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It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn

After the optimism of a win against Cardiff and the Fans Forum, the Rotherham battering brought us back down to earth with a thud. Ben highlights why patience is vital - a mentality shift will take time.

AFC Wimbledon v Reading - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

I’ve always been very clear that I’m in a privileged position. Being on the board of both STAR and latterly, Proud Royals, is something that I never take for granted. I’m also very fortunate that the team at TTE gave me an opportunity to write regularly and share my views (which people sometimes read) which, from a selfish point of view, helps me order my thoughts. Which, I guess, is the main theme of this piece really.

Part of that role for STAR was being to able to interview Paul Ince, Alex Rae and Mark Bowen on Thursday evening. I won’t write a transcript of the whole thing - that would be boring. What I can do is draw comparisons between the Fans Forum and the result against Rotherham United, although despite what some may have you believe, there is literally no correlation between the two whatsoever. You can be positive about the future based on what Bowen in particular had to say but also livid about the performance on Saturday.

It was pretty clear on Thursday that all three wanted to move forward. They were happy to talk about what they found when they came in (no structure, unfit players, “a soft malaise”) but were more interested in sharing their thoughts and plans for making things better. Ultimately, that’s what I want as I’m sure many others do.

It was clear from listening to them that there are no quick fixes; we are talking at least a year if we keep our noses clean before the EFL sanctions are dropped. The club is looking at a complete overhaul of fitness regimes. Fans will argue this isn’t “new” information - of course it’s not. What is new is the openness, honesty and directness with which all three used in the Forum.

In light of this discussion, it was a surprise to see our team completely collapse against Rotherham on Saturday. However, the result in context was not completely unexpected in my view. I still think we will stay up, but it will be tight. We’ve had mentally weak players at the club for ages and while Ince has to take responsibility for a large chunk of issues (late subs!), the players collapsed on the field. This would not have been anticipated by Ince or his staff who have hoped that the mental resilience we saw just seven days ago against Cardiff City would have continued.

Reading v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

As I’ve said fairly frequently the players need to take responsibility on the field, stop being outperformed and show some consistent desire to win football matches. This doesn’t happen overnight and while the accountability is beginning to take shape, it won’t eliminate such performances until everyone is on board. Personally, I don’t think we are there yet, which is exactly why I hoped for a draw against the Millers.

After Thursday’s Forum and listening to what the three said, I genuinely think we have a model that is right to move forward, but we probably won’t see the benefits of that for at least a year, maybe even two or three. As Bowen very clearly stated, it’s no good people at the club constantly saying the “right” things - everyone has to show it. No excuses. I’d take three/four consistent home wins and then an away loss as it would show we are moving, albeit slowly, in the right direction.

When you consider the other teams which have had similar or worse starts than us (Stoke City, Norwich City, Bristol, Luton) it’s not panic mode yet for me and if we get a positive result on Wednesday, it quickly turns around again. We’ve brought in players of course, but how many of those would have been top of our list had we had money in our pockets? No disrespect, but probably none.

The Saturday before last was very encouraging: not only did we go behind, but we went on to win the game and ultimately, make it look comfortable. The frustration comes from the inconsistency which I completely get.

The key now is to make sure we get points on the board early, bed the squad in and develop the ethos that both Ince and Rae discussed. If they are able to do that, begin to keep players fit and ensure the players hold themselves accountable, we should have a chance. If it means we get thrashed a few times this season, then so be it.

Survival is the key and until we are mathematically safe this season, it’s not going to be relaxing or particularly enjoyable. That’s a badge that I am mentally ready to wear once again this season but the players on the pitch have to be, too.