s someone that has potential and he looked bright against Luton on the final day of last season, so it would be good to see him more.

There’s little chance of him being loaned out because of our lack of depth in this area, so it wouldn’t be a shock if he’s regularly involved during 2022/23 and beyond.

John Clarke also looks like a player - and I’ll be keeping an eye on Michael Craig to see how well he does under Noel Hunt.

Reading v West Ham United - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

MM: He’s been around a while now but Tom Holmes needs to step up as a consistent, Championship-level performer as the new vice-captain. He’s been given the benefit of the doubt since breaking into the team, particularly as an academy graduate, and now needs to live up to his potential as a senior member of the squad.

BT: Tyler Daniel-Spray. A left back (shock!) who has mainly played in the under-18s thus far with a sprinkling of under-23 appearances. I’d at least like to see him in and around the matchday squad towards the end of the season.

What improvement do you most want to see from Reading/Paul Ince/a Reading player?

OA: It’s time for Ovie Ejaria to step up. John Swift’s departure means there has never been a more pressing need for Ejaria to show what he’s capable of in the number-10 role and he’ll never get a better opportunity. He’s a really enjoyable player to watch but also one of the most frustrating I can remember seeing in a Reading shirt. The flicks and tricks are cool, but sometimes just the simple pass will suffice please Ovie.

HC: Crikey, where do I start with this one? I want to see a lot of improvements across the entire board, all players and Paul Ince. Ultimately though, I want to see an improvement in the connection between the club and the fans. The toxicity got to an all-time low (in my lifetime anyway) last season, and it cannot return to that level again.

The club have made some positive steps to do that this summer, through some shrewd backroom appointments and recruitment (most notably the return of our sweet Irish Prince) but this will only seriously change if we see a change of results and attitude on the pitch. But I just want to enjoy going to see my football team play again.

Reading v West Ham United - Pre Season Friendly - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images

AJ: Come on Ovie Ejaria, let’s make it your season to shine.

Last season was a stinker for the ex-Liverpool man and he will be the first one to admit that, but with a chance to shine in the middle he could be more effective during 2022/23. If he isn’t, it would be a real disappointment and at that point, you would have to think about cashing in on him if you could, even though he’ll only have one year left on his contract in 2023. For him, it’s now or never.

MM: Paul Ince needs to show he can impact games late on, through substitutions, tactical changes and the like - something he’s not really done yet.

BT: For a club that, on paper, advertises themselves as a “community club”, they have a funny way of showing it sometimes. I want that reconnection with more local initiatives and collaboration with our community trust.

What’s our biggest source of optimism for this season?

OA: There are no real expectations, or at least there shouldn’t be. This is a team that virtually everyone and their dog has tipped to go down, so anything more than that is a success and two fingers up to the establishment. That appears to be the mentality Paul Ince is trying to foster, an ‘us against the world’ kind of thing, and if the squad buy into it then it could be a season when there’s a real connection between players and fans as we battle for survival. With so much overhaul, it’s a clean slate – which is always exciting if a little unnerving.

HC: The club has made positive steps to put right what’s gone wrong over the years during pre-season, particularly off the pitch. Bringing in Mark Bowen, Brian Carey and Eddie Niedzwiecki suggests Dai has finally seen sense and admitted that people like Kia Joorabchian need to be replaced with people who know football and understand the game.

There have also been some handy appointments in the academy and, as I’ve already said, better work in the transfer market than I was expecting. I’m (cautiously) optimistic that our club will start to operate like a proper football club again starting this season. And hopefully that will translate to performances on the pitch.

Reading v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

AJ: The off-field improvements. Now we have Mark Bowen back and behind the scenes, that should reduce the workload of Paul Ince and future managers which can only help. This stability off the pitch and the fact we aren’t likely to get a further deduction will only help matters on it - and that could be crucial in our quest to survive.

Also having Yakou Meite back is a big boost - and he will feel like a new signing after spending the majority of the 2021/22 campaign out injured. Let’s hope we can get him tied down to a new contract at some point.

MM: The fact that Lucas Joao can score lots of goals.

BT: That it can’t be any worse than last season, right?! It has to be the off-field appointments of Bowen and Carey in particular, but also the staff we’ve bought in. This shows some long-term ambition to stop gambling on key positions and get the top office in order.

What are you most worried about for this season?

OA: That we don’t win a game until December, the atmosphere turns toxic again and we’re relegated by March? Yeah, that’ll do it.

HC: It still has to be relegation. Our season imploded after a half-decent start this season, so there’s no reason it can’t implode again this season. Although there have been positive signs this summer, I’m still very worried about the prospect of us preparing for a League One campaign come this time next year.

That’s mainly because I can see us repeating what we’ve seemed to have done every season in living memory: start okay, have a major drop-off, sack manager. Paul Ince has to do a lot to convince me he’s the right person to take us forward long term, I’m worried that with him at the helm we won’t progress on the pitch in the way we need to in order to stay clear of relegation. That said, I will happily get overexcited after we beat Blackpool on Saturday and tweet countless HMS Piss The League memes.

AJ: Paul Ince. Off the pitch, he will probably end up being our most successful manager in a long time. Persuading Dai Yongge to implement a real structure behind the scenes has taken us forward and provided a bit of optimism going into the new season.

Reading v West Ham United - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

However, it’s currently unclear whether his contributions to tactics and game plans will be beneficial. James Oliver-Pearce seems to be focusing on the tactical side of things - but Ince will probably have a big say too and it remains to be seen whether he has the ability to retain his job. Results will have a big say - and I’m not convinced he’ll be here next year.

The possibility of another injury crisis also worries me.

MM: If another injury crisis hits, the transfer situation means we will be basically powerless in January.

BT: Getting relegated. Although, if we did go this season, I don’t think it would be as big a disaster than if we had gone last season.

Rival team to look out for?

OA: I think Hull will be fun to follow this season, but I’m not sure whether that will be for good or for bad. Acun Ilicali – ‘the Turkish Simon Cowell’ – has already shown he won’t be far away from the headlines, while the jury is still out on Shota Arveladze.

They’ve made plenty of signings, most of whom any Championship fan would be lying if they said they had heard of, but Jean Michael Seri is an impressive get and Oscar Estupinan was one of the best strikers in Portugal this season. There’s potential for it to crash and burn, but also a chance that the Tigers could be play-off dark horses.

HC: I always like to keep an eye on the promoted teams. It’s the beauty of the Championship that a team can come up from League One and immediately be competitive in the league, it’s happened countless times in the past. The obvious one that stands out this season is Sunderland. It’ll be interesting to see how they re-adapt to Championship after a fair while in the league below.

Let’s be honest, Sunderland are a huge club so will more than likely be eyeing a go at back-to-back promotions, which is entirely possible. Not just because it’s Sunderland, but because this is the Championship ladies and gents.

AJ: Hull City. It could either be a very good campaign or a disastrous one for them. New owner Acun Ilicali seems to be an ambitious man and has certainly backed Shota Arveladze during the summer window, with Jean Michael Seri an especially impressive addition. How the side will gel together remains to be seen though - because good individuals don’t always make a good team.

Keep an eye on their business in the latter stages of this window too, they have a bit extra to spend following the departure of Keane Lewis-Potter. It remains to be seen whether he’s a big miss.

Hull City v Leicester City - Pre Season Friendly - MKM Stadium Photo by Simon Marper/PA Images via Getty Images

MM: Reading need Blackpool to be bad this year following Neil Critchley’s exit. If they, at least one of Wigan and Rotherham, and at least one of Hull, Preston, Sunderland or Birmingham struggle, then we’ll have a much better chance.

BT: Stoke, but only because I’m interested to see how weep their new squad gels.

Promoted trio?

OA: Burnley, West Brom and Sheffield United.

HC: Sheffield United, Burnley and Coventry City.

AJ: Norwich City will be the champions for me. They may not have had the most successful transfer window thus far - but they have retained stability by keeping Dean Smith at the helm and that could pay dividends for them going into the new season. Keep an eye on Gabriel Sara, he could be a game-changer if he lives up to the hype.

In second, it has to be Middlesbrough. A few attacking signings will be needed if they want to be automatic promotion contenders - but they will be a force during 2022/23 with a full pre-season with Chris Wilder under their belt.

Play-off winners? It may be Rob Edwards’ first season (and probably last lol) at Vicarage Road but he still has Ismaila Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis at his disposal. If he can keep just one of those or replace them sufficiently, I back Watford to be in the promotion mix.

MM: Any three of the clubs recently relegated from the Premier League.

BT: Norwich, Sheffield United and Watford, but not necessarily in that order.

Relegated trio?

OA: Reading, Rotherham and Wigan.

HC: Rotherham, Birmingham City and Wigan.

AJ: Some would argue it’s a lazy prediction, but Birmingham City have been flirting with relegation for a considerable amount of time now. In fairness, a lot of their recruitment has been superb in recent years and with John Eustace at the helm, their fortunes would change. BSHL potentially being on their way out is a boost for many supporters too, but will that be enough? I’m not sure.

Rotherham United haven’t exactly enjoyed the perfect window so far. Already losing Michael Smith and Michael Ihiekwe, they have a bit more strengthening to do if they want to be competitive.

Perhaps this is a dangerous prediction with the game at Bloomfield Road coming up on Saturday, but Blackpool have endured a bit of a rough summer so far with no new players coming in until recently and Neil Critchley making a shock departure. Things need to click quickly if Michael Appleton is to be successful - and it remains to be seen whether he gets the time to turn things around if he endures a sticky start to life in Lancashire.

MM: Blackpool, Wigan and Birmingham.

BT: Brum, Blackpool and (wildcard) Bristol City. Could have chucked Rotherham in here but I rate Paul Warne too highly as a manager for him to have not learnt his lessons from last time they were here.