The stark reality of the dire situation this club currently finds itself in is that us fans, as the ultimate stewards of the football club, all know that Paul Ince will eventually walk away from Reading without a care in the world, despite likely having led the club to its worst league position for over two decades.
A journeyman player with no affinity whatsoever to Reading or the surrounding area, Ince frequently comes across as a man who appears incapable of assuming any responsibility for the plight of a once-proud community football club and the intolerable on-pitch performances and results, and as such will unlikely feel any regret about its probable demotion to the third tier of English football.
I don’t recall a single time this season when Ince has faced up to criticism in a post-match press conference and admitted “yes, I got that wrong”. The plethora of excuses to escape his lips in recent times have bordered on the ridiculous, whether it be a lone refereeing decision in a 5-0 pummelling at Middlesbrough, to blaming Ramadan for player fatigue in the draw at Bristol City. I should also note that his deflective tendencies and often confrontational disposition have enabled him to escape public scrutiny all too often this season by members of the press, but that’s for another time.
The man appears to possess an admittedly enviable ability to absolve himself of all blame, and expresses a genuine belief that he can hold his head up high, displaying a “not me, guv,” almost cavalier attitude towards the dire consequences this football club will now be faced with once he’s gone.
Even as the club dropped into the relegation zone on Friday, Ince could be heard laughing on multiple occasions in a seemingly jovial exchange with BBC Radio Berkshire in the aftermath of the dire draw with Birmingham City, an interview which only irked supporters further and called into question just how seriously he is taking this job.
His conduct throughout what has been a troubling season - from his tactical naivety and baffling team selections including his irrational dislike of left-backs, and the contempt in which he clearly holds the fans, to the frequent public derision of his own players - has shown not just his incompetence as a tactician and a motivator, but also a total lack of professionalism that shines a blinding light on why his career in management stalled almost a decade before being offered this post, and begs the question why he is still employed by one of England’s oldest football clubs.
And yet, despite my intense displeasure at his inept management over the past two months in particular, the fact he still has the reins isn’t his fault.
Reading is the only club in the bottom third of the Championship table to still employ the manager they started the season with last July, and yet there isn’t a single reason, financial or otherwise, to justify Ince remaining in his post. The club is second-bottom of the form table, the only team in the league not to have won a game in the last seven fixtures, and is producing performances that are completely devoid of any real quality, as well as lacking a sense of urgency which can only translate to the fans that the team either doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation it finds itself in, or it just doesn’t care.
Mark Bowen said in his open letter to fans this week that he doesn’t look at social media much. Perhaps he should, if only to truly understand the palpable anger and frustration felt by the supporters who are increasingly staying away from the toxic environment now enveloping Reading Football Club. Never mind the financial mismanagement and numerous points deductions - for Paul Ince to remain in his post any longer would be the single largest case of self-inflicted damage since Sir John Madejski sadly sold the club into the wrong hands.
You could write a thesis on the catalogue of errors this club has made in the past decade alone, and obviously Ince is a small pawn in Reading’s gradual demise from the golden years of the mid-to-late 2000s. However, in the immediacy, and with the club’s current trajectory, Ince remaining in charge will result in relegation.
And while some argue this will allow for a much-needed reset, to enable the club to find itself again, there’s no denying that relegation for a club with an evaporating support base and the financial woes Reading currently have poses a huge threat to its long-term survival. If someone told me we will do a Leeds United or a Southampton and resurge from League One with a new sense of purpose and vigour, I’d take it. But the reality is we aren’t those clubs, and a drop into the third tier is a huge gamble for a club of our stature and with our overheads.
As such, the club must act immediately to fight this probability, and that starts with bringing in a manager who can instil some self-belief into a bereft group of players. A managerial change should have happened far sooner than now, and there is no guarantee it will keep us up, but I believe that even at this stage of the season it gives us some hope of survival, which is better than the almost-certain relegation, but for a miracle, under Ince’s stewardship.
If the club feels it cannot afford to sack Paul Ince financially, it doesn’t need to right now. There is absolutely no reason why he cannot be placed on gardening leave and the role be offered to two esteemed former players currently employed by the club in Noel Hunt or Mikele Leigertwood. Hell, the club already employs a man who has steered it away from the drop previously in Mark Bowen himself.
Failing that, the club could do a lot worse than respond to the numerous offers from the club legend that is Brian McDermott, who has stated publicly on many occasions his willingness to return to the club in some capacity, should he be asked. What better way for the board to prove that its stated desire to re-engage with the dwindling support base is genuine, than to welcome back a man who reflects genuine Reading values? Brian’s undeniable passion, humility and positive mindset could only benefit a group of players that has been lambasted from pillar to post by the Ince regime, and publicly denounced as being incapable of playing football or scoring goals.
“No, we ain’t good enough to play football. We haven’t got the quality to do that,” Ince said of his players after the late Cardiff City defeat in February. We’ve won one game since. I think you’d struggle to find a Reading fan who would say that on paper this squad is among the bottom three in the league on quality, yet it’s no wonder that if you’re regularly told you’re not good enough to play football, you’ll end up where we are currently.
And when your squad is built on a number of loanees, journeymen and players in the last year of their contracts due to the board’s previous financial mismanagement, its commitment to the cause is likely to be somewhat stunted from the outset, and that’s before the manager and his son lays into them at every opportunity.
Whether the board finally corrects the litany of errors it has made under its stewardship and relieves Ince of his duties ahead of Preston North End on Monday or not, one point I am sure of is that when the door is finally shut on the Ince regime, he will go down in the eyes of the supporters as not just one of the worst managers ever to have the privilege of leading Reading Football Club, but also as one of the most disliked. And yet, the board - which has prolonged this insufferable nightmare well beyond its sell-by date - is far more culpable for what lies ahead than Ince himself.