It’s been a summer of change in Berkshire! Painful at times, exciting at others, Reading’s first-team squad has experienced unprecedented levels of turnover in the past two years and the squad “clear out” that many fans have called for is all but complete.
With influential players such as Josh Laurent and John Swift leaving, those remaining now have a huge opportunity. They can step up and fill the holes that have been left, thereby becoming fan favourites and undroppable very quickly. If they remind us exactly what we’re missing though, it’s unlikely that Paul Ince will give them endless chances to impress given how crucial every match and every point is going to be this season.
It is then a season of opportunity, but also a last-chance saloon of sorts for some of the squad, both long-timers and newer arrivals. Here are the three players for whom 2022/23 is an absolutely critical season.
With John Swift gone, what is there left to stop a player of Ejaria’s talent-level being the standout performer this season? Seemingly only Ovie himself. A player who is absolutely sublime to watch on his day, after three years in a Reading shirt, Ejaria’s track record has been lot more mercurial than we might have expected.
Last season, he disappeared for almost the entirety of Pauno’s downfall. He started just 21 games and was unavailable through a “knock” from November until late January. It became a running joke that Ejaria had left Pauno to his fate, uninterested in turning out for the Serbian. But with Pauno gone, Ejaria needs to show us what he was being held back from showing.
Ovie arrived in Reading on loan in January 2019 and immediately captured hearts and minds. His talent is clear, and when he puts it all together, he can be a fine operator at this level, pulling the strings with the best of them in this league. After a pair of seasons played primarily on the left, the positional runway has opened up and presented opportunities for him to play in multiple different positions in the XI, where previously Swift was the obvious central creative outlet.
Ejaria must seize his chances this season while he’s in the team, or with the options available to Ince, he could become the odd man out.
Meite’s six years in Reading have been a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Notable highs include three straight seasons of scoring 10+ goals for Reading and, of course, his four goals against Luton Town.
The slow start to his Reading career though led to Yaks being loaned out to Ligue 2 in 2017/18, and now, injury issues have blighted the last two seasons of a promising career. Hopefully that’s not a trend.
Now he’s in an odd spot. He’s not going to be our first-choice striker when Joao is fit, but that’s clearly the position he wants to play, despite years of being farmed out on the right wing. With Shane Long waiting in the wings, Meite isn’t going to get many chances at his current position before Paul Ince starts thinking about replacements.
He had held down that right-wing position for a few years, but with the signing of Tom Ince, that’s suddenly under question. The arrival of Omari Hutchinson, if it happens, could also cut into Meite’s game time.
It is essential for Meite then that he seize his current opportunity and starts fast. A goal (or two!) against Cardiff City certainly wouldn’t go amiss. In any case, if Meite doesn’t make an impression in the opening month of the season, it may be a while before he gets another chance.
It feels like a decade since Paul Ince’s precocious son burst onto the scene with Blackpool, seemingly destined for Premier League stardom. And well… that’s because it has been. 11 years actually.
It’s clear that, much like other Championship starlets such as Will Hughes and Jordan Rhodes, Ince hasn’t quite lived up to the early hype around his career - a career that is now reaching its later stages. At this point, Ince Jr likely knows he won’t be able to live up to his illustrious father’s career, but he may well be thinking about his own legacy.
It’s been five years since Ince last scored 10 goals or more in a season when previously he was a consistent scorer at Championship level. His time at Stoke saw a slow but consistent decline — and amazingly, Reading are the 11th club of Ince’s journeyman career.
As one of Reading’s best performers in the second half of last season though, Ince now has a chance to cement himself in the hearts of the fanbase and create a lasting legacy for himself, albeit lower down the league system he likely once expected. With his father at the helm, a consistent spot in the XI seems likely, and if he performs well, there’s no reason he can’t use that to rehab his reputation. The rest of the league has written us off: consigned us the title of relegation fodder. If Ince can be a primary driver in us having a surprisingly stable season, then suddenly things could be looking up for the back half of his career.
Signing a three-year contract with Reading, when he probably suspects his father won’t be there the whole time is a great statement of intent from Tom, and here’s hoping the re-ignition of his career helps Reading to stay up this year, and look up the table afterward.