Last week was a pretty horrendous one to be a Reading fan, but now is not the time to turn on Paul Ince.
When news of a potential points deduction surfaced, I got that same sick feeling that you used to get when you realised you’d forgotten to do your homework, or if you slept through your alarm before an important day at work. It was that horrible numbness in the pit of your stomach quickly followed by a thousand different thoughts.
Those thousand thoughts fit neatly into the five stages of grief.
Denial: No, not us, how the fudge has that even happened?!
Anger: Fudge the EFL for picking on us, no, fudge the club if they messed up! Fudge overpaid player X, Y or Z, or should it be fudge me for still caring so much about this club?
Bargaining: OK, maybe it’ll just be a smaller penalty? What about a fine? Maybe other teams get hit as well?
Depression: Why do I even bother? Every time I get optimistic about this club they just break my heart.
Acceptance: You know what? It is what it is. We’ll be six points clear and with a team playing well above bottom-three level. We can stay up and get back on track next season.
I guess it’s that final point which will probably divide a lot of the fanbase right now, and is one that brings me to the whole point of this article. Give Paul Ince a bit of slack and please get behind him.
Do I understand the frustrations? Yes.
Do I agree with Ince’s tactical/selection decisions? Often, no.
Does Ince sometimes make baffling statements to the media? Yes.
Do I think he’s the man to take us back to the Premier League? Probably not.
Do I think he’s the man we need right now? Yes.
Let’s look at some of the biggest points of contention and frustration.
Tactics and selection
Perhaps it’s because I’m no longer able to go to away games that our travel woes haven’t led to as much anger as they have for some of our most loyal and dedicated fans. I fully expect that if I’d been at Stoke City, Sunderland, Cardiff City or Middlesbrough, perhaps my patience would have worn thinner by now.
However, as someone that largely has to reflect on games based on media reports, word of mouth, TV coverage and social media, I find it hard to get overly worked up. While the above games were abysmal from entertainment purposes, I can sympathise with how Ince has commented and painted them in public. At both Sunderland and Cardiff we were minutes away from points and clean sheets, regardless of the style.
Would a more attacking setup have generated any points? Based on the performances of this group of players over a long period of time, likely not.
Reading have won no more than six times on the road in a non-pandemic season since the play-off final run of 2016/17. This just isn’t a side with a history of delivering in front of away crowds and nor have we had the funds to be able to bring in many proven winners at the peak of their powers.
Which all feeds into the question of selection. It’s time for a bit of a reality check on the players we have available. As Greg Double tweeted on Saturday:
The only pro-Ince bone I have in my body is that the players are genuinely crap.— Greg Double (@Dubstep1988) March 4, 2023
Yes, he could coach us to be better etc. but it really does get overlooked just how crap we are.
How many of our starting XI gets into the starting XI of another team? Two max? #readingfc
Be brutally honest: if you booted up a game of Football Manager tomorrow and were given a transfer budget, how many of our current defensive unit would you be keeping at the club? I’m not suggesting they’re all bad or couldn’t possibly improve under a new boss, but let’s not overrate our own players. Some days they get it right, particularly at home, but to expect consistency - especially away from the SCL - isn’t realistic right now.
There’s quality in patches but the very nature of Reading’s band of misfit toys is that most have a caveat. Not experienced enough, too experienced, too injury-prone, not consistent or simply not good enough for top-half Championship football.
Ince walked into this season (or more aptly crawled into it, given our precarious financial state) trying to get more out of a Reading side which conceded 43 goals on its travels while scoring just 21. So far I’d concede it’s mission failed, as this season it’s 11 goals scored, 35 conceded, and that does need to change.
The club have been able to make some limited additions to the defence but the main two - Naby Sarr and Sam Hutchinson - have dealt with significant injuries. Hutchinson in particular has been a big blow, with Reading earning wins in two of his five away appearances to date. This is perhaps why Ince is so keen on pointing towards his absence and general embargo woes. He said before the trip to Sunderland:
“We haven’t really got that six that sits there and plays. [Hutchinson is] disappointed because he wants to get on the park.”
Should a manager be adapting when he doesn’t have those players at his disposal? Of course. However, Ince has a depressingly limited pool of players to pick from. This isn’t a squad he’s built, it’s one he’s working with.
In his eyes it’s clear that being overly defensive is the best route to picking up points. For that reason alone I can stomach, if not enjoy, how he sets us up on the road. Big defeats aside it’s a system that’s getting us closer to points more often than not. Of our last 12 away games, only three have been decided by more than a single goal: Watford (2-0), Stoke (4-0) and Middlesbrough (5-0).
Ince’s media comments have also attracted plenty of ire lately. TTE’s own Ben Thomas, a man whose opinions I value highly, tweeted the following after the Boro loss:
“I woke up this morning fully believing I’d get behind Ince now we are about to get another points deduction. After all, they wouldn’t sack him with that incoming, would they? Best just to pull together. So we lose 5-0. Terrible, obviously.
“Pretty sure he’d come out & AT LEAST say it was a terrible performance. But for him to come out, laugh, slate the ref, make digs about Boro buying players, not mention the fans going up there….nah, he’s done. At least Pauno tried to take it seriously. This guy…wow”
What I’d say here is this: look at the greatest manager Ince spent time under and how he approached the media. While I’d never directly compare Ince to Sir Alex Ferguson, their media personas are fairly similar. Both could be jovial and friendly in the right circumstance, and have been seen as ‘the boss’/’the guv’nor’, but when the chips were down they circle the wagons and do what they can to protect the group.
Fergie was known for taking on referees after a defeat, quickly moving the agenda away from his team’s performances and onto outside factors. Ince has often done the same and in fairness to him, we’ve gotten a few shockers this season, notably Burnley. Is it wise pointing to a penalty call when you’ve been thumped 5-0? No, but I don’t think it’s the time to throw your players under the bus either.
Likewise, many are sick of him pointing at the embargo. Again, to me this is Ince trying to deflect blame away from the club, to paint perhaps the EFL, or even our own prior leadership, as the bad guys he’s bravely fighting against on our behalf.
So this is where I’d disagree with Ben, because I think Ince is taking it all very seriously.
Ince is simply doing the best he can to protect a group that, quite simply, all metrics point to not being good enough to dominate games.
We can argue over Tom McIntyre vs Nesta Guinness-Walker, Andy Yiadom vs Junior Hoilett or Scott Dann vs Amadou Mbenge all we want, but there are painfully few positive selection headaches for Ince right now. He’s tried some out-of-the-box stuff - McIntyre as a defensive midfielder for example - but nothing has provided a major spark to convince us that we’re capable of dictating games.
While he can - and already has - dug out his players and himself, there are only so many times before that route becomes detrimental to the confidence of his players, or the perception of himself in the dressing room. Just look at the final few weeks of any Jose Mourinho reign…
If after every other week your boss sent an email saying ‘I need to do more, I’m not good enough’, at what point would you start to question their leadership?
Compare that to an email which blames outside forces such as the market, the weather, competitors, watchdogs, tech issues etc. Sure, you’d eventually see past those as well, but it would certainly buy that manager a little bit more time to get to the next positive to cling on to.
What comes next?
12 cup finals.
Lost in the woes of this week is that Reading still have the fifth-best home record in the division with 10 wins in 16 games. That’s already far better than last season’s seven in 23 and something Ince and his side deserve great credit for.
Have we been lucky in some home games? Sure, but who hasn’t? Jaap Stam’s side rode their ‘luck’ or ‘executed their strategy perfectly’ all the way to a play-off final in 2017, and if they can do that there’s no reason to suggest we can’t this time around.
Would I enjoy a more confident, dynamic and progressive approach? Yes.
Is that something worth risking survival for? No.
Unfortunately for Ince he’s now almost certainly not going to be able to experiment freely in the remaining 12 games. Unless we have a remarkable March, it’s likely to be a tense fight to gain the 9-12 points we’ll probably need to stay in this division. We now no longer have the time to introduce something new.
There simply isn’t the evidence to suggest another available manager would be able to waltz in and get more out of this group. The likes of Neil Warnock, Gareth Ainsworth and Mick McCarthy haven’t exactly done it so far at Huddersfield Town, QPR and Blackpool, so who is out there that you’d back to improve us in an even shorter period of time?
Ince got enough out of an arguably inferior group to survive last season. So far he’s got 12 more points than the bottom three sides have managed this season. His track record at Reading shows no sign of a man who can’t deliver survival.
Talk of whether he’s a long-term solution is merited and those with concerns are absolutely justified in them. However, right now we need to turn our anger and frustrations towards those trying to stop us from staying up.
We’ll be able to quickly forget a crap 1-0 defeat at Cardiff this summer if we stay up, but the sting of relegation would be felt for years to come.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend and right now the enemy is relegation to League One.
Let’s fight that enemy together.