When we met Reading at Adams Park in the League Cup last August, a reprisal of our second most local possible league fixture (after Watford) seemed more likely to come in League One. How wrong we were! Let’s get to know our (sort of) neighbours.
Ground: Madejski Stadium (since 1998, capacity 24,161)
Second tier seasons: 21 (+3 top flight)
Major honours: N/A
Last season: 14th in Championship
Reading went a bit mad in the transfer market last summer, bringing just the 17 new players to the club! It didn’t have the transformative impact they might have expected, though (I mean, it rarely does)… Apart from a six-match unbeaten run in December and January, there was no real form to speak of all season.
Just a couple of months into the campaign, popular manager José Gomes was sent packing and replaced by Mark Bowen – previously the sporting director and a technical consultant. It seemed a strange decision at the time and it was never vindicated – or never had the chance to be. Bowen left the club entirely last week and the phrase “banter era” has since been spotted on Reading Twitter 😬.
The gaffer: Veljko Paunović
Apppointed: August 2020
Previously managed: Chicago Fire, Serbia U20, Serbia U19, Serbia U18
Played for: Philadelphia Union, Partizan (2 spells), Almería, Rubin Kazan, Getafe, Hannover 96, Atlético Madrid (2 spells), Tenerife, Real Mallorca (2 spells), Real Oviedo, Atlético Madrid B, Marbella
Bowen’s appointment may have surprised Reading fans, but at least he was a familiar name. Veljko Paunović really is an unknown. He comes from good footballing stock, though: his father Blagoke won 39 caps for Yugoslavia and was part of the team that knocked world champions England out of Euro 1968 before losing to Italy in a final replay. Born in what is now North Macedonia, Paunović won two caps for Serbia & Montenegro and spent most of his playing career in Spain. In 2015, he coached Serbia to FIFA U20 World Cup victory in New Zealand, seeing off Brazil in the final.
Firstly… what on earth is going on?! I’m slightly worried to be writing anything about the situation at Reading at the moment, to be honest, such is the fast-moving nature of this club behind the scenes. Coming out of the Gillingham friendly on 22nd August, there were no indications of any major personnel changes; it was more a matter of letting Mark Bowen and Nigel Howe (chief executive) crack on.
But Howe was out on Monday evening, replaced by a confidant of owner Dai Yongge but kept on as vice president to oversee certain non-footballing matters. It also emerged at the same time that the club was looking to move Bowen back to his previous director of football position as they held him in high regard for that role – although it’s not clear what specifically made them want to move him out of the dugout.
As the week went on, there were initially rumours that Aleksandar Stanojević, formerly in charge of Reading’s sister club Beijing Renhe, would be the man to replace Bowen. That link proved to be false, although it did emerge that Paunović would be coming in having been fired by Chicago Fire late last year.
Bowen took charge of the friendly at Spurs, after it initially wasn’t clear who would be doing so. The team then abruptly cancelled Tuesday’s friendly at home to West Ham and jetted off to Portugal after the Spurs game on Friday night so that they could meet the new boss. He was announced the following morning, although that statement had no mention of Bowen.
It’s hard to properly judge all of this when we’re not privy to any of the club’s thinking. At the time of writing [30th Auguust], we’re yet to get any real communication from Reading about why Bowen was moved on, how Paunović was identified as a replacement or anything else really. Is this all part of a strategic shake-up with a long-term focus of how the club operates or is Dai Yongge simply throwing darts at a board and seeing what happens?
I’d love to think that this is all part of a masterplan and that all of these steps could well have been taken after laser-focussed calculation, but given the sheer amount of upheaval in a short amount of time right before the season, it looks F-ing shambolic.
What is the realistic aim for Reading this season? Is the club’s goal in line with the fans’ hopes and/or expectations, do you feel? For the second season in a row, the desires of the fans and owners going into the campaign are very different. Fans are keen to see a reset at the club, overhauling the squad to both instil a more hard-working winning philosophy and cut down the wage bill, which has massively ballooned out of control. However, the owners seem try to gamble on promotion each year by throwing money at short-term signings, which backfired last season by creating an unstable squad and could well come back to bite us this season.
That leaves us in a pretty precarious position when it comes to Financial Fair Play, and some have speculated that this season could be one last gamble towards promotion – with a points deduction a risk if we don’t manage it.
Who do you expect to shine for you on the pitch in 2020/21? Anyone you think might have a real breakout year? Reading have a number of young players who did quite well last season but, having not showed real consistency over the course of the campaign, should really kick on in 2020/21. There’s a number of them to keep an eye on: ball-playing centre half Tom McIntyre, playmakers Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria, and front man George Pușcaș [who scored at Adams Park].
The trick is to find a system that allows them all to shine. That’s less of a problem with McIntyre, but it becomes trickier when you’re trying to fit Olise and Ejaria into a midfield that also contains John Swift and someone else (Josh Laurent or Andy Rinomhota) – without making that midfield too lightweight. Similarly, Pușcaș has been asked to play up front on his own, but as he lacks consistenct both in himself and in terms of the support he gets, that’s not often gone well.
If they all kick on and really show their potential over the course of a full season, those four could all well be worth at least £10m next summer.
You went a bit mad on the transfers last season – but it’s been quite a contrast so far this summer, with Josh Laurent and Ovie Ejaria the only arrivals so far. That said, key man John Swift has been linked with a move away. What do you expect to happen between now and the end of the window and where do you most need to strengthen/add? I’m expecting a late burst of recruitment before the season starts as we try to add quality to the team. We seem to have belatedly decided to gamble on promotion, so that’ll probably mean a number of relatively high-profile players being added.
As for specific positions, I’m not too sure. This was a lot easier when we [hadn’t just changed] the manager and I could pick out half a dozen areas of the pitch to target so that we could strengthen Bowen’s 3-5-1-1 system. Paunović may very well have different ideas. Assuming we’re not changing the formation, though, I’ll say: cover at right wing-back, a first-choice left wing-back, competition at centre-back (ideally someone who can bring the ball out), a defensive holding midfielder and a wide playmaker with a bit of pace and directness.
Those additions really need to not be longer-term signings, though. We ended 2019/20 with a host of first-team players leaving – either at the end of their contract or the end of their loan stay – and that mandated an overhaul this summer at an already tough time. We don’t need that annual turmoil.
On the flip side, though, I’m not expecting Swift p or any other key first-team players for that matter p to leave the club. Reading’s owners are notoriously stubborn when it comes to cashing in on our star men and seem to be taking that same approach with Swift, meaning he’ll very probably be here throughout 2020/21 whether he likes it or not.
Finally, are fans looking forward to facing Wycombe in the league again? It will be both sides’ most local fixture – but do you feel that there’s any kind of rivalry from your end? Fingers crossed some away fans are allowed to make the respective trips! I don’t think there’s any real rivalry. In fact, a lot of Reading fans were very happy to see you go up last season – not just because you weren’t Oxford United but also because there’s a genuine affection there.
Reading and Wycombe are close to each other, but don’t have a sense of animosity. You’ve dragged yourselves up through the divisions in unfashionable style against the odds and there’s the link of us using Adams Park quite often for women’s and U23s games too. I’m tempted to say that, for Reading fans who think the club has lost its way in recent years and isn’t like it used to be, Wycombe are a reminder of different times.
Alex Samuel headed in our goal in the aforementioned League Cup tie – in which, despite the result, we produced a superb performance. As for the last league match in March 2002, it ended 2-0 to the visitors, who also won the away fixture by the same scoreline. Wycombe’s only ever league success over Readin was an absolute classic, though: the 5-3 at Adams Park in October 1999, featuring a Sean Devine hat-trick.
Did you know…?
Although they didn’t join the Football League until 1920, Reading are the oldest professional club in the south of England, pre-dating the next two – Fulham and Swindon – by seven years.
Header photo: John Fielding via Wikimedia Commons
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