Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. In Reading’s case, necessity over the last few months of the summer transfer window was multi-faceted: the Royals had to effectively rebuild the squad from scratch after a mass exodus, do that to the specifications of a new manager with a distinct style of play and add resale value for the long-term financial future of the club... all while giving the club a fighting chance of promotion this season.
To complicate matters, this was all being done in the aftermath of a damaging relegation to League One - hardly the enticing lure for potential recruits - and against the backdrop of ongoing chaos behind the scenes. Reading actually went into this summer expecting to be able to pay transfer fees for the first time in three years. However, a recurring inability to pay HMRC in timely fashion meant the club emerged with another embargo that’s set to cover the next two transfer windows.
So Reading had to get inventive. This summer’s transfer objectives couldn’t be solved by throwing money at the problem and hoping for the best - not that Reading have tried that before, of course, nor that it’s ever backfired.
Instead, Reading have adopted an approach that’s all the rage elsewhere but novel in these parts: getting people who know about how to run a football club to think things through properly. In Reading’s case that’s a backroom team which came in last season, so has had plenty of time to get its proverbial feet under the proverbial table - but this summer was its big test.
At the top sits Mark Bowen, head of football operations, who oversees not only recruitment but also adjacent, potentially overlapping departments such as youth development. Then comes Brian Carey, director of recruitment, and finally head of scouting Jared Dublin... or at least that was the case until Dublin was snapped up by Stoke City, given a promotion in league and job-title terms. Still, Dublin will have helped lay the groundwork for this summer’s recruitment after joining from Sheffield United in February 2023.
Despite the financial and regulatory restrictions on the club, this was still effectively the first proper opportunity Reading’s two-/three-man backroom team had to mould the squad in their image. The previous summer had been quite the mad, desperate dash to put together a competitive squad for 2022/23’s (ultimately unsuccessful) relegation fight, but much more preparation could be undertaken ahead of this summer.
Reading lost a hell of a lot of players permanently after relegation. Including everyone who’d played for the first team in a competitive game at some point, 12 players were released at the end of their contracts, two were sold, two ended their contracts early and six loanees returned to their parent clubs. That makes 22 players to be replaced overall.
Besides the sheer volume of personnel departing, Reading were also losing a wealth of experience, some key first-team players from last season (including the fans’ and players’ players of the season in Tom Ince and Joe Lumley respectively), and some standout individual ability in Yakou Meite and Lucas Joao, two of Reading’s highest scorers over the last decade.
But such a turnover also allowed for a clearing of the decks - a hard reset from an older, underperforming group - in advance of creating something new. Unlike with previous rebuilds, Reading didn’t have a significant amount of wages or squad places committed to unwanted players. Instead, there was a blank canvas to work on. It was no surprise that, at STAR’s Blue Collar Q&A in April, Carey had called this summer a “potentially an exciting time for what we do”.
As of mid-May, Reading’s squad looked like this, with various players’ futures still unresolved:
Coniah Boyce-Clarke, Amadou Mbengue, Jeriel Dorsett and John Clarke ultimately stayed, while Junior Hoilett and Yakou Meite departed. They were joined in heading through the door by four players who were loaned out after mid-May and another four departing permanently.
Reading have subsequently painted quite the picture on their blank canvas - not a flawless masterpiece, but an impressive work nonetheless. Replacing those 22 outgoings have been 12 incomings, who arrived over the course of around 50 days between Ruben Selles’ official arrival in mid-July and the end of the transfer window. That works out to one new player every four days (roughly).
The hugely frustrating thing though is that it took so long for that recruitment to get started in the first place and for it to be completed - the depressing consequences of multiple embargoes. Just four of those 12 were signed comfortably ahead of the new season and two of those were only fully registered at the 11th hour. As for the other eight - 75% of Reading’s summer recruitment - they’ve had no pre-season and will have to pick things up as they go.
That may not ultimately prove to be a decisive problem - Reading do after all have an international break soon when work can be put in on the training ground. But Reading have once again been unable to hit the ground running, unable to attack the new season from the off with a ready (or even almost ready) squad. In that regard at least, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
What’s truly refreshing however is how logical and thought-out all that recruitment looks as a whole. You can identify some encouraging themes with how Reading have rebuilt the squad:
- Experience of League One specifically: 6/12 players. Only 2/12 hadn’t played in England at all before this summer
- Permanent rather than loan signings: 10/12
- Multi-year contracts being given out, so Reading don’t have another exodus next summer: 8/12
- Bringing in young talent: the average age of Reading’s 11 summer 2022 signings was 28 and four months, but this summer it’s 23 and eight months. Remove Harlee Dean (32) and David Button (34) and this drops to just under 22
- Looking for versatile players: this is more subjective, but I’d argue that Harvey Knibbs, Ben Elliott, Paul Mukairu and Clinton Mola can adeptly cover at least three positions in Reading’s 4-2-2-2, while Lewis Wing, Charlie Savage, Tivonge Rushesha, Tyler Bindon and Dom Ballard can cover at least two
- Brian Carey’s “no dickheads” policy from the Blue Collar event: this is even more subjective but, going by how the 12 signings have spoken to the media since joining, all seem to have the right kind of character and value the opportunity of being at Reading Football Club
And, of course, we have the overarching theme: everyone actually fits the system being constructed by Selles. The new manager wants dynamic, energetic, hard-working and (of course) talented players for his 4-2-2-2 pressing set-up, and it looks like he’s got just that in his dozen new players. With the possible exception of Jaap Stam in 2016, no other Reading manager in recent years has had a summer rebuild as appropriate for their requirements as Selles in 2023.
All in all it looks like a decisive break from the haphazard, agent-led approach of recent years. Reading’s recruitment has been process-driven and logical, seemingly decisive proof that Kia Joorabchian’s involvement now only extends to being allowed a seat in the director’s box, from where he can watch a new era at Reading Football Club unfold in front of his eyes.
The wildcard element though is the recruitment Reading haven’t needed to do. What none of us had really factored in was just how important young players would be this season, just how prominent they could be in this new-look squad.
We can’t know how much one game changed Reading’s existing recruitment plans this summer, but the 4-0 thrashing of Millwall in the League Cup feels hugely significant. That night at The Den, youngsters who would have been merely cannon fodder in years gone by announced themselves at first-team level and refused to make way. Who needs new signings when you’ve got Matty Carson, Mamadi Camara, Caylan Vickers and others already upending the pecking order? With so many youngsters now in play at first-team level, the squad feels that bit bigger than it would have been otherwise.
All of that leaves the squad looking like this:
That graphic doesn’t tell the full story, given that it doesn’t factor in how versatile some of those players are. Mola for example could just as easily go into the centre-back or deeper-midfield sections, as could Tom McIntyre, while Mukairu and Knibbs can play anywhere across Reading’s front four.
But it does illustrate that, on paper at least, Reading seem to have pretty good cover across the pitch. There are no glaring gaps still to be filled, and Selles can afford to rotate from game to game, which will be vital for a hard-working team that will be constantly playing twice a week this season.
There are some weaker spots however:
- Reading lack experience in general, but especially in the final third. Bringing in Theo Walcott would have been an ideal, if unlikely, signing
- A more established left-back, with experience of playing first-team football across an entire season, would have been useful
- Reading are somewhat reliant on Sam Hutchinson staying fit, given he’s the squad’s only experienced ball-winning midfielder - a useful profile in this system
At this stage it’s hard to determine how those problems will play out. They could prove to be significant, holding Reading back this season to the extent that we lament them not being resolved when the opportunity was there. Alternatively, players already on the books could solve those problems - maybe Mola will be a revelation at left-back? Reading could also address these issues in the free-agent market. This feels unlikely though, given the lack of value out there this late.
Drawing too many conclusions about how a club’s future will play out based on the summer’s recruitment is usually unwise - 2022’s signings for example looked pretty good until it didn’t - but let’s give it a go anyway.
In the short term, Reading have got a fighting chance of promotion due to how good this summer’s recruitment has been. Selles has the individual ability, squad depth, characters and general tactical coherence to able to give the top six a good crack; he can’t complain about low-quality backing from Bowen, Carey and co.
Two things could well hold Reading back however. For a starter, the lack of a pre-season means this side will take weeks - or potentially longer - to get into full flow. Further, it takes a hell of a lot of composure and knowhow to actually get over the line in a promotion race, whether that’s staying in the top six or breaking into the top two. Experienced players can cope with that pressure better than rookies, but Reading don’t have too many of them.
The reassuring thing though is that Reading haven’t gone all in on 2023/24. While you can see how this squad should be able to compete for promotion this season, you can also see how it’ll be even stronger next season. Savage, Elliott, Knibbs and others should be assets who appreciate in value and importance in the long run, and Reading have actually been able to contract them accordingly.
This feels like a new era at Reading. Long may it continue.