By now, Reading fans are all too familiar with what’s at stake: the very existence of the football club. Saturday’s protest during the Port Vale game, when a huge number of supporters took to the pitch in the 16th minute, was just the latest expression of anger, frustration and sheer desperation for this horrible episode to end.
We need to get the message out to the wider footballing community though. So, with that in mind, we’ve done a quick explainer for non-Reading fans on what’s happening at the club.
Who are we protesting against?
Club owner Dai Yongge, who bought the club in May 2017. Although other figures have stakes in the club (his sister Dai Xiu Li and Thai businessman Narin Niruttinanon), Dai Yongge is the man with the power at Reading Football Club.
Why are fans protesting against him?
Dai Yongge’s callous mismanagement of the club has not only damaged Reading’s fortunes on the pitch, but also severely weakened the club overall, ruined its reputation, brought its existence into doubt and gravely damaged the livelihoods of staff across the organisation.
- Repeated failure to pay players’ wages in full and on time (October 2022, November 2022, April 2023).
- This could have happened at other times in 2023/24, but sponsors Select Car Leasing (owned by Reading fans) twice stepped in with a loan to cover player payroll
- A total of 16 points (at time of writing) being deducted on Dai’s watch: six in November 2021 for failing FFP, six in April 2023 for breaking the terms of a ‘business plan’ which was with the EFL following the original deduction, one in August 2023 for failing to pay wages (see above), and three in September 2023 (suspended from the previous month, activated when Dai failed to pay 125% of the wage bill into a designated account as instructed)
- Repeated failure to pay HMRC in full and on time, leading to numerous transfer embargoes
- Non-playing staff not being paid properly for November 2023, weeks before Christmas, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis
- Non-playing staff being sent redundancy letters right before Christmas 2023
- Key coaching personnel Andrew Sparkes (assistant manager) and Eddie Niedzwiecki (director of player development) being made redundant in January 2024
- Key players being lined up for sale without the prior approval of manager Ruben Selles or head of football operations Mark Bowen
- A wave of drastic cost-cutting measures detailed by The Athletic: the removal of catering for players at the training ground, hotel stays for away games scrapped, a lack of heating for office staff
- General long-term financial mismanagement and overspending, causing Reading to fail FFP and be subjected to points deductions and transfer embargoes. The Royals haven’t been able to pay a fee for a player since signing Ovie Ejaria in 2020 and are unlikely to do so again until at least 2025
- Relegation to League One in 2023, putting Reading in the third tier for the first time since 2002
- A severe lack of communication from Dai Yongge and CEO Dayong Pang
- The Women’s team being relegated to the Championship and then downgraded to part-time status
- Two other clubs where Dai Yongge has been involved have gone out of existence: KSV Roeselare, Belgium and Beijing Renhe, China
How long have fans been protesting against Dai for?
Predominantly since June 16 2023, when Reading as a club and Dai individually were hit with a volley of charges from the EFL. Within hours fans decided action needed to be taken; within days ‘Sell Before We Dai’ was officially born.
There had however been previous protests in early 2022. These were not aimed at Dai Yongge selling the club, but at encouraging him to run it more responsibly.
What is Sell Before We Dai?
A fan-led protest group pushing for Dai Yongge to sell up to a new owner, so that Reading FC can have a secure and sustainable future. It’s made up of pre-existing supporter groups - Supporters Trust at Reading (STAR), Club 1871, The Tilehurst End, Elm Park Royals - and other individuals.
What fan protests have taken place so far?
- Games being halted in the 16th minute by tennis balls being thrown on the pitch. This started in the Bolton Wanderers match (September 16) but continued afterwards
- Tennis balls and fake money being thrown onto the pitch in the FA Cup game at Eastleigh, gaining excellent coverage from ITV
- More than 1,000 fans taking part in a ‘March Before We Dai’ ahead of the Portsmouth game (October 28)
- An ad van stunt in Central London aimed at embarrassing Dai Yongge personally
- The mass pitch invasion in the 16th minute of the Port Vale game. A huge number of fans stayed on the pitch for a long time, with a smaller number remaining until the match was officially abandoned an hour and eight minutes later
What progress has been made so far?
When Sell Before We Dai started, it wasn’t even on the cards that Reading would look for outside investment, let alone a full sale. However, the club officially announced in August 2023 that it was looking for outside investment before then publicly inviting offers of a takeover the following month.
Further, Sell Before We Dai has attracted international media attention for the cause, particularly after the Portsmouth march, Eastleigh protest and Port Vale pitch invasion. It’s also met with various MPs - including fan-led review chair Tracey Crouch and local MPs James Sunderland (Bracknell) and Matt Rodda (Reading East) - and usually invisible club CEO Dayong Pang.
What’s the best-case scenario for Reading at this point?
That Dai Yongge sells the club, stadium (owned separately to the club itself) and Bearwood training ground to a new, responsible owner as soon as possible.
Is that looking likely at this stage?
Not really (but it still needs to happen). While there has been a significant amount of genuine interest from parties to buy Reading Football Club, solid progress has been slow. Genevra were reportedly close to exclusivity in late 2023, only for the deal to apparently fall apart.
Sell Before We Dai have also been told by a credible whistleblower that Dai Yongge is not serious about selling the club as doing so would require him to repay a debt - instead preferring to asset-strip the organisation.
And the worst-case scenario?
That the club goes out of business entirely.
Are there any other possible outcomes?
Reading going into administration isn’t a prospect anyone wants in an ideal world, but it may be the best way forward. It would mean short-term pain (not that we’re unfamiliar with that) and a 12-point deduction which would almost certainly mean relegation, but it would bring an end to the Dai Yongge era and allow Reading to rebuild in League Two.
What have the EFL done to help?
Not enough. Although they’ve “[acknowledged] the negative impact sporting sanctions are having on the Football Club”, they’ve hit Reading with multiple points deductions. The EFL also requested harsher deductions on the Royals in August 2023, wanting four docked and four suspended instead of the one docked and three suspended that was decided by an Independent Disciplinary Commission.
The EFL have shown some promising signs though. In November, they requested to an Independent Disciplinary Commission that Dai Yongge should be “disqualified from all football activity (including ownership and control) for a period of not less than 12 months”, which would have effectively forced a sale.
However, they have no power to enact this themselves, and the Independent Disciplinary Commission turned down the request for disqualification. They came to this decision on the basis that it would be “disproportionate” for the specific case in front of them at the time (numerous cases of failure to pay wages in full and on time).