The Royals have a big decision to make this summer. With Reading falling to League One thanks to a slide that Paul Ince couldn’t allay in the second half of the season, the Royals will be looking for their third permanent manager in as many years in the summer.
Through the last few years, we’ve watched a host of younger managers with new ideas take their teams up through the divisions on the back of long-term projects that saw progress as something to assess on a wider scale than just a season’s results. Meanwhile, Reading have spent the last year with a fire-fighter coach rather than one who could realistically have cracked on.
It’s imperative then that, with the club in true rebuild territory now, a coach is selected with an eye to what they could build over a multi-year period. Here’s a few of the key candidates to keep an eye on over the coming weeks.
Arriving back at the club when the post-Pauno era desperately needed to start with some good PR, Hunt probably didn’t imagine he’d get a starring role in the first-team dugout just 14 months later. While the Irishman understands that he’ll be going back down with the under-21s, at the start of his brief interim spell he was almost certainly looking to impress.
Hunt was unable to pick up a crucial win for the Royals in his five-game stretch though, and while he rotated the team a little more than Ince had done, he wasn’t able to find any combinations good enough to keep the Royals more competitive in the final weeks.
His interim tenure started well with a 0-0 draw against Burnley, but that would turn out to be the high point. In the next game, Reading made their most positive move in the relegation fight, taking a lead against Luton Town at home into the final 10 minutes. Crucially though, they couldn’t see out the win, and Reading’s relegation fight never truly ignited again after that moment.
Hunt preferred a back four to the back three Ince was using, but that proved to be mostly his only innovation. Beyond that, Hunt preferred a 4-4-2 most weeks that gave players simple roles to perform, but compounded Reading’s issues with progressing the ball through midfield that had dragged on all season. As the inevitable became more… well, inevitable, Hunt struggled to keep the team motivated. Given the squad composition, that’s certainly not all his fault, but perhaps speaks to a man not quite yet ready to lead at this level.
Hunt has worked in management for five years now, originally stepping into the discipline in a split role as a player/assistant coach, a reasonably unique combo. Working with Richie Wellens at Swindon Town, Hunt played a role in that side’s promotion to League One (albeit on PPG in the Covid-hit season). Clearly then, his coaching education so far has not at all been wasted.
At just 40 years old, there’s still plenty of time for Hunt to make an impact with his managerial career, but with the importance of stopping the rot and beginning the Royals’ rebuild in a positive manner, 2023/24 will come too soon for us to take a chance on him.
So having spoken a little about Noel Hunt’s time at Swindon, let’s discuss the prospect of the Royals hiring the man he coached under: Richie Wellens.
Wellens’ stock is high, having just helped Leyton Orient to automatic promotion from League Two. Thereby the 43-year-old proved that his PPG promotion at Swindon wasn’t purely down to Covid. That said, with the right pitch made, there’s no reason Wellens couldn’t be tempted away as many promoted managers are.
Wellens’ arrival could see the Royals revert to a popular formation in the Veljko Paunovic era: the 4-2-3-1. While the final memories of that time are of course bleak, Reading did use it to good effect in the first half of 2019/20, and will have talented players available such as Femi Azeez and Tom McIntyre who could benefit from a return to the pragmatic but balanced structure.
It’s worth pointing out that, in League One, Wellens has so far struggled. His Doncaster Rovers team was awful, picking up just 13 points from 19 games, and while there were plenty of other issues contributing beyond his coaching, his Oldham team was relegated from the division in 2018.
That he was snapped up again so quickly in both instances though speaks to the respect his name carries in the lower leagues. Indeed, both clubs he’s “failed” with are clearly ones mired in as many external issues as internal.
With that in mind though, could he be more tempted to stay with his promoted Leyton Orient side than take on another club in a perilous position? Reading will in theory be in better shape next season and able to spend a little more cash.
A man who speaks like this when picking up a manager of the month award though should definitely be on Mark Bowen’s shortlist:
“As nice it is to win the award, I think that it should be management of the month, not manager. I have a great team around me. Paul Terry and Matt Harrold are a joy to be around, our medical team, our analysts, everyone. They all contribute massively to the success of this team.”
After a season of Paul Ince’s use of “they” rather than “we” to describe his team, Royals fans would adore a manager who understands the group nature of football.
Through much of last week, the runaway leading candidate for the job seemed to be Chris Wilder. A manager just a few years removed from a ninth-placed finish in the Premier League, Wilder endured a torrid season to leave him in a spot that could see him join the Royals.
We saw Wilder’s Middlesbrough play Reading in the season just gone all the way back in August. That day, Boro enjoyed 73% possession and doubled the Royals’ shot and xG count but couldn’t find a killer chance to score. That problem seemed to plague Wilder in his final weeks there with his Jaap Stam-like system able to keep games tight, but lacked the creative nous necessary to consistently score.
In the end, 2022/23 saw Wilder fired from Boro and caught in the mire that is Watford towards the end of the season. He will be looking to rebuild his reputation, and returning to the division in which he made his name originally with the Blades may be the best way he sees to do that.
At both clubs Wilder continued to employ his preferred 3-5-2 system. With Sheffield United, Wilder used this to great effect and innovated with player roles, asking his right- and left-sided centre-backs to push forward with the ball into the opposition half to create space.
That system may give some fans pause when they remember just how poorly the last possession-based system ended in Berkshire, but it could suit what we have. Andy Yiadom will be given more room to get forward in Wilder’s formation, limiting his defensive role and maximising his opportunities to get forward.
McIntyre, while possibly at his best in a defensive pivot role in the midfield, is more than capable of playing on the left side of a back three and, moreover, would likely benefit from playing a possession-heavy style that asks him to distribute more than defend.
While some concerns still exist, Wilder would be an impressive get for a League One Reading - one that would show Bowen and his team mean business about getting the club back into the second tier sooner rather than later.
Correlation is not causation. In fact it’s sometimes a coincidence. That said, it is at least worth observing the coincidence that Reading’s defensive record started to fall off a cliff after John O’Shea’s departure. In 2019/20 and 2020/21, O’Shea’s two seasons in the coaching staff, Reading conceded just 1.2 goals per game. In the two years since, Reading have conceded 1.7 goals per game, including 87 goals in the first season without the Irishman.
Again, it’s impossible to use just one stat like that to give untempered praise to an assistant coach, but it’s certainly a hell of a coincidence that even Ince’s defensive style couldn’t produce better numbers than what was clearly a better standard of coaching.
The ex-Manchester United player is yet to take on a head coaching role at the senior level, but it appears to be something that O’Shea is looking to do in the future. He’s picked up his UEFA Pro Licence in the last year, while also becoming the assistant manager of the Republic of Ireland national team.
It’s difficult to assess much about O’Shea’s potential future abilities at this stage given his lack of head coaching experience, but at 42, the same age as Richie Wellens and Luke Williams (see below), there’s no reason he wouldn’t be ready to take the helm at a club, and a club like Reading that he already knows could be a perfect fit. Admittedly, O’Shea would likely be more of a backup pick than first on the shortlist, but he’s not a bad backup to have.
If it wasn’t for the outrageous story of non-league Wrexham being bought by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny, you would have heard a lot more about Notts County this season. It’s good to see Meadow Lane become a Football League stadium again, historic as it and as the club is, but there’s been nothing dated about their approach in the National League.
Notts County gaffer Williams has hauled in the plaudits after his team pulled in 107 points this season, just four shy of Wrexham, impressive given they lost to the Welsh team with mere weeks to go. That’s because, in a league famed for bruising centre backs and suspect technical ability, Williams has had his team engaging with elite positional play.
Tactically, the Magpies have been short of nobody in the National League, even Wrexham, who leant on a more traditional little-and-large strike partnership alongside Paul Mullins’ goalscoring ability to wrap up the division. That tactic works, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before frequently in the lower leagues. Positional play - the ability of players to reflexively rotate positions to create favourable match-ups and overloads - isn’t unique either, but it certainly is at this level: more at home with the Dutch- and Spanish-coached super teams of the post-Cruyff era.
On top of that, County have usually lined up in a 3-4-2-1 structure: an interesting way of getting the best of both worlds from the pragmatic 4-2-3-1 as well as the attacking and defensive balance provided by the 3-5-2. By stacking the middle of the park, County can ensure they don’t allow cheap overloads in dangerous defensive transitions.
County’s possession football has led to them dominating their games, scoring more goals than Wrexham, and averaging just under 70% (seventy percent!) possession in the entire season. Total Football Analysis has done an excellent tactical breakdown of Notts County’s tactical setup here.
Does all of that sound good? You bet it does. What’s more, despite spending this year in non-league football, Williams does have League One experience, taking on Swindon as his debut role in management, first as an interim manager.
He started well there, winning six of his opening 10 games, but couldn’t keep it going, seeing the Robins relegated to League Two in 2017. I’m sure Reading fans can forgive a Swindon relegation though, and with five years of experience as an assistant between head coach positions, it’s fair to say Williams is a different man and coach at 42 to the one he was at 35.
While those above feel more likely, there have been some outside names mentioned in recent weeks. Danny Cowley is available after leaving Portsmouth in January. No stranger to pressure, Cowley has been managing a club of fans with high expectations at Fratton Park.
Despite a run of poor results leading to his departure from the hot seat at Fratton Park, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a “we’ve fired our manager” statement from a club that read so genuinely sad.
A key quote from that message being: “Danny and Nicky both really understand Portsmouth and they should look back with pride at the progress and innovation they have delivered at the club.” A little respect for the club from the manager would go a long way with Reading fans this season, and Cowley would seemingly offer that.
Elsewhere, Karl Robinson is a tenured League One performer, twice reaching the playoffs with Oxford United after being promoted automatically from the division with MK Dons. Reading might have questions about how things ended down the road in Oxford, but it’s hard to deny his ability to improve third-tier teams.
After spending the final weeks of the season assisting Big Sam in the relegation battle at Leeds United, Robinson will likely be looking for another club full of potential in the summer, and Reading could offer him a long-term culture-building project that has proved successful in his previous head coaching stints. One worth keeping an eye on...