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2023: The Year Reading Football Club Fell Into The Abyss

A long read on a horrid 365 days for the Royals.

Sometimes you look back at what you’ve written in the past and feel chuffed with how well it’s aged. At other times... not so much.

My first step in putting together these annual summaries is to look back at what I wrote 12 months ago so I can get some perspective on how the year started. Doing so this time just made me feel depressed. I summed up 2022 as “the year Reading gazed into the abyss and took a step back”, “the year Reading came back from the brink”, before concluding with some of these snippets:

“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.”

“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.”

Indeed, as we left 2022, the Royals were sitting pretty in the middle of the Championship following a surprisingly good first half of the season, and were well on course to achieve the objective of staying up. Behind the scenes, Mark Bowen and co were getting the house in order. It wasn’t perfect but we were on the right track following several wayward years.

Well, if 2022 was the year we looked into the abyss and took a step back, 2023 was when Reading Football Club decided to take another peek before diving in headfirst.

A year on from that optimistic forecast, this is now a club fighting to stay in League One, let alone get back into the Championship, following a chaotic pre-season and yet more points deductions. This is now a club with an owner who struggles to pay his own staff and the tax man, is in constant trouble with the authorities, and has been the subject of open revolt from fans who’ve had enough and are desperate to force him out. This is now a club that sent redundancy letters to 17-20 staff members right before Christmas.

It all goes back to one man: Dai Yongge. He’s been the agent of destruction in Reading’s 2023, through both callousness and incompetence, leaving everyone else to suffer the consequences of his actions. Managers, staff members, players and fans - he’s mistreated, angered, undermined and disrespected them all.

2023 is the year Reading Football Club paid the price.


A low-key start

Reading started 2023 as they didn’t mean to go on, with a pretty low-key January. One draw and two losses in the league left the Royals in lower mid-table, while an FA Cup win over Watford set up an enticing fourth-round trip to Manchester United, only for the hosts to run out 3-1 winners.

The January transfer window brought little excitement either. In fact, there were twice as many loan exits for Jokull Andresson (two) as new signings (Cesare Casadei joining on loan from Chelsea). Reading did however secure new contracts for Andy Carroll and Amadou Mbengue.

The hottest topic that month was fury over how away fans were treated in that fixture at Old Trafford: anyone heading north had to shell out £46 for a ticket and trek up for an 8pm kick-off on a Saturday night. Outrageous and unacceptable, absolutely, but those concerns seem somewhat quaint nowadays, not least in relation to how the next FA Cup game televised on ITV played out.

Going downhill

February was when Reading’s 2023 really went south. Although it was better results-wise, including two league wins at home and a draw, a lifeless 1-0 defeat at Sunderland (one shot on target) and a dire 1-0 defeat at relegation rivals Cardiff City (no shots on target) intensified discontent against manager Paul Ince.

That game in South Wales was a nadir for Ince and a crucial one in how the year ultimately played out for Reading. Despite going up against a side in the thick of a relegation dogfight, Ince set the Royals up comically negatively: 3-5-2 with a trio of defence-minded central midfielders. It was asking for trouble and the hosts accordingly popped up with a crushing late winner from Romaine Sawyers. That was bad enough, but Ince’s refusal to take responsibility after the game while going in hard on his own players added insult to injury.

That defeat in Cardiff - the result, the manner in which it happened and the way Ince responded - was a critical blow from which Ince never recovered as Reading manager. He should have been sacked at that point, but Dai held fire for another 54 days, standing by Ince out of a sense of “loyalty”, as Mark Bowen went on to suggest at the Blue Collar event in late April.

Reading’s post-Cardiff fortunes on the pitch briefly recovered with an uncharacteristically entertaining 3-1 victory over Blackpool - the Royals’ last win for 165 days - before going from bad to worse. Four straight defeats in March did the damage and, although the bleeding was stopped with a trio of 1-1 draws, it didn’t constitute a proper turnaround.

Away from the pitch, right at the beginning of March, all hell broke loose. On March 1, news came out that Reading were facing another points deduction, this time for breaching the terms of the November 2021 business plan. It was a cloud that hung over the club for weeks, only dissipating on April 4 when a six-point deduction was enacted and a full explanation was given. Reading had both lost too much money and fallen short on an agreed amount of income in player sales - by a whopping £12m in fact.

The last hurrah

A change in the dugout eventually came in April, with Ince replaced by Noel Hunt after the 2-1 loss at Preston North End. It was a pretty desperate attempt at salvaging the season, with Hunt lacking the required experience or time to have a reasonable chance of getting the job done, but his appointment did bring something that had been in desperately short supply in preceding weeks: hope.

The optimism and positivity Hunt brought to the dugout helped Reading to an unlikely 0-0 with league leaders Burnley and a 1-0 lead against promotion hopefuls Luton Town... but then it all went wrong.

Goalscorer against Luton Carroll saw red for a rash handball and a Joe Lumley error handed the Hatters a 1-1 draw: two critical points dropped. Next, Reading lost at Coventry City while Queens Park Rangers fought out a win at Burnley: an opportunity missed. Following that, the Royals desperately needed a win against Wigan Athletic but barely managed a 1-1 draw: a lifeline squandered.

Reading’s fate was eventually sealed by Huddersfield Town, the Terriers beating Sheffield United in their penultimate match to secure safety and condemn the Royals to the third tier. All Royals fans could do was watch on, helplessly, as the club’s new reality came into view.

It set up a particularly morbid final day: a dead-rubber trip to... Huddersfield Town. Still, around 900 hardy souls stubbornly made the trek up to Yorkshire, many of whom took the opportunity to enjoy an ironically carnival-like atmosphere.

A (mostly) wayward club

Reading Football Club was losing its way off the pitch too, as seen in a variety of ways over the closing weeks of 2022/23 and into the summer.

The player of the season award was again handed out at a gala dinner - not in front of match-going fans at the final home game of the season, there was radio silence from all higher-ups at the club, season-ticket prices were suddenly ramped up, the price of away tickets at the Select Car Leasing Stadium followed suit, and the Women’s team went part-time following the departure of stalwart Kelly Chambers.

In so many regards, Reading looked an increasingly out-of-touch organisation that refused to talk to its own supporters in any substantial way. One major exception came in late April at STAR’s Blue Collar event when Mark Bowen, Brian Carey and Jared Dublin went into extensive detail on their behind-the-scenes work at the club thus far and strategy going forward. Reading’s long-term footballing prospects looked encouraging and in good hands.

Fans fight back

Until June 16, that is, another defining day in Reading’s 2023. The EFL announced a volley of charges against both the club and Dai himself, the opening salvo in a conflict that’s since overshadowed everything else in its wake. Fans - for so long patient with Dai - had seen enough. Within hours it was decided that action had to taken; within days Sell Before We Dai was born.

In some ways, the story of the second half of the Royals’ 2023 has been the story of Sell Before We Dai. It’s been a fight for the soul and existence of Reading Football Club, where long-term survival take pre-eminence over short-term results, where off-field protestors make the headlines more than players on the pitch, and sometimes the two overlap.

Sell Before We Dai have shown how much can be achieved when a group of committed, hard-working and engaged fans is set on achieving a goal. Remember: when the group was created, the prospect even of outside investment being asked for was remote. In fact, Reading Football Club has officially and publicly been up for sale since late September.

It’s been a professional and impactful protest group, and although it’s not got everything right, it’s got its message across in a number of constructive ways.

It’s also been the zenith of Reading fan unity, in the face of some of the most challenging times to be a supporter of this football club, with ourselves at TTE working alongside STAR, Club 1871, Elm Park Royals and Proud Royals. If nothing else, supporters who’d have otherwise felt powerless in the face of the damage being done to the club have been given hope by Sell Before We Dai.

Hopefully, 2024 will be the last year it needs to exist.

The pre-season circus

Heading into pre-season, Reading had an extensive rebuild on the cards: contracts to renew, signings to be brought in and a seat in the dugout to be filled. A variety of managers were in the frame or at least linked - including Nathan Jones, Richie Wellens, Chris Davies, Karl Robinson and Danny Cowley - before one candidate superseded all others: Chris Wilder.

Yes, for a time, it looked highly possible - inevitable at one stage even - that Reading would go into their League One campaign with a particularly impressive gaffer, one who’d already taken Sheffield United from the third tier to the Premier League.

Perhaps in an alternate timeline in which this club wasn’t a mess behind the scenes, Wilder’s appointment would have been sealed, he’d have been backed in the transfer window and Reading would now be riding high at the top of League One. In reality, the move fell through and Wilder now finds himself back in the top flight with the Blades. It’s a safe bet that he’s rather chuffed with how that all panned out for him.

Reading eventually closed in on a manager on June 16 when it was revealed that the club was in talks to hire Ruben Selles, a rookie manager, although he’d had an unsuccessful spell with Southampton and built up significant experience as a coach. 10 days later the deal was done - subject to a work visa - before the last bit of paperwork was finally signed on July 14.

The Royals had gone without a permanent manager for 94 days.

Selles needed a squad though (those tend to be useful in this sport), but putting a decent one together was easier said than done. Reading were again operating under transfer restrictions as of early July due to a number of regulation breaches. When those were cleared up on July 12, in came Harvey Knibbs, Sam Smith, Lewis Wing and Charlie Savage.

However, a return to the EFL’s embargo page on July 28 not only prevented new signings, it also threatened to derail the registration of Wing and Savage - all on the eve of the season. Although that was all cleared up by the time Peterborough United came to town, Reading were again going into a new campaign with a half-finished squad that hadn’t had the benefit of a proper pre-season.

Reading still had a mighty task in the following weeks to finish the squad, but did so pretty well in the circumstances. Unlike in previous years, the Royals generally prioritised young, cheap, talented players with long-term potential and resale value, such as Savage, Tyler Bindon and Ben Elliott. It wasn’t perfect - Reading could have done with more quality at left-back and more experience across the pitch - but this looked to be one of Reading’s better windows.

Reading v Stevenage - Sky Bet League One - Select Car Leasing Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

2023/24

Reading’s league season thus far can be divided up into two stages: the first 13 games, going up to late October (the 4-2-2-2 spell) and the 11 matches since (the 4-1-4-1 spell).

The 4-2-2-2 spell

Following opening-day defeat to Peterborough United, the next two games were hugely influential in how Reading’s season would play out from there on in. First, a 4-0 hammering of Millwall in the League Cup decisively proved that youth was invaluable for this side, with Nelson Abbey, Bindon, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan and Caylan Vickers among those to emphatically announce themselves as contenders for regular first-team involvement.

A few days later, a horrendous performance at Port Vale was a critical blow to a number of first-team players’ status. Out went Tom Holmes, Tom McIntyre, Andy Yiadom, Nesta Guinness-Walker and Andy Carroll; McIntyre and Yiadom soon fought their way back into the side, Holmes and Guinness-Walker were kept in the cold for months and Carroll left for Amiens on deadline day.

The youth-led overhaul initially yielded success, with Reading winning their next three home games: Cheltenham Town, Stevenage and Bolton Wanderers. But it was a different story on the road, where the Royals continued their long-running dire away streak by losing every single league match until mid-November.

Selles had been trying to develop his favoured system in the opening months of the season, based on aggressive pressing and congesting the middle of the pitch, while attacking directly and through turnovers. His formation of choice though, the 4-2-2-2, became an increasingly sore point of contention among fans, with patience running out in late September. Reading were all too often exposed defensively, with the setup not providing enough cover for the fullbacks and in the middle of the pitch, while goals were also in short supply.

That wasn’t the full extent of Reading’s problems however. This was after all an inexperienced squad, with too many players simply not used to the rigours of regular League One football - hardly the ideal group to grind out points regularly.

Injuries mounted too, with summer signings Smith and Wing unavailable for much if not all of the early part of the season, while options at full-back were thin on the ground. Morale waned as the season progressed and individual errors crept in across the board, regardless of players’ experience level.

That all culminated in the nadir period - thus far - of Reading’s league campaign. After the high of a late 2-1 win against Bolton Wanderers, the Royals lost five of their next six games (including batterings by Northampton Town and Blackpool), with a drab 0-0 against Burton Albion the only solace.

Cambridge United v Reading - Sky Bet League One - Abbey Stadium Photo by Simon Marper/PA Images via Getty Images

The 4-1-4-1 spell

Selles switched things up tactically for the visit of Portsmouth, going 4-1-4-1, and although there was no immediate turnaround, there were small signs of improvement. Reading managed 2-0 leads against Pompey and Shrewbury Town - although they went on to collapse on both occasions - and stopped the losing streak with a 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers.

That Shrewsbury Town capitulation was one of the sourest notes of the entire year. Reading had gone 364 days without a league away win when they kicked off in Shropshire but looked on track to lift the curse 90 minutes later, leading 2-1 at the start of stoppage time. When the full-time whistle blew, the Royals had lost 3-2. Even for a team so comically bad on the road, this was ridiculous.

In typical Reading fashion though, having gone the full year without winning a league away game, they came up trumps at literally the next opportunity. The Royals’ 2-1 triumph at Wycombe Wanderers, 378 days after winning at Hull City in the Championship, felt like the stuff of dreams for the thousands of fans packed in behind one of the goals.

It injected a huge amount of confidence into the team too. This has been a far more confident, street-wise and stubborn side since the trip to Adams Park, both at home and on the road.

Reading have played seven games in that period, winning twice, drawing four times (three of them on the road) and losing just once. Away form has been particularly encouraging, with a four-match unbeaten streak and six points gained being the polar-opposite of what we’d seen before the Wycombe game.

The irony is that Reading are making progress now in a similar fashion to how they regressed at the end of 2022/23: by drawing games. The Royals were tough to beat in the closing weeks of last season but couldn’t buy a win, and that did for our Championship status. In the latter stages of 2023 however, grinding out points on the road and against tough sides has been a boost for our survival hopes.

We’re not there yet, but what was once a 10-point gap to safety has been trimmed to just three as we head into the New Year...

Cup fun

While the league’s been a challenge, cup competitions this season have been a breeze... for the most part at least. Relegation to the third tier meant Reading have competed in three knockout competitions already: the League Cup, the McPizza Street Motors Vase and the FA Cup, which the Royals entered in the first round.

Experience from recent years had taught us one simple thing: cup competitions aren’t supposed to be fun. Every time Reading had a cup game, the side would be heavily rotated and we would probably lose. In fact, we’d won just two cup games in the three seasons preceding 2023/24.

This year though, things changed. Reading still rotated heavily, but those sides played with a blend of confidence and enjoyment which seemed alien to this club. First, Millwall were seen off in a blistering 4-0 win at The Den, Reading’s first in any competition since late February. After a commendable 2-2 draw and penalty shoot-out defeat to Ipswich Town - flying high in the Championship - boy did we turn it on in the EFL Trophy.

Exeter City: 9-0. Swindon Town: 5-0. Arsenal: 5-2. Reading set a record for the group stage of the Pizza Cup by netting a whopping 19 goals across those three games, far outclassing the opposition on each occasion. Sure, these were the reserve sides of Exeter and Swindon we were talking about, as well as Arsenal’s under-21s, but we still needed to perform to beat them, let alone to put them away as comprehensively as we did.

Recent outings have been more mixed. Reading snuck past MK Dons 3-2 in the FA Cup before bowing out of the competition entirely with a pretty dire 2-1 defeat at fifth-tier Eastleigh - the only major cup misstep. However, Reading recovered a few days later by seeing off Charlton Athletic on penalties in the first knockout stage of the Dominos Meat Feast Cup.

It’s been a great goal-scoring year overall for Reading in cup competitions. Add the three from 2022/23’s FA Cup outings, four from 2023/24’s FA Cup games, six in the League Cup and 20 (twenty) in the EFL Trophy and Royals fans saw 33 cup goals in 2023. And that’s not including the five times Reading hit the back of the net in a penalty shootout.

It’s easy to scoff at the cup (or make up silly alternative names for one of the tournaments) when the league is far more important, but those competitions have given us some of the purest forms of fun we’ve had in recent years. I saw Reading demolish Swindon, I saw Reading stick nine goals past Exeter in a game with an official attendance of exactly 1871. It was marvellous.

Bring on that trip to Brighton & Hove Albion in the next round of the Pizza Cup. I can’t wait.

So long, 2023. Hello, 2024

The thing about an abyss is that you never quite know where the bottom is. Reading have been in free-fall throughout 2023, but have we hit the bottom? Have we seen the extent of this club’s inadequacy off the pitch and the worst of our fortunes on it? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.

There’s little to be overtly positive about at the moment, with the Royals leaving 2023 in the League One relegation zone and still being in desperate need of a takeover, but there are green shoots of hope. Reading have been edging closer to a takeover in recent months and there’s a good chance of a deal being done at some point. Plus, based on recent form and performances, the team’s on track to fight its way to safety. Victory over Exeter on New Year’s Day will lift Reading out of the bottom four.

Things can only get better, surely?