I’ll level with you: I had no idea where to start with this season preview. The last few months in the world of Reading Football Club have been a lot to deal with emotionally, let alone properly process. I don’t know about you, but I’ve largely struggled to do either. So, trying to work out what on earth the next nine months have in store for us feels like a fool’s errand.
It also doesn’t help when the club is in such a constant stage of flux. One day Reading are in a transfer embargo, the next day Reading are supposedly out of a transfer embargo, you have a mostly finished season preview to rework and end up shoehorning in a new second paragraph in a lazy attempt at updating the entire article.
So, instead, I’ll start with one of the few things I’m sure of at this point in time: I’m struggling to look forward to this season. While the start of previous campaigns have felt at best like a leap into the unknown (2020/21, 2021/22) - with as much of a chance of success as of failure - or the beginning of a defiant fight against the odds (2022/23), looking ahead to 2023/24 just makes me anxious.
The last few years have been an ongoing lesson that things can always get worse. First throwing away a spot in the playoffs; then a business plan, points deduction and close shave with relegation; then another points deduction and the resolution to Reading’s doomed fight to stay in the Championship. On the eve of the Royals’ first third-tier campaign since 2002, the case that 2023/24 will be yet another miserable season - that Reading’s downwards spiral will continue - looks compelling.
After all, despite any short-term respite we’ve had from the deluge of bad news this summer, this is a club in a shameful state behind the scenes. It’s a club that cannot even reliably do the basics of paying its own staff and the taxman each and every time a bill is due. You know the situation is grave indeed when Reading Football Club even goes so far as to treat its fans like adults by communicating about its problems on the record.
When a club gets seemingly trapped in such a financial mess - for whatever reason - it’s not easy to break out and move in a positive direction. A decisive end to Reading’s malaise can only come from an end to Dai Yongge’s control of the club but, realistically, minority investment to ease cashflow concerns is a likelier route forward. It’s certainly not an ideal solution: it’s impossible to predict what the presence of another cook in an already chaotic kitchen will serve up.
Fans have been more than patient with Dai but have had enough. The levelling of multiple charges against the club by the EFL in June was the final straw and, ultimately, led to the creation of Sell Before We Dai, a protest movement formed of five fan groups (including ourselves), pushing for the owner to sell up to a responsible successor as soon as possible.
One of many sub-plots to look out for in 2023/24 will be the evolution of - and hopefully ultimately the success of - Sell Before We Dai. First up is a post-match sit-in protest for the home game against Peterborough United; regardless of the result or performance on the day, this will be an important demonstration against the ongoing mismanagement of the club by its owner.
This is also a club that, for a variety of reasons, has largely botched its pre-season preparations on the pitch and in the dugout.
An ambitious, drawn-out effort to hire Chris Wilder - which for a long time looked like it would be successful - ultimately failed. Instead, a new manager (rookie Ruben Selles) did come in, but he wasn’t announced by the club until the end of June. Even with that done, it took until mid-July for Selles to start work properly after the approval of his work visa. By that point, weeks of pre-season had been and gone.
On the recruitment front, four new signings (at the time of writing) simply isn’t good enough for a squad that needed an almost-complete rebuild from the ground up. It looks even worse when you consider that two of those four were left in EFL registration limbo until the 11th hour due to an unpaid tax bill (Lewis Wing and Charlie Savage) and that another new addition (Sam Smith) has already picked up a long-term quad injury.
And yet, hope springs eternal. There are green shoots of progress yearning to break free at this club - if only they can be given a proper chance to succeed. While there’s so much wrong with Reading’s behind-the-scenes structure, we’re also fortunate to be able to count on some excellent personnel elsewhere in the system.
First and foremost, Mark Bowen is integral to most of anything good that comes out of Reading Football Club at the moment; it makes a huge difference to have someone with real experience and know-how pulling the strings on a day-to-day basis. Reading previously lacked such a figure for far too long and barely looked like appointing one before Bowen’s return in May 2022, so he shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Without Bowen, it’s hard to see Reading returning to category-one academy status - an improvement significantly driven by the arrival of head of academy operations Antoine Thompson, a Bowen-era appointment. We’ve also seen a proper recruitment department being established. Brian Carey is an important figure as director of recruitment and, although former head of scouting Jared Dublin was ultimately lured to Stoke City, getting him in the first place and only losing him to a higher-ranked club demonstrate that Reading are on the right track in their attempts to put a proper structure together.
Accordingly, the signings that have come in make sense for the short and long term. Harvey Knibbs, Sam Smith, Lewis Wing and Charlie Savage all fit into a coherent pattern: they’re players with quality to improve the first team right now, they have League One experience, they fit the system, and they have potential to improve over the course of their multi-year contracts.
On a similar note, it’s also hard to think Reading would have had any form of properly process-driven managerial appointment this summer without Bowen. He spoke in positive terms at April’s Blue Collar event about how well Ipswich Town were doing, so it’s no surprise to see Reading appoint Ruben Selles, who - like Kieran McKenna - is a young, fresh and modern coach capable of fitting into the existing structure. Appointing Wilder would have been a coup for a League One club, but you can also see how such an established manager may have rocked the boat behind the scenes.
Although it’s early days, Selles seems to have plenty of potential in his own right, not just as another iteration of McKenna. Although barely proven as a first-team manager (and judging him on that Southampton spell would be harsh), he has extensive experience across Europe in coaching, analysis and youth development.
The signs he’s shown at Reading already are promising. He certainly speaks well, going by his appearances in the media, and also cares about keeping supporters onside, consistently going over with the entire squad to applaud the fans after full-time, regardless of the result. That seems to be a point of principle for him, rather than something to be discarded as predecessor Paul Ince did.
More importantly though, he’s switched-on tactically. Selles has set about establishing a clear system based on pressing the opposition when Reading don’t have the ball and attacking them quickly when Reading do. The themes of energy and positivity are constants throughout most of what the Royals have done on the pitch in pre-season, both in and out of possession. That certainly makes for a refreshing break from the stale, nihilistic football we saw for far too much of 2022/23.
It feels as if the story of our 2023/24 could well be that of a fight for supremacy between the two warring sides of Reading Football Club. In one corner: the incompetence, humiliation and regression from Dai Yongge and Dayong Pang. In the other: those desperately trying to haul this club by hook or by crook out of the hole it’s dug itself into - most notably Mark Bowen and Ruben Selles.
The longer the former group stays in charge, the more this club will be dragged down. Reading may have better periods when all seems well on the surface, but we’re never that far away from a backwards step, and that won’t change until the Dai era finishes. Until that happens, Bowen, Selles and co will need all the support, patience and luck they can get.
This season is bound to be as unpredictable as the past few months have been. Buckle up.