Reading on alarming winter slide - Interview
Thursday, 27th Jan 2022 15:47 by Clive Whittingham
Dumped out of the FA Cup by Kidderminster, and with five straight defeats coming into this Saturday, Reading have now won only two of their last 16 matches. Our regular there Simeon Pickup surveyed the wreckage for us.
Crikey, this isn’t going well, how do you assess the Reading season so far?
We’ve not got going yet; this season’s been a constant case of having to put out differing fires as they pop up, subside a little bit and then pop up once more. The primary issue has been the nightmare-like injury situation, which has restricted us to 13-15 senior players in most matchday squads. We’ve generally had to rely heavily on particularly young academy players, rarely have a strong bench and have had to deal with ongoing resulting fatigue too.
Otherwise, the six-point deduction, slow transfer business and loss of key players in the summer, plus a general loss of confidence around the club, have all been a collective huge millstone around the team’s neck. While players and manager have rightly come in for flak for poor results, they’re facing an unprecedented level of problems outside their control on and off the pitch.
Still, it’s become increasingly obvious in recent weeks that the manager isn’t up to the task of dealing with what’s been thrown at him. That’s more a case of him being an OK manager not up to a required higher standard than an outright awful manager, despite what some fans would have you believe.
Reading’s league results so far…
It really seems to have gone off a cliff in recent weeks, why?
The situation was difficult but not majorly out of the ordinary in early December, at which point we’d beaten Swansea City, drawn with Hull City and lost to West Brom. But a major Covid outbreak (Pauno said recently that around 18 players had had Covid) kept us out of action over the Christmas period.
That made building up match sharpness and team cohesion difficult, so we pretty much limped into the New Year and have struggled to build up momentum since. But you’d still expect an underlying level of fight and professional pride – at least in any decent team. However, those qualities were absent in a late collapse at home to Derby County (2-0 to 2-2, annoyingly reminiscent of our last meeting with you as it happens), the 2-1 defeat at Kidderminster Harriers, 7-0 rout at home to Fulham and lifeless 2-0 home defeat to Luton Town.
The Harriers defeat (especially shameful given that a decent XI was beaten by a sixth-tier side) blew the lid on long-standing fan frustrations over poor squad management, lack of communication from the owners and serious concerns that relegation was inevitable. None of this was new but it all came pouring out at once, even from the more level-headed fans, reaching an existential level of fear about the club’s future.
The mood from around January 8 to January 15 was pretty apocalyptic and, damningly, even with hindsight it doesn’t feel like an overreaction. Although that feeling has subsided a little, it’s still there. Fans are rightly demanding answers from the club’s hierarchy and the team’s in desperate need of an end to this losing streak.
Why/how is the manager still in employment? How much longer has he got? Potential replacements?
In normal circumstances he’d have gone after the Kidderminster defeat, but in reality I’d expect him to get the rest of the season. It’s a (probably but not definitely true) open secret that the club would find it financially difficult to sack him, given how fine we’re cutting it on FFP. It’s possible he goes, but only if results don’t pick up after a short while with players back from injury. Should he get the sack I don’t hold out hope of us being able to attract a high-quality replacement; it may have to be an in-house one. I’d love us to snap up Alex Neil though.
Is the six points the end of it? Or is there more FFP pain to come? Your wages to turnover ratio hasn’t been healthy for a long time.
Besides the six points we were given a ‘business plan’ by the EFL to which we need to adhere, otherwise we’ll get another six points taken off next season. While it’ll help push us to a more sustainable financial outlook, the requirement of cutting the wage bill by £5m (after it’s been reduced in the last couple of seasons anyway) will make putting a competitive squad together next season difficult. As it happens, most of our squad is out of contract this summer – in no small part because of previous spending restrictions.
While Reading have to take complete responsibility for getting into this situation (the wages-to-turnover ratio was awful), the EFL’s draconian spending limits will only set us back next season. Ironically they make a much bigger, much more existential financial threat to the club (relegation) significantly more likely. The EFL seem keener to look like they’re acting tough than they are to let that club rebuild in a sustainable way – eg allowing us to retain existing key players and invest in young, longer-term young players.
Next season will be even tougher than this one. Hopefully it’ll end with Reading staying in the Championship and a forced reset that puts the club on the right track in 2023 and beyond, but we’ll have to walk on a tightrope above a chasm to get to that point.
All manner of rumour and inuendo circulating on your message board about Ejaria, Liam Moore, vaccinations, racism… where’s the truth in all this?
Nothing’s been confirmed on any of those fronts and it’s probably just gossip. The circumstances of Liam Moore being stripped of the captaincy were a bit odd – a Saturday 9pm statement after defeat at Middlesbrough, believed to be from the owner, revealing Moore’s three-month-old desire to quit the club. I found the timing strange as there was no obvious reason for the statement to be released then, but suspect the owner suddenly let out some frustration over a lack of loyalty from a high-profile, particularly well-paid player.
I’d love to know! We barely hear anything from them, having got just one direct statement in ages – Dai Yongge’s thoughts on the six-point deduction. He prefers to stay quiet rather than engage and, while I can respect him wanting to stay in the background, we need some kind of communication – even if it’s done by the CEO on his behalf. Unfortunately the CEO barely says anything either.
So we’re left having to analyse the limited information we do get. The club like to reiterate the owner’s commitment when they can (including randomly dropping it into the Moore statement), but it’s hard to read whether or not that’s a sincere attempt at trying to reassure fans.
I’m cautiously optimistic that the owner’s committed though: his record shows that he’s invested a huge amount of money into the club, stayed here for almost five years and shown no sign of quitting even during a pandemic or in the wake of poor league finishes and the points deduction. We need to hear that from him though, otherwise the constant worry is of him abruptly losing interest and walking away, which I daren’t think about.
Things are finally starting to look promising on that front. Top goalscorer from last season Lucas Joao has made a couple of appearances since returning from injury this month and completed 90 minutes at home to Huddersfield Town, opening the scoring in nice fashion in the process. Second-top goalscorer Yakou Meite was expected to be out for a while longer with an ACL injury but managed 45 minutes for the under-23s on Monday; I’m not expecting him to play any significant part against you. Ovie Ejaria and Alen Halilovic shouldn’t be far off and could well be in the matchday squad.
Any January business done? Any more likely?
Just the one player signed at time of writing, Karl Hein, a very talented but young and inexperienced goalkeeper from Arsenal. We needed an extra body here after the departure of Rafael Cabral who returned to Brazil, cutting our wage bill notably in the process, but we’d have preferred a more experienced player than Hein.
I’d like us to add another centre back, ideally one who’s left-footed and can cover at left back in a four. Otherwise there’s a slim chance of persuading Andy Carroll to stay on until the end of the season but we face Premier League interest, reportedly.
Summer Ins >>> Alen Halilovic, 25, AM, Birmingham, Free >>> Scott Dann, 34, CB, Palace, Free >>> Junior Hoilett, 31, LW, Cardiff, Free >>> Abdul-Rahmann Baba, 27, LB, Chelsea, Loan >>> Tom Dele-Bashiru, 21, CM, Watford, Loan >>> Danny Drinkwater, 31, CM, Chelsea, Loan
Summer Outs >>> Michael Olise, 19, AM, Palace, £8.3m >>> Omar Richards, 23, LB, Bayern, Free >>> Sam Smith, 23, CF, Cambridge, Free >>> Sam Walker, 29, GK, Kilmarnock, Free >>> Sone Aluko, 32, ST, Ipswich, Free >>> Sam Baldock, 32, CF, Derby, Free >>> Marc McNulty, 28, AM, Dundee Utd, Loan
Winter Ins: >>> Karl Hein, 19, GK, Arsenal, Loan
Winter Outs: >>> Rafael, 31, GK, Cruzeiro, Free
Stand out performers and weak links?
Weak links: this has the potential to include anyone in the team, given how poor pretty much everyone has been in recent weeks. Of particular concern though is Danny Drinkwater who had looked promising earlier in the season but has dropped off badly, not showing signs of his controlling passing qualities and being particularly poor in protecting the defence.
Stand-out performers: the obvious candidate is John Swift, given his stats this season, but his goal involvements had dried up before his two assists against Huddersfield. Still, expect him to be key if we’re to get anything from this game. Otherwise I’ve got high hopes for Lucas Joao and George Puscas who looked reenergised in a strike pairing last time out and will be hoping to build on that performance.
Will you stay up?
Yep. We’ll have enough quality to pull away to safety.
The Twitter @TheTilehurstEnd, @SimFromBucks, @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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