After the three-month (so called UK summer) break, Reading start their new Women’s Championship campaign away to Crystal Palace this Sunday, 2pm at Sutton United’s VBS Community Stadium.
On Wednesday night, Reading hosted a meet-and-greet event at the fanstore for season-ticket holders. A nice gesture and a good opportunity to meet the new management team of Liam Gilbert and Dan Logue, alongside a few of the players including Lauren Wade, Tia Primmer, Jacqui Burns and the return of Charlie Estcourt and on-loan goalkeeper Emily Orman.
As you’d expect, the new coaching team are excited for the new season ahead and “can’t wait to get started”. They have both been recruited from Tier 3 of the FA Women’s National League.
What do we know about Reading’s new manager, Liam Gilbert? He shocked Oxford United a few weeks ago: after five years in charge and just five weeks after agreeing a new deal with them, he joined the Royals (who wouldn’t, right?). He narrowly missed out on winning the Tier 3 Southern Premier Division title last season, with a harrowing defeat for United on their final match of the season.
Gilbert brings optimism for Royals fans after transforming Oxford United, under his leadership, to ‘one of the best teams in Tier 3 in the country’. Before then, if I heard correctly, he learnt his trade coaching Eastleigh FC Boys (his hometown is Southampton) and has spent time in the US, at Niagara University, majoring in sport and event management, (my limited research finding) a young senior footballer with stats of 18 matches in 2010, scoring nine goals and four assists.
Alongside him is Dan Logue, rising through the ranks with time at Millwall Lionesses, as an England Lionesses talent reporter, taking charge of Crawley Wasps and, last season, managing Chatham Town Women (previously Gillingham) – who are also in the same Tier 3 National League, so he and Gilbert will presumably already know each other to some degree. In his own words he’s “known for taking over teams struggling at the bottom of the league and getting them into safety positions” and, with a smile and laughter from the audience, described himself as having “an average playing career!”
In the Q&A session Liam was asked about the squad mood and depth. Positive in his reply, he confirmed that there’s “some talented individuals, experience and ability [in the current squad]” but added that there are “bits and pieces we need to add to, to make sure we have a squad with some good depth and good competition [for places]”.
In squad terms, the new coach is going to have to rebuild in limited time (the transfer window closes September 15) with lots of changes in the summer, not unexpected after relegation from the WSL and the surprise (and disappointing) news that the club would return to a part-time status. Reading have lost some big, talented, experienced and internationally experienced players such as Rachel Rowe, Gemma Evans, Grace Moloney, Justine Vanhaevermaet and Emma Harries.
Signings have to date been scarce and behind the curve (compared to other teams), so hopefully there’s more to come in the next few weeks to strengthen the squad, as the manager mentioned. The Royals recently signed two new goalkeepers (alongside Jacqui Burns): Rose Kite arriving on a permanent deal from Oxford United and 20-year-old Emily Orman extending her contract with Chelsea but immediately joining the Royals on loan for the season.
The exciting news of Ava Kyken joining from Hibernian was dashed in devastating fashion when she picked up an ACL injury in pre-season – before kicking a ball competitively for the Royals. All fans of football wishing her a speedy recovery from this horrible injury which, worryingly, seems to have become synonymous with the women’s game and needs urgent research, investigations and solutions.
In answer to the question of style of play, the new manager said Royals fans can expect a “high-energy team who, without the ball, will be front-footed and really aggressive. And with the ball, energy with a purpose, ideally possession-based but purposeful, no point in keeping for the ball for the sake it”. He went on to say that “the girls have adapted to this mentality well” and, talking to a couple of the players afterwards, they confirmed (with a smile!) that training was hard but they are enjoying it and raring to get started.
The pre-season preparation hasn’t been ideal either, with friendlies limited to only two official matches (I assume both of these before the new manager joined?). The first, against lower-league Portsmouth, ended 2-2 with goals from Diane Hendrix and Maddison Perry, with the second coming away to Lewes, which I believe was a 1-1- draw (with Lewes and Reading FC not providing any public information online or via social, not even the result!).
During Gilbert’s opening comments, he did let slip that the team played a friendly over the weekend but wouldn’t say anything else – why football clubs are so secretive about these things I know not. I did ask a couple of the players and it would be unfair to say any more, but they appeared to have enjoyed the match, the challenge and the result! Fingers crossed that’s a great portent of things to come.
Although Reading have been relegated from the top tier, Championship football still looks a very competitive league with some big names including Birmingham, Blackburn, Southampton and Watford. Sheffield United have committed to changing from part-time to being a professional club and the London Lionesses have made some interesting signings with ex-Royals Emma Mukandi, Grace Moloney and Danielle Carter joining, alongside Ireland internationals Niamh Farrelly and Rusesha Littlejohn.
When asked about the challenges ahead, and which team specifically to fear, Logue mentioned Birmingham, who have strengthened throughout the summer – with new signings including ex-Royals star Remi Allen – and are a team to watch, on the back of a strong last season.
On what is expected this year (aim of promotion back to the WSL?), Liam answered cautiously, sensibly and realistically to say the target is “stability, pushing on week by week. If they can see growth on a consistent basis, it should be a successful season in itself and, if done in the right way, we can climb the table and who knows what will happen?” Logue added by talking about “developing the individuals and the more we develop the individuals the more we can develop the unit and the team. It’s all about the performance and making sure we are developing the players in the right way”.
It was a good evening and fair play to Reading for putting on this event – which included a free raffle and a chance for some fans to win the new kit, signed by the players. The evening ended with a chance for supporters to have a photoshoot with the players and new management, and spend a bit more time talking to all of them, one to one, afterwards.
I’m expecting this to be another season of transition and one that looks tricky, alongside some better-prepared teams with stronger squads and more depth. Let’s hope that the combination of positivity (evident from the new coaching staff and players in attendance), a few more signings to come and realistic expectations can make for a successful 2023/24 season – which starts away to Crystal Place (at Sutton United’s VBS Community Stadium). See you there!