Imagine going back just over a year and telling yourself about Wednesday night’s STAR event at Blue Collar. It would be hard for a Reading fan in Spring 2022 to believe that the Royals would not only have proper footballing expertise in place behind the scenes, but also that those figures would communicate so openly and publicly with supporters.
This Q&A with Mark Bowen (head of football operations), Brian Carey (director of recruitment) and Jared Dublin (head of scouting) was a great reminder that, although there’s absolutely a hell of a long way to go, the Royals have also made an awful lot of progress in the last 12 months. Naturally, it’s difficult to feel particularly positive about that progress right now when relegation looms, but Reading are still a starkly different club behind the scenes.
Of course, we should reserve a fair amount of judgement for the long-term outcome. It’s all well and good having a positive Q&A now, but if words aren’t backed up by action in the months and years to come, good comms will be scant consolation. I also don’t blame anyone for generally being cynical about all of this - we’ve had false dawns before, after all - but I’d encourage people to give Bowen, Carey and Dublin a fair shot rather than tarring them with the same brush as other figures who’ve previously contributed to the club’s mismanagement.
There was a lot to be encouraged by on Wednesday night. Going into this event I wanted to not only hear in-depth thoughts and insights from Bowen, Carey and Dublin, but also to be reassured by how they talked. After all, it’s one thing for someone to say something that sounds good, but another thing for them to be truly convincing in doing so. However, all three came across really well and I left feeling excited about what the long-term future holds.
It’s so refreshing and reassuring to see a group of highly qualified and ambitious people talk so well and so enthusiastically about the future of this club. All of them clearly enjoy the project currently being worked on (which was sold to Carey and Dublin by Bowen to bring them here), with Reading essentially a blank slate to work from in the months and years to come. Carey called this “potentially an exciting time for what we do”.
It won’t be a perfect process - all on the night readily accepted that they won’t always get it right in the months and years to come. For me though, mistakes are acceptable as long as they’re learned from; strategy is improved by properly determining what works and what doesn’t. Reading have been very good in recent years at making mistakes but, well, not so good at learning from them. Going off the evidence we’ve seen so far, we’re in much safer hands with Bowen, Carey and Dublin.
Below I’m going to get into what was discussed by Bowen, Carey and Dublin on the evening. The event was broken into two: Bowen in the first half, then all three together in the second.
First though, hats off to STAR and Blue Collar for putting the event on in the first place (the chips were top notch - that’s an official TTE endorsement). Nick Houlton also did an excellent job on the questioning, while Reading Between The Lines handily live-tweeted some updates. You can find their Twitter thread of updates for the first half here and for the second half here.
Bowen on the points deduction
Reading’s head of football operations gave some additional context around the six-point deduction, which was enacted in early April due to a breach of the agreed business plan. We already knew that the Royals had been in breach due to an inability to raise sufficient funds from player sales, but didn’t know how big the gap was. Bowen confirmed this amount was a whopping £12m.
Realistically that was unachievable - Reading were never going to be able to bring that amount in last year, even if Liam Moore and George Puscas had been sold for bumper amounts - so a business-plan breach this season was effectively inevitable. However, it’s worth remembering that (at least going by how Bowen has portrayed things), the alternative to all this was a bigger original deduction which would have relegated us in 2021/22.
We also knew that Reading wanted to address that £12m shortfall by selling an investment held in a related party, but didn’t know what this was. Bowen said it was shares in the land around the stadium. This proposed sale was eventually rejected by the EFL, whose stance was that Reading should either accept a six-point deduction this season or risk the embargo stretching into the summer and beyond.
Bowen on Dai Yongge
What I took from Bowen’s comments on the owner was that he’ll be a help, hindrance or source of frustration in different cases going forward.
The most important thing - which has undoubtedly been worrying many fans - is whether Dai will remain committed if we get relegated. Bowen was confident that the owner will stay the course at Reading, saying he had “no concerns” on that front. As proof of Dai’s commitment he cited the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been invested into the club in the last six years.
However, when it comes to sacking managers, Bowen pointed out that Dai is “very loyal” and doesn’t want to pull the trigger too early - hence why it took so long to get rid of Paul Ince. The manager’s future ultimately rests with Dai, so despite whatever expertise Bowen has, it’s out of his hands.
As for communication from Dai directly, don’t expect any. Bowen played down the chance of the owner becoming more communicative, and although he took on fans’ concerns (expressed by Matthew Batten on the night), he pushed back somewhat, asking if more communication from Dai was really necessary.
On the one hand I take Bowen’s point - we do at least have proper communication from the man in charge of running the club on a day-to-day basis (Bowen). The STAR event was a good example of that. But fans have real concerns over the owner’s longevity and what could happen to the club if we’re relegated next month, and those concerns could be hugely allayed if Dai were to address them head on in some kind of statement. Ongoing silence from Dai only exacerbates anxiety, regardless of what Bowen does.
Bowen, Carey and Dublin on the academy
First things first, the academy’s category one status. Bowen shared that all Reading had heard from the auditors, who carried out an inspection recently, was positive feedback. The signs look really good when it comes to regaining category one status, which was lost last year.
Should the Royals be relegated, Bowen sees no problem in that status being maintained in the third tier. However, he does want more demands on the first-team manager and the academy to develop players at senior level. He cited various players (Jay Senga, Kelvin Abrefa, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan and others) as talents, specifically picking out the former as someone who can step up to the first team this summer.
As for Carey and Dublin, both value the academy a lot. Carey shared that he was told by people at Manchester City how good Reading’s academy is when he arrived - which they evidenced by saying they buy someone from our youth setup each year. They were presumably referring to Jamie Bynoe-Gittens (now of Dortmund) and Christian Dunbar-McDonald, two big talents that were snapped up by City well before they could come through at Reading. Dublin on the other hand mentioned while talking about the reasons for joining Reading that the quality of the academy made his job “far easier”.
Dublin and Carey on scouting and recruitment
First of all, to circle back to what I said up top, it’s really refreshing to hear figures behind the scenes at Reading actually being able to talk about something like recruitment in depth. The idea of having any kind of joined-up, informed approach on this front has felt like an alien concept in recent years.
That said, it’s important to emphasise that we’re still in the very early stages of what will hopefully be a long, thorough and successful overhaul of Reading’s recruitment system. Carey noted that the scouting department is still in its infancy, although they’ve started to build up a team already - himself, Dublin and a few others.
Dublin explained that Reading’s scouting strategy is now a mixture of live scouting and data scouting, working out to a roughly 70-30 split between the two. Potential targets can be flagged up to Reading’s network by either aspect of scouting - they won’t just go to watch players in person because they’ve been told to by the data.
The importance of getting good characters into the club was stressed; Carey wants “no dickheads” to be signed. However, they want to evaluate players’ mentality properly rather than simply going off hearsay - such as by checking out players’ body language and reactions to events in person. Dublin cited Chuba Akpom as an example of a player who’d built up a reputation mentality-wise, but this had been proven wrong - so it’s important to dig deeper when assessing players.
The elephant in the room here is the extent to which recruitment will be affected by relegation, should it occur. It was confirmed on the night that Reading have different lists of players for each scenario (Dublin added that there were ‘sub lists - for free agents and so on), although there’s some overlap.
Bowen on the next managerial appointment
Ironically, given his former job, Bowen accepted that Reading’s managerial appointments have to be “process driven” from now on - a phrase he used at various points in the night in various contexts. These appointments have, in his view, previously been too “reactionary”.
About 40-50 candidates have been put forward so far, some of them by agents. Some managers have previously shown an interest in coming to Reading but, due to the club’s circumstances this season, preferred to wait until the summer. Bowen seemed confident of attracting a pretty high-calibre manager as potential appointments can see the potential at the club.
Extra bits and bobs
- George Puscas: if his loan club Genoa get promoted, they’re obliged to buy him for a fee that’s a significant amount of what Reading spent on him. Bowen wouldn’t say what the fee was.
- Luke Southwood: no decision has been taken yet. Reading have to be sure, if they do offer Southwood a new deal, that he’s ready to be number one.
- Dai Xiu Li (Dai Yongge’s sister) is not involved with the club and Bowen has never met her.
- Dai Yongge is funding Reading Women four times as much as other Championship teams are funding their women’s sides - remember that Reading are the only second-tier men’s club with a WSL-level women’s team
- Bowen has a similar opinion on Neil Warnock to the majority of Reading fans (this got the biggest laugh of the evening)
- In Dublin’s opinion, Reading’s training ground is better than Sheffield United’s
- In appointing Dublin, Carey wanted someone with a very different skillset to him. Carey is a former player, manager and assistant manager, while Dublin’s background includes working at Google.
- Carey confirmed that they used all the personal relationships they had for Reading’s summer 2022 recruitment. He had particular praise for how helpful Newcastle United were, as well as some agents.
- The Irish element at Reading “meant something” to Carey in coming here - he mentioned the history of Shane Long, Brian McDermott and Eamonn Dolan.