Reading fans have a lot on their plates at the moment. We’re all currently sweating over a possible deduction of six points (which may or may not be applied this season), there’s a relegation fight to win in the next eight games, and there are always bigger-scale considerations surrounding what direction the club is heading in in the longer term.
What really got to me this week though was the revelation that Reading’s Player of the Season award - the one voted for by the fans - will again be handed out at a private dinner, the price of which (£1,750 + VAT) would have been prohibitive to most people even if we weren’t in the midst of a cost of living crisis. Going by the reaction on Twitter, plenty of other fans are as pissed off as I am.
Up until 2018/19 it was standard fare that this award was presented at the last home game of the season. Whether it had been a good, middling or bad campaign, it was a communal experience for which any match-going fan could be present. This was when supporters and players could come together, with the former showing the latter gratitude for their efforts - so pretty much under the same principle as for the lap of honour. Symbolism, sure, but important symbolism nonetheless, showing togetherness and mutual respect.
Naturally the POTS award couldn’t be presented at the last home game during the 2019/20 or 2020/21 seasons, both of which ended with matches being played behind closed doors due to Covid-19. Then last season, for the first time the POTS award (among plenty of others) was moved to a private dinner - but one explicitly billed as a “150th anniversary charity gala dinner”. More than £15,000 was raised for No5 Young People, a hugely impressive amount that deserves plenty of credit.
Still, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention, the principle of fan awards being given out at a private dinner had very clearly gone down sourly among a significant number of supporters. That probably would have been the case any year, but the ill feeling was only exacerbated by just how disillusioned and angry so many of us had become by the latter stages of 2021/22.
So, this season, ideally the club would have quietly binned the idea and reverted to tradition. At the very least, they could have tried to make the dinner look less like an exclusive, elitist event and more like one that in some way included match-going fans.
Well, nope. Instead the club snuck out the announcement of another gala dinner (posting to the website but very tellingly not to Twitter) with no mention of it being for charity. There may well be plans for a charity element to be included, but they haven’t been publicly disclosed.
The wording of the article made it very clear who the dinner’s primarily meant for:
“This is an evening for our seasoned hospitality-lovers and local businesses to enjoy – and of course the event is open to all our supporters!”
I guess it’s nice for fans to be included at the end there. In all seriousness, that’s not meant as a dig at “seasoned hospitality-lovers and local businesses” - the club could and should have put supporters on an equal footing for an attempt at inclusivity.
At least this year’s dinner will ‘only’ cost £1,750 + VAT for a table of 10, down from the £1,900 + VAT it was 12 months ago. For context, if you include VAT (which brings us to £2,100), the cost per person works out to more than half (53%) of an adult season ticket (£395).
Just as bad, if not worse, is how STAR - the official representatives of all Reading fans - were excluded from the whole decision-making process. They were neither informed nor consulted about the gala dinner before it was announced. Unsurprisingly and entirely understandably, STAR now won’t attend the dinner or help with the voting.
STAR opposes the decision to present the Player of the Season award at an event with a high cost of entry, and will not attend.— Supporters’ Trust At Reading (@STARReading) March 23, 2023
⚠️We will not conduct POTS voting in the stadium this season as the majority of fans who vote won't be able to attend the presentation #readingfc
If the club were truly set on creating an event that didn’t piss off vast swathes of the fanbase, there was an opportunity to work with STAR in the planning stage. But they didn’t. Regardless, STAR were presumably expected to help collect any POTS ballots cast in person, just as fans are expected to vote. Reading want the legitimacy that comes with mass involvement in a fans’ POTS award, but are all too happy to exclude supporters when there’s more money to be made.
What happens next? Well, I’m sure the event itself will go excellently; for all my frustrations with the club’s general decision-making here, I’ve no good reason to think otherwise on that front. I would however caution the club against then tweeting photos of the event to a large number of followers who would have loved to see the POTS award being given out but can’t attend a private dinner.
The event will very probably raise a decent amount of money - after all, Reading wouldn’t be putting it on again if that weren’t the case. While extra funds aren’t to be sniffed at, I doubt it’ll be significant enough to make much of a dent for a club that recently posted a pre-tax loss for 2021/22 of £17.3m.
What can’t be recorded in cold, hard data though is the growing feeling that this club is out of touch with its supporters. That’s a long-term malaise which started well before this gala dinner, let alone last year’s event or even the beginning of Dai Yongge’s ownership six years ago, but unenforced, grating errors such as this only exacerbate the problem.
A significant number of supporters will only become more disillusioned with a club they’re dedicated to but nonetheless find increasingly difficult to love, and certainly to invest their time and money into. When season-ticket and match-day sales inevitably drop again next season (regardless of what division Reading are in), that broad disillusionment will be to blame.
Regardless of all the above, a well-run club would be able to respond properly, whether that constitutes an apology, a change in course or simply an acknowledgement of fans’ frustrations. I’d love to think that could happen, but when I consider the quiet nature of the dinner’s announcement and the exclusion of STAR, I don’t have a lot of hope.
The elephant in the room here is who it is that should be addressing fans or at least taking responsibility for the situation: CEO Dayong Pang. Where is he? As far as I can tell, Pang has made no public appearance this season (bar being photographed with Dai Yongge by fans at the Wigan Athletic away game) and hasn’t directly addressed supporters since the announcement of Veljko Paunovic’s departure last season.
Personally, as things stand I won’t take part in the official POTS voting. I’d rather not give any legitimacy - however small - or put any effort into something that I (and every other fan without £1,750 + VAT down the back of the sofa) am ultimately being excluded from.
As for the club, this whole situation should be something they learn from. To be fair, they’ve got a lot right this season for fan engagement and communication, such as Mark Bowen being interviewed on the Elm Park Royals podcast and thousands of discounted tickets being made available in a few designated grassroots home matches.
Reading are therefore on the whole doing significantly better than last season, but this awards dinner is still a reminder that they’ve got much further to go. I really hope the club can recognise the frustration and disillusionment that’s out there and properly address it; after all, at the end of the day we’re all on the same team and want a club we can be proud of.