So the fat lady finally belted out her best rendition of cheerio last night as Huddersfield Town beat Sheffield United and secured Championship status for next season, leaving Reading relegated. I can’t lie, I didn’t expect it to feel so numbing, even with the daily dose of escitalopram. If I didn’t take those I’d have probably been in tears.
For some years it felt like we’d progressed as a club from perennial third tier (where, admittedly, the majority of our Football League history has been contested). But the chairmanship of Sir John Madejski, the wise management of Alan Pardew and Steve Coppell cementing our place in the upper half of Division One (now the Championship) and gainfully carried on by Brian McDermott (with Brendan Rodgers failure in between).
All of that hard work, the succession planning, the careful financial prudence and recruitment of players, sensible football management at all levels from the academy upwards – it feels right now it’s gone to waste.
Since Sir John sold the club to TSI it’s been one financial lurch to another, from signing Pavel Pogrebnyak on mahoosive wages (a player McDermott didn’t even want), to selling Adam Le Fondre to pay a tax bill, to being punished for taking out the Vibrac loan, to having the Thais effectively asset-strip the club and not be able to fund the project Jaap Stam and Brian Tevreden commenced, to selling the club to the Dais and have them wipe out the project in a few short weeks with the appointment of Ron Gourlay as CEO. And since then it’s been utter chaos under the ownership of, primarily, Dai Yongge.
It has literally been downhill ever since that man took ownership of Reading FC. A bizarrely timed announcement mid-Fulham playoff semi-final second leg, the Dais took over just before the final whistle and our progression to the playoff final against Huddersfield.
We failed in that one-off mind-numbingly boring final, natch, and have struggled ever since against relegation and financial fair play. Not because we were trying to maintain a competitive team in the face of comparatively small income when set against the other Championship teams, but because we hamstrung ourselves by supposedly being beholden to an “advisor”, Kia Joorabchian, severely restricted our pool of players to recruit from and spaffed megabucks on distinctly average players. £3.5m on Sam Baldock and perhaps double that on both George Puscas and Sone Aluko – over £15m for 33 goals in a perennially struggling team.
Mega wages on Liam Moore, John Swift, Rafael Cabral etc – players who were symptomatic of the problems witnessed at the club, periods of decent form underpinned by major periods of underperformance. Form is temporary, class is permanent. See the problem?
Reasons to be cheerful
Well, League One has been staring us in the face for a number of years. Velkjo Paunovic’s first season was somewhat of a misnomer in recent years, very much fuelled by the qualities displayed by an attacking force of Ovie Ejaria, John Swift and Michael Olise feeding balls into the feet of Lucas Joao. Ovie’s loss of form, Joao’s injury and Olise’s sale left it all on the shoulders of Swift who, while admirable in his efforts, couldn’t be expected to carry the whole can.
Other than that season it’s been the 2013/14 playoff battle, 2014/15 struggle, 2015/16 struggle, 2016/17 playoff battle, 2017/18 struggle, 2018/19 struggle, 2019/20 struggle, 2020/21 playoff battle, 2021/22 struggle and 2022/23 struggle. The club suffered a six-point deduction for financial misdemeanours and Pauno lost his job last season, only for the club to pull the surprise move of appointing eight-years-in-the-wilderness Paul Ince. “WTAF are they doing?” said absolutely everybody, but I will reserve some praise for Ince as he did enough to secure our status and the start of this season was remarkably strong.
The losing of Category One academy status was tempered somewhat for a short while as it was actually enjoyable to watch Reading again, knowing we’d put in a decent showing and compete for three points (if only mainly at home). Since we comfortably beat Huddersfield in October however, it’s been a proper slog. Just six wins in 34 league games, coupled with the club hamstringing us AGAIN by not adhering to the agreed business plan (which again, admittedly, seemed like the EFL being hell bent on punishing us to the max by setting totally unrealistic parameters) and having us deducted six points.
If we’d not had the deduction, and all other things being equal, we’d be going into this weekend’s final match with more than a fighting chance of staying up. Instead, Huddersfield got lucky with the deduction and got the points needed to stay up (like we did last season with Derby County – what goes around comes around kid).
More importantly though – and this is where the major praise for Ince comes in – it is very easy to forget that a key part of his agreement to take the Reading job on full-time was his insistence on the club having a proper recruiting structure in place and the club duly obliged, installing Mark Bowen as head of football operations, who then went about recruiting numerous personalities on the scouting and recruiting game.
We have been told that Kia Joorabchian no longer has his claws in the club, although his appearance at the recent Wigan Athletic fixture leaves many a sceptical view on that. It is possible he was there as a supposed good friend of the owner (who left five minutes before the end – nice one mate), and it is possible he was there to also meet his players who remain at Reading.
Whatever the reason, the fact he still gets an easy ride in and out of the SCL is remarkable. His entrance should be barred; he is a parasite like no other in football and he is as much to blame for the mess Reading FC is in as anyone inside the club.
What comes next?
Well, the managerial appointment is key. With an almost clean slate to work from and a stature among the top end of League One, having spent 21 consecutive years in the top two divisions of English football, Reading must be viewed as an attractive proposition for any manager.
With that comes the need for the scouting and recruitment of players to be closely aligned with the managerial direction and succession-planning decided. Any new manager must be able to work with the players in place, while the incumbent manager must have the right of veto over any player sale or purchase.
Everything has to dovetail seamlessly; we cannot be in the same position as we were in 2009 with the resignation of Steve Coppell and the appointment of Brendan Rodgers – two managers with vastly different playing philosophies – and expect instant results.
I’ll nail my colours to the mast here, and this may be my eternally optimistic radar being well offset – I think we’ve seen the last of financial roulette at Reading. With Bowen a sensible head at the top of the football side of things, I believe we’ll make sensible managerial appointments and player signings.
There is no evidence just yet to suggest that Dai Yongge has learnt his lesson – that will only arrive this season and beyond – but with the right people at the club advising him with the best interests of the club at heart, we can surely only be optimistic* about the future and our chances of returning to the Championship sooner rather than later… can’t we?
*Provided Dai Yongge maintains his financial support of course.