“I genuinely think there are enough free agents and loan options to enable us to be competitive… if we do our homework correctly and if you have the right contacts in the game.”
Mark Bowen’s bullish comments about Reading’s chances of being able to put together a “competitive” squad this summer seemed a tad optimistic when he made them. At that point - June 30 - the Royals had only brought in three players, while a host of first-team players had departed. Reconstructing the Royals’ squad pretty much from scratch, while under the severe restrictions of the EFL’s business plan, looked a tall order.
So, eight signings and more than two months later, has he achieved his goal?
Whether on paper or on the pitch, it’s hard to argue that he’s failed. Reading have brought in a solid if not outstanding group of players over the past couple of months, and it’d be unfair to think the Royals could have done significantly better in the circumstances.
That’s borne out in the evidence we’ve seen in games thus far. Reading have started the season strongly with four victories in seven matches (no side has won more), sitting fifth in the Championship. A comeback win against Cardiff City, demolition of Blackburn Rovers and dogged defeats of Middlesbrough and Millwall collectively show this squad has real substance to it.
So far so good, and with signings still to fully bed in, hopefully there’s more to come. Even allowing for inevitable inconsistency and some injuries, this squad should be strong enough to avoid relegation. It may well do so comfortably, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Should things go south under Paul Ince, any successor would be working with a group capable of digging itself out of a hole.
Setting the scene
Bowen had certainly set himself a tough task in aiming to construct a “competitive” squad. Reading Football Club finished 2021/22 with a lower status than at any point in recent memory: a mess behind the scenes, barely any contracted senior players, little financial wiggle room to replace them due to the ongoing business-plan restrictions, and lucky to still be in the Championship at all.
Among other things, those business-plan restrictions required Reading to reduce the wage bill from around £21m to £16m this season, not pay any transfer or loan fees, and keep the size of the squad below 25 senior, established players. And even taking away the business plan, the Royals’ reputation put them at a disadvantage in making signings; after all, which talented and ambitious players would pick a club in as bad a state as ours in the first place?
With all that in mind, it was never a given that the Royals would finish their required business at all, let alone to a good standard.
Reading finished 2021/22 with a mass exodus.
A total of 5 loanees headed back to their parent clubs: Danny Drinkwater, Tom Ince, Karl Hein, Baba Rahman, Tom Dele-Bashiru, while 13 left on free transfers: John Swift, Josh Laurent, Andy Rinomhota, Michael Morrison, Brandon Barker, Orjan Nyland, Terell Thomas, Felipe Araruna, Alen Halilovic, Marc McNulty, Ethan Bristow, Lynford Sackey, Tyrell Ashcroft
The list could have been bigger, with a host of other players out of contract. Fortunately, Reading ultimately managed to agree fresh terms with Andy Yiadom, Tom Holmes, Jeriel Dorsett, Nelson Abbey, Junior Hoilett, Femi Azeez, Mamadi Camara, Kian Leavy, Claudio Osorio, Rashawn Scott, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, Jahmari Clarke and Nahum Melvin-Lambert.
Including all those players who renewed and those who would later go out on loan, but not any new signings, Reading’s squad looked like this:
Without any new players coming in, Reading would have been badly short on numbers in almost every part of the pitch. The mass exodus had also stripped away some of Reading’s best individual talent (particularly Swift), plenty of experience and almost all of the midfield. The squad looks even thinner when you include the three later loan exits (Luke Southwood, Jeriel Dorsett and George Puscas), although they were by choice.
The flipside of the exodus though was that it presented Reading’s recruitment team - Mark Bowen, Brian Carey and co - with a largely blank canvas. Unlike in recent years, there was minimal work to do in terms of shifting out unwanted players as much of the squad’s deadwood had been released at the end of June.
Coming after a dreadful season in which a talented group (on paper) had badly under-performed for a host of reasons, that was an enticing prospect. Reading were now in a position to reset the tactical and psychological make-up of the squad. Better still, with the arrivals in May of Mark Bowen (head of football operations) and Brian Carey (director of recruitment), the Royals had the expertise behind the scenes to conduct that reset properly.
So how did they do?
Reading’s task of recruiting heavily, wisely, on a budget and under intense scrutiny from the EFL meant patience was always going to be required. Even one good signing in ideal conditions takes time, let alone the number required to repopulate the Royals’ first-team squad, so heavy recruitment before pre-season was never going to happen.
Still, Reading started the transfer window slowly and it sure was frustrating. Only three players - Joe Lumley, Tom Ince and Dean Bouzanis - arrived in June, meaning that the Royals were once more unable to go into pre-season preparations with a proper squad, instead having to make up the numbers with academy graduates.
The trial of the century
It’s not that opportunities to recruit weren’t there. Pre-season began with a game of ‘Who’s That Triallist?’, which fans on Twitter took part in with relish (myself very much included). A grand total of 9 players arrived in the early days of summer to audition for a role in Reading Football Club: 2022/23, with their identities gradually being revealed on social media before all were broadcast to the world via YouTube during Reading’s friendly defeat to Benfica.
Reading were however being picky. Of those nine early triallists, only one (Sam Hutchinson) signed although a second (Massimo Luongo) has been recently tipped in the press to belatedly join him. Otherwise, Julian Jeanvier joined Auxerre, Jodi Jones and Josh Murphy headed to Oxford United, Connor Wickham was snapped up by Forest Green Rovers, while Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, Jacob Davenport and Grant Ward are still free agents.
If Reading had wanted to get players in as quickly as possible - an understandable aim given the sheer amount of work required - they had the opportunity to do so as far back as early July. Instead, Bowen and co held their nerve in search of better opportunities. And anyway, with the exception of Jeanvier heading to Ligue 1 side Auxerre, there’s no evidence that Reading were wrong to pass up on those seven rejected players.
The Royals weren’t done there for triallists though. Fans got a firsthand view of Nesta Guinness-Walker and Yasin Ben El-Mhanni when they joined the group in mid-July, while Amadou MBengue arrived in August. The former joined on a one-year deal on the eve of the new season (Reading badly needed a left-back), and the others remain on trial and could well sign if the Royals don’t find better alternatives in the free-agent market.
Recruitment heats up
Excluding the arrivals of early signings Lumley, Ince and Bouzanis, plus triallists Hutchinson and Guinness-Walker, Reading have brought in another six players so far: Shane Long, Tyrese Fornah, Jeff Hendrick, Mamadou Loum, Naby Sarr and Baba Rahman. That gives us a total of 11 players - six free transfers and five loans.
Reading had to be a little more patient for those last six, but the reward has been a pretty high level of individual quality. This contingent is made up of a couple of established Premier League veterans (Long and Hendrick), loanees in their prime (Rahman and Loum), a centre half proven at Championship level (Sarr) and a talented youngster who impressed in League One last season (Fornah).
Although patience was required, Reading’s recruitment wasn’t as last-minute as it has been in recent years. While everyone came in after the start of the season in 2021/22, and a flurry famously (or infamously depending on how you see it) arrived in August 2019, eight of Reading’s 11 summer 2022 signings played some part in pre-season. As for the final three, Loum is settled into the first team, Sarr has already scored a winning goal at The Den, and Rahman’s only left Berkshire for a few months anyway.
In the context of Reading’s 25-man limit, a total of 11 new signings means the squad is almost filled. Who exactly counts as a ‘permitted player’ according to the EFL and their business plan isn’t fully clear (the terms are set out in this document), but assuming the exiled Liam Moore does count, the Royals seem to currently be at 22.
Looking at the result of Reading’s summer transfer business in its entirety, the squad looks pretty good all over the pitch. Unlike in recent years, there’s no obvious gaping hole that really should have been addressed but wasn’t - like 12 months ago when Puscas was left as the only senior striker, albeit because of long-term injuries which occurred before the end of the window.
The Royals are now strongest at the back, with first-choice and back-up options across the defence and in goal. Although I’ve split the midfield into deeper-lying and advanced/wide options, when you consider that the Royals tend to play a trio in the middle of the park alongside wingbacks and a back three, the midfield is actually decently stocked.
That said, the squad is less well insulated against injuries in advanced areas: Reading lack attacking options off the bench with Ovie Ejaria and Yakou Meite both currently unavailable. An absence for Loum - the Royals’ only real anchorman defensive midfielder - could also be problematic. Depending on squad places and finances, Reading will do well to address these three areas (DM, CAM, ST) in the free-agent market in the coming weeks.
However, it’s worth stressing that Reading have got the most important part of the job done already. In a season when grinding out points and seeing out narrow wins will be vital, prioritising the defence is a sensible tactic that will hopefully pay off.
Early-summer fears that the Royals would have to beg for League Two reserves in order to get any business done proved to be unfounded. Of Reading’s 11 summer signings, eight were playing at Championship level, equivalent or higher in 2021/22. Of the final three, Hutchinson is a second-tier veteran despite recently playing in League One, while Guinness-Walker (League One) and Bouzanis (League Two) are likely to only be required as reserves.
While we’d have ideally brought in more players in their prime, Reading certainly now have experience - something this squad hasn’t always been able to call on. Ince, Bouzanis, Long, Hutchinson and Hendrick are in their 30s and have the know-how to both manage games effectively and help the development of the Royals’ youngsters - some of whom may have to be relied on this season.
That said, when it comes to individual ability, it’s a mixed bag. On this front, high-level loanees Rahman (Chelsea) and Loum (Porto) stand out and provide real quality in their respective positions. As for the other first-teamers, Long is a quality striker but in the twilight of his career; Hendrick, Fornah, Ince and Hutchinson are good but not stand-outs at this level; while Lumley and Sarr are generally strong but arrive at Reading with reputations for being error-prone.
I’m not too down on any of the 11 though. The general standard is solid: all are capable of being assets to the first team - whether as regular starters or as competition/cover. Even the obvious back-ups (Bouzanis and Guinness-Walker) have already demonstrated that they can do a job in the first team. There’s no deadwood here.
The elephant in the room here is who the Royals were never going to be able to replace like-for-like and haven’t been able to: John Swift. Reading’s former playmaker-in-chief was a reliable source of goals, assists and general influence, and pretty much kept the side in the division. Losing him has removed a significant chunk of this team’s creativity and goal threat.
Conclusion: Reading have had a coherent and sensible window
Going solely by the standard of individual quality, on paper at least, Reading have certainly had better transfer windows than this one. However, the Royals have more than made up for that shortcoming by directly addressing a more significant problem which had previously been brushed under the carpet: a lack of strategy to recruitment as a whole.
In recent years, Reading’s recruitment has seemed haphazard and unfocused, creating a squad that’s unbalanced tactically and lacking in the right attitude. Although managers have had success to varying degrees, whether keeping the Royals up or mounting an unlikely play-off charge, that’s always been in spite of the recruitment.
In contract, the summer 2022 activity collectively looks coherent and sensible, even if imperfect in some areas. Paul Ince has a competitive squad with just enough quality, balance, experience and depth (in theory) to achieve the task of keeping Reading in the Championship. That’s been achieved without rolling the dice on high-risk wildcards who could upset the overall balance if they didn’t fit in.
On the one hand, this is of course really encouraging and it leaves me feeling pretty optimistic about this season and the years ahead. Reading have apparently done enough of a course-correction before it’s too late to give themselves a fighting chance of mid-table, let alone survival.
It’s hard to imagine all of this being the case without Paul Ince talking to Dai Yongge at the end of last season about the need for change, and subsequently appointing Mark Bowen and Brian Carey. Reading have become a distinctly (although not completely) different beast in a short period of time.
But on the other, this summer is deeply frustrating: it’s a reminder of just how poorly run and wasteful Reading had been in recent years. The Royals have probably pulled off one of their better summer windows in quite some time, within severe restrictions, because the right personnel are there behind the scenes. Had that expertise been there when money wasn’t tight in 2017 or 2019, or even the soft transfer embargo summers of 2020 and 2021, Reading would probably have never needed the desperate summer 2022 rebuild in the first place.