The day is December 31 2021 and Reading Football Club have just reached the end of a hugely frustrating year. The first month had gone so well for the Royals, with a 3-1 win at home to Bournemouth on January 29 the latest supposed evidence that the club was on the up, but Reading’s fortunes would unravel over the subsequent 11 months.
Reading’s 2021 was wrecked by a mix of factors both inside and outside the club’s control - including naivety in the dugout, horrid luck with injuries and the consequences of historic mismanagement. The Royals were left in a rut heading into 2022 - a worrying situation but one that still seemed fixable, particularly if the club’s luck changed.
Barely over a week into the New Year however, that rut had become a bomb crater. Though we couldn’t have predicted in late 2021 the full extent of what was around the corner, the timer was still ticking away in the background. The story of the Royals’ 2022 is that of a club which bore the full force of an explosion it had largely invited upon itself. Reading were little more than a hollow wreck for far too long before a reconstruction from the rubble was belatedly put into action.
It started with an all too familiar collapse in the first game of the year. Not content with having blown two-goal leads against Queens Park Rangers and Blackpool in the first half of the season, Reading did so once more in a relegation six-pointer against Derby County. At least the subsequent trip to non-league Kidderminster Harriers was an easy opportunity to get back to winning ways...
Well, not exactly. On January 8 2022, Reading Football Club imploded. A dire 2-1 defeat at Aggborough - made even worse by how much better the hosts were than the Royals on the day - threw Reading into crisis mode.
The change in the fans’ mood was as dramatic as it was instantaneous. Long-simmering anxieties and frustrations over the club’s long-term future erupted, and although there had previously been sympathy for Veljko Paunovic due to a litany of tough factors making his job harder, when the full-time whistle blew at Kidderminster the demands for his removal became overwhelming.
His position was untenable, surely?
If not after that game, then definitely when Reading were battered 7-0 at home to Fulham. Definitely when Reading blew a 1-0 lead late on at Middlesbrough. Definitely when the Royals were dire in a 2-0 home defeat to Luton Town. Definitely when Huddersfield Town made it five losses in a row with a 4-3 victory at the SCL. Definitely when Queens Park Rangers shredded Reading 4-0 at Loftus Road. Definitely when Bristol City made it seven defeats on the bounce and definitely when Coventry City made it eight.
For 44 days - aptly the same length of time as Brian Clough’s turbulent spell at Elland Road - the Royals’ league record mirrored the fans’ summary of the club as a whole: utterly pointless. Reading were damned and disunited. Every week Pauno went past another point of no return without being removed. He’d long since lost control of an admittedly tough situation and was painfully out of his depth; you couldn’t doubt his good intentions or commitment to the club, but watching him try to turn around a sinking ship was painful.
To be fair, Reading’s problems went far beyond the dugout. Long-term squad mismanagement, the six-point deduction, transfer restrictions from the EFL, the Covid-19 outbreak in late 2021 and an ongoing injury crisis - which was at its worst in January 2022 - weren’t of Pauno’s making. The Royals even went through a messy divorce as Liam Moore was stripped of the captaincy. Reading Football Club had long since been a broken and incompetent organisation that had lost its way and most managers would have struggled to drag it forwards.
By mid-February supporters had seen enough of Pauno, were fed up of the club’s poor organisation behind the scenes and were angry about the reported involvement of Kia Joorabchian. Fans made their feelings known with a protest before the 150th anniversary match at home to Coventry City and others took to the pitch at full-time a few hours later, while a large contingent stuck around after the subsequent 0-0 bore fest at Peterborough United to demand Pauno’s removal and surround the team coach as it left the stadium.
That week was a bridge too far for Pauno, whose exit was finally agreed on the morning of Friday February 18. A day later he signed off with a bittersweet 3-2 win at Preston North End - Reading’s first victory of the year in any competition. How ironic that Pauno had waited over two and a half months for three points but could only manage it when he was halfway out the door?
Replacing him, much to the frustration of Reading fans and amusement of neutrals, was Paul Ince. If any managerial appointment could have inspired hope in a beleaguered fanbase, it certainly wasn’t that of someone who’d been out of work for eight years.
Accordingly the first month or so of Ince’s time in the dugout brought more cause for pessimism than optimism. Reading managed one win, one narrow defeat and two batterings as results and performances failed to pick up from the Pauno era, while concerns over Ince’s appointment lingered. Was he just here because his son had been signed in January? Was he another ‘Kia Joorabchian pick’? Had the club even been honest when they announced his arrival ‘on an interim basis’?
Then, all of a sudden, Reading started to fight back. The turnaround began with a plucky point on the south coast as the Royals earned a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth, who’d go on to be automatically promoted to the Premier League. It continued with crucial wins over Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, while a late Josh Laurent equaliser at Oakwell denied Barnsley what would have been a huge victory in the relegation dogfight.
But the best was yet to come.
In a truly stunning Easter Weekend, Reading all but confirmed their Championship status. First up was a Good Friday trip to Sheffield United when Tom McIntyre prodded the ball home in the dying moments to secure a huge three points. Then on Easter Monday, not content with just the one bit of late heroics, McIntyre completed a dramatic comeback from 4-1 to 4-4 at home to Swansea City.
A team which had all too often looked scared to death when it had a lead of its own now didn’t know when it was beaten. That Easter Weekend was Paul Ince’s crowning achievement up to that stage - the point at which he truly came into his own as Reading manager and showed what a Paul Ince side could be capable of.
Reading wouldn’t pick up another point in the rest of the season, losing in uninspired fashion to Hull City, West Bromwich Albion and Luton Town, but it didn’t matter. Relegation rivals falling short meant the Royals stayed up regardless; it was a remarkably comfortable way to secure safety when you consider just how perilous the club’s position had looked only a few weeks earlier.
Instead, attention turned to matters behind the scenes.
Though the Royals had just about stayed in the Championship, no one was under any illusions that there wasn’t a broader task to complete. Reading Football Club was still a fundamentally dysfunctional organisation - one that had avoided dropping into the third tier through luck and willpower rather than because of any institutional strength. Relegation would have been deserved if it had happened (remember that it was only avoided due to Derby County’s own points deduction) and drastic reform was required if Reading were serious about staying in the second tier for the long haul.
In late April, shortly before the end of the campaign, pressure mounted for the club to course-correct. That pressure came both externally - from former boss Brian McDermott who called for a reset in an interview with the 1871 podcast - and internally from Paul Ince, who spoke extensively about what needed to change. He even said he’d be raising those points in a meeting with Dai Yongge.
The following month, that pressure bore fruit. Reading’s 2021/22 season had hinged on one week in mid-February that culminated with the departure of Veljko Paunovic and the arrival of the manager who’d keep the team up, but Reading’s 2022 hinged on another week in mid-May.
On Monday May 16, Reading confirmed the appointment of both Paul Ince as manager and Mark Bowen as head of football operations - the latter bringing the much-needed footballing experience and know-how which had been so conspicuous by their absence. Not done there, three days later the Royals brought in Brian Carey as director of recruitment, further bolstering the club’s new-look behind-the-scenes structure. Reading rounded off the week’s work on the Friday by announcing a partial squad clear-out.
The stage was set for a summer rebuild that was as difficult as it was integral to the club’s long-term future. Even if players did want to sign for a club that was arguably the laughing stock of the division, Reading would have enough difficulty getting deals done amid tight EFL restrictions that were part of the November 2021 business plan. The Royals were in the beggar’s camp, but getting recruitment right was vital if relegation were to be avoided.
And yet, signings did come. It certainly wasn’t plain sailing - no senior player committed their future to the Royals until mid-June, Ince and co had to sift through a mass of hopeful triallists and some out-of-contract first-teamers headed for pastures new - but a squad gradually took shape.
The aim, as Bowen put it in late June, was for Reading to put together a competitive squad. Two months, five loanees and six free agents after those comments, it was fair to say that the Royals had managed just that. While the squad was left short on quality, it was still an experienced, balanced group with a good mentality. The building blocks for a side that could be more than the sum of its parts were in place.
That impression was backed up on the pitch too with a set of positive pre-season friendly results. The Royals won the games that should have been won (Colchester United, Maidenhead and AFC Wimbledon) and were competitive in the rest, losing 2-0 to Benfica and 2-1 to Brighton & Hove Albion while earning a 1-1 draw with West Ham United.
It was during pre-season that we also saw the start of a significant tactical shift. Reading had previously overwhelmingly been a back-four side under numerous managers, but Paul Ince altered course by adopting 3-5-2 and 3-4-3. The first of those would go on to be the pre-eminent tactical template for the first half of Reading’s season.
It’s funny how quickly a bumpy start can become an excellent one. In the opening weeks of the 2022/23 campaign Reading were competitive but fell short against Blackpool, on the wrong end of a cup upset from Stevenage, encouraging (and victorious) against Cardiff City but dreadful against Rotherham United. If I’d told you then that Reading would win their next three games - all without conceding - to sit top of the table, you’d have laughed me out of the room.
But that’s exactly what happened. Reading found a basic but effective way of winning games: sit deep, stay compact, nick a goal from range or a set piece and see out the match without losing concentration. It’s a formula we’ve seen time and again in the last few months, particularly against Middlesbrough, Millwall, Wigan Athletic, Coventry City and Swansea City.
Some games bucked the trend. Reading were uncharacteristically proactive in their pressing at home to Blackburn Rovers, even managed a couple more two-goal wins over Huddersfield Town and Bristol City, and came from behind at Hull City, but these victories were very much exceptions to the pattern. Paul Ince had created a limited but stubborn side that picked up points for fun by being ruthlessly efficient on its own turf.
Not everything’s gone to plan though. When the formula fell short in the early stages of the season it fell short badly. In the space of a month, Reading were taken apart by Rotherham United, Sheffield United and Sunderland, although there was a persistent ability to bounce back with wins in the subsequent matches: Blackburn Rovers, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic.
Reading also fell into a month-long rut from the beginning of October, picking up just two wins and one draw in the nine games after the 1-1 with Norwich City at home - one of the best performances of the Royals’ season so far. In fairness this period had no shortage of tough opponents, with Reading playing away at various promotion hopefuls including Queens Park Rangers, Burnley, Swansea City and Watford. Still, doubts were creeping in about the direction in which the Royals were heading. The drop-off in general performances and the standard of defending from before the international break was clear to see.
And yet, just as Reading had responded so well to a poor run in the first four matches of the season, they did so again after the World Cup. Narrow home victories against Coventry City and Swansea City came either side of a sloppy defeat at Birmingham City before the year was rounded off with a 1-1 comeback draw at Norwich City.
Two wins, a draw and a loss. Not bad at all, especially when you factor in the form of Coventry, reverse fixture at Swansea and pedigree of Norwich. Those results were even sufficient to leave the Royals in a lofty 10th place at the close of 2022, level on points with sixth and just three off third - a remarkable achievement considering how pessimistic pre-season expectations had been.
It’s one thing for a written-off side to put together a run of results; it can happen for any team under any manager. Sustaining that form however and being able to regain it after it’s gone - as Reading have done this season - proves the existence of an underlying spirit. This side truly is made of sterner stuff and boy does it enjoy upsetting the odds.
There’s no simple way to sum up the last 12 months. We’ve seen historically bad moments on and off the field, felt existential dread about the short- and long-term future of the club, enjoyed euphorically good wins, been heartened by changes behind the scenes and endured no shortage of tedious rubbish too.
The bottom line however is that the Royals are certainly leaving 2022 in a better situation than they entered it. Reading Football Club is now an organisation that’s fit for purpose - not the fundamentally broken laughing stock which it had been in the early months of the year. That improvement has come about thanks to long-overdue changes behind the scenes which had seemed to be out of reach as recently as April or May, but have shaken Reading to its senses.
The consequence is that Reading should stay up this season. Considering that relegation looked a nigh-on certainty to many in the summer, being able to be so confident of survival at this point of the season is gloriously heartening. Four or five more wins should do it. I’m still taking extra care to italicise the word ‘should’ whenever I write it though.
But it’s far too early to count our chickens. Reading could well still be relegated this season, there’s a huge amount of additional work to be done on rebuilding the club, and even that might not be enough to safeguard against relegation in the coming years. After all, better-run clubs than Reading have slipped into League One.
Still, the signs are encouraging. As we begin 2023 we have solid, logical reasons to believe the Royals’ fortunes will improve and that this is actually a club worth getting emotionally invested in and sticking with.
Imagine saying that after Kidderminster.