We made it! We actually made it. At times in 2022 it felt like we’d never see 2023. As last year started, you couldn’t help but feel the club was on a one-way ticket to Implosion Street. We managed to stay in the league, balance the squad ever so slightly and surprise everyone by ending the year in the top half of the table.
Eyes are now very much fixed on the future and while it’s incredibly difficult to predict where we’ll end this season, I can say with some confidence that there is no way 2023 can be as a bad as the annus horribilis (bit of Latin, there) of the last year.
What am I hoping/expecting from this coming 12 months? Read on…
1. Maintain the home form
One of the biggest issues (among others) of the previous few years has been the home performances or, rather, lack of. This season we currently sit second in the home form table. That, when you consider the stats below, is quite incredible.
2020/21: 7th (the “blip” year)
It’s fair to say that The Reading International Arena is becoming, dare I say it, a fortress. If we are to stay in the upper echelons of the league, we have to make sure that 2023 goes in the way that 2022 left off.
2. Improve the midfield
Good. God. It’s becoming a huge bug bear for me personally. Regular readers of my award-winning column will know that I spent the last home game watching Joe Allen exclusively. You’ll also know that I have always placed particular focus on the central midfield area, possibly due to the fact that we’ve been so bad defensively in recent years, but also that I pine for the days of the Sidwell/Harper axis, or a Karacan. Hell, even Rino stole my heart for a few seasons.
Which leads me to the current incumbents of Hendrick and Loum, with Fornah sniffing away at the edges. Without analysing it too much (I’ve already done my fair share of “factual research” for this piece thank you), I know I don’t like them as players. I also like the idea of our CMs/CDMs not being on loan.
Call me old-fashioned but I like ball-playing midfielders - midfielders that keep possession and pass accurately, midfielders that can attack but also defend. Hendrick and Loum do none of those things for me. It’s unrealistic that anything will change in January. In fact, I expect the position to weaken with Tetek probably heading out on loan. That leads me to literally plead with Mark Bowen to look seriously at the position in the summer, regardless of who the manager is (more on that in the next paragraph).
3. Managerial merry-go-round?
For starters, I like Ince. He’s exactly what we need at this time. I don’t see the team collapsing like an overloaded Christmas meringue to the point of us getting into a relegation death-zone battle. So for me, he stays.
Now whether he is here in August is the biggest question on my lips. Financially, we’ll be better off mid-year (won’t we all?!) so we’d expect to see more money thrown at the squad. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the time for a proper rebuild is this coming summer.
Do Ince and his team leave as part of that rebuild? Is he the man to take is forward into the next season and beyond? I honestly don’t have the answers, but I’m pretty sure if the season peters out and we are on the beach from March (aka perfect season), the top office might start looking for a replacement in the dugout.
4. Keep up the community improvements
It’s been the biggest improvement for me. I was very openly critical of the club in all respects last season, as lots of others were. They let the fans down and the community down and while I won’t disclose all of the conversations I had with employees and staff last year in my role for STAR, I will say it took me a long time to get over last year. It was disgusting.
However, credit where it’s due: they’ve listened to the fanbase, they’ve taken on board comments made by people inside and outside the club and have made strides off the pitch. Some examples would be the communication around things such as the lack of kits, the return of the grassroots games (yeah I know you hate them but they are important), the reintroduction of the flag-waving pre-game, the penalties at half-time and the cheaper ticket offers.
As a fan, I felt let down on and off the pitch last season. I know others felt the same. But the crowds are increasing (albeit slowly - an average of 13,060 so far with 10 games gone - it was 13,193 for all home games in 2021/22). This can only be a positive, particularly as the last home game against the Swans was our highest of the season thus far (excluding the grassroots games - yes I’m splitting hairs, but you know what I’m saying).
I want to see the club continue to reconnect with fans and make it enjoyable for people to attend. Having a handsome devil on the pitch at half time also helps…
5. Joe Lumley
Don’t let him go back to Boro. Simples.
Happy New Year and here’s to 12 months of progression on and off the pitch, increasing excitement and mid-table mediocrity.