Young Royal blood could revitalise a wilting Reading


What do you write about after watching a side with nothing to play for draw 0-0 to Huddersfield Town?

Well it’s difficult. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given the two team’s current predicaments. After all, Reading have long been stagnating and Huddersfield remain in freefall.

The game was a tired, laboured display with both sides lacking the requisite flourish to take all three points. Mark Bowen’s side huffed and puffed, while their counterparts showed slightly more purpose, albeit severely lacking the quality to match.

If the cardboard cut-outs in the West stand had legs, they would have all left long before the final whistle.

But despite the tiresome affair and the sad sight of waning Madjeski seats losing their deep blue colour, there was something to write about.

If you compare the side that began on Tuesday night to the one which started Bowen’s first game of his managerial tenure against Preston in October, there is a slight, yet revealing glimmer of hope. The team on Tuesday night was over a year younger in age.

Admittedly, the fall from boasting an average age of 26.5 years-old to 25.4 is minuscule. To the naked eye, the contrast doesn’t warrant noticing. Let’s be honest, 26-years-old is hardly an age where you would expect the pipe and slippers to come out. But while it might not be significant as of now, nor instantly telling, it does suggest the seas are changing at the Madjeski, and a shift is strategy is set to ensue.

Against Preston nine months ago, Reading lined up in a pragmatic 5-3-2 formation, the same system Jose Gomes ended his reign as manager with. Despite a new man in the dugout, which so often installs a root of optimism, the performance was much of a muchness. Yes they won, and this time around they did not, but the side didn’t look energised or inspired in wanting to impress their incoming boss.

Instead, it was the same players, churning out the same type of performances. This summed up Reading as a club and the direction they were heading. They were simply content to drift along, unwilling to devise a plan that would aide a resurrection.

In truth, Reading had become boring. Fans knew it too, hence the dwindling drop in year-by-year attendances. In 2019, crowd figures had fallen to 14,991, roughly 9000 lower than the masses attracted in their last Premier League stint six-years prior.

A graph showing Reading’s attendance figures since 2008.

Of course, the caveat that comes with relegation from the Premier League is the disappearance of casual supporters, who typically aren’t willing to watch the cold, harsh realities of a Championship match. But that was six years ago and it’s not only the lukewarm fans that don’t fancy turning up anymore. For the 2019/20 campaign, the number of season ticket holders dropped by 13%, from 11,586 to 10,052.

That tells you everything you need to know. Even the most hardened supporters were now caught in a trance of apathy by what their football club was serving on the pitch.

But maybe, just maybe, the 5-0 drubbing of Luton could in time, be looked upon as a catalyst for change. Last week, Bowen made five changes to the starting lineup, with former captain Chris Gunter and current one Liam Moore left on the bench. In-stepped the home-grown 21-year-old duo of Gabe Osho and Tom McIntyre as their direct replacements.

It was Bowen’s clearest indication yet that a required cultural shift was about to embark. The flailing arm of the club may just have been given a fresh, youthful shot. Bowen made no attempt to disguise these were his intentions, all-but admitting the admissions of Moore and Gunter from the starting eleven were performance-related, rather than sentimental.

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Moreover, 25-year-old John Swift was handed the captaincy, with Bowen branding the midfielder a “senior head” in the side. It was a striking statement of intent, considering the more comfortable choice would have been been 32-year-old defensive veteran Michael Morrison, who could be heard incessantly barking in both the subsequent games.

But the decision showed Bowen is prepared to make the uncomfortable choice. Comfortable choices is what caused the downfall of Reading in the first place.

It could be forgiven for a manager to keep faith in an ageing group of players if there was a sense of nostalgia that followed them. To some extent, you would feel a sense of empathy if this was a collective that were going through some bad times right now, but had previously given the club some bloody good ones, too.

But that isn’t the case. The nucleus of the squad has been here for a long time and have failed to give the club any reason to stick with them for sentimental purposes.

In the match against Huddersfield, Moore and Gunter were left out again, the latter set to leave on a free at the conclusion of the league season. Fellow long-term servant Garath McCleary is set to leave upon the expiration of his contract, while 34-year-old Charlie Adam’s 12-month rolling deal is unlikely to be renewed. Not one of them started.

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It meant retained places for McIntyre and Osho in defence, who both had steady if not spectacular games against the Terriers. There would also be a slight adaptation in system that began Bowen’s tenure at the club.
On paper, it appeared the same 5-3-2 formation. But unlike the Preston game, Bowen’s side set-up in a 4-3-3 in possession, with Jordan Obita moving higher up the pitch to play as an out-an-out left winger and Tyler Blackett – the left sided centre-back – overlapping. Admittedly, the move didn’t bear fruit, but the intentions were pure in hoping it would provide the side with an extra facet in attack and increased fluidity in their game.
It is early days and that should always be met with a cautious proviso. It would be quite understandable if some argued this piece is jumping the gun when summarising what is actually trying to happen at Reading.
But the changes in personnel and the decision to dump a number of ageing, long term servants on the doorstep in the summer suggests something indeed is happening at Reading and something that is vastly dissimilar to everything that’s occurred since the days of Brian McDermott.
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The Huddersfield game was a drab goalless draw. And just like the empty Madjeski seats, the Reading side were colourless themselves. But what Bowen endeavoured in striving to evolve a previously tactically stubborn system, may have just laid the foundations for a cultural shift.
In order to do this though, you need open-minded players. Old habits die hard and some of the old guard at the Madjeski will find it physically and mentally impossible to adjust. But with the more younger, more easily shaped players, this is not impossible.
Reading’s academy made up a quarter of the squad on Tuesday evening. Who knows if the backing of youth will just end-up being for the rest of this season, since the club have nothing to play for. After all, it is set to be a rather mundane conclusion to yet another forgettable league campaign.
But Bowen’s recent decisions suggest the intent is there and the time for change has been recognised. Reading need a renaissance, a revitalisation, and how they do that right now is anyone’s guess. But recent evidence shows using Royal blood to do so, wouldn’t go too far amiss.

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About Author

Football, Boxing and Cricket correspondent from Hampshire, covering southern sport. Editor and Head of Boxing at Prost International. Accreditated EFL & EPL journalist.

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