As 2020 approaches its sorry conclusion, I find myself wondering whether Reading are in a better place now than they were 12 months ago.
You don’t need me to remind you what a horrendous year it has been worldwide, but for the Royals there has been progress in spurts across 2020 and it certainly compares favourably with recent years.
Starting with the obvious, Reading are in a better league position. At the end of 2019, the club were 14th in the Championship, where they would also finish the 2019-20 season. With two games of the current year left to play, we are in eighth, only outside of the playoffs on goal difference and just three points behind third.
January 1 was arguably the high point of Mark Bowen’s managerial tenure – Reading beat promotion-chasing Fulham 2-1 away from home to secure their fourth successive victory. Bowen would only oversee five more league wins in the final 21 Championship games of the campaign.
Change at the helm was unexpected, but not uncalled for, in the summer, but it was the timing that left many supporters confused and irritated. To his credit, Veljko Paunovic hit the ground running and it would be hard to disagree that Reading end the year with a more effective and well-liked manager in charge.
Financially, the club is far from stable and they are still treading a fine line with regards to FFP regulations, but the books are more balanced than they were 12 months ago. In the summer, 15 first team players departed – including high wage earners Chris Gunter, Garath McCleary, Mo Barrow and Vito Mannone – and only two arrived on permanent deals with an additional three loanees. No eye-watering new contracts were handed out like they have been in recent years.
This feeds into the fact that the squad itself is in much better shape than at the start of the year. While it has looked a little threadbare in recent weeks, it is now a manageable size with no dead wood sitting on the fringes.
When everyone is fit, there is a clear first choice XI that has proven it is one of the best in the Championship. There is more genuine quality in the squad and several players have improved individually over the course of the last 12 months.
In particular, the academy players in the squad. At Craven Cottage on New Year’s Day, there were no academy graduates in the starting lineup, with Tom Holmes on loan at Roeselare, Omar Richards battling for the left-back spot with Tyler Blackett and Jordan Obita and Michael Olise still finding his feet in senior football.
Now those three players have all become key parts of Paunovic’s Reading. Add in mainstay Andy Rinomhota and consistent substitute appearances for Tom McIntyre, and Reading’s commitment to the academy has been built on in 2020.
It makes the future look bright and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as we head into 2021. Things are looking up in Berkshire after a difficult couple of years.
By Olly Allen