Club hope little-known manager José Gomes and promising youngsters can stave off relegation after a historically bad 2018
With 2019 merely hours old, trite platitudes and empty resolutions are all the rage. “New Year, New Me” and all that, but no team will be more desperate to usher in a new era than Reading, who, for a while, have wanted to see the back of the worst year – statistically – in the club’s history.
The Royals picked up a miserly 36 points (from 138), the lowest tally in the Football League over the past year. The numbers make grisly viewing, yet things may get worse before they get better.
Reading head into Tuesday’s match with Swansea without a win in nine and with only one since October. They have mustered three goals in their past eight matches and, although Ipswich’s woes prevent them from propping up the Championship, the threat of League One looms large, 18 months on from coming within a penalty shootout of promotion to the top flight.
If they are to escape from danger, then much rests on José Gomes, the Portuguese who was given the task last month of helping Reading rediscover their glow and effervescence. Gomes – whose name was recommended to the Chinese owners by the increasingly influential Kia Joorabchian – is a risky appointment. His work includes brief spells in Greece, Hungary, Saudi Arabia and the UAE but, thrown into the deep end of a relegation battle, Gomes, who has a two-and-a-half-year contract, knows time is of the essence.
The soundbites have been promising, if a little wild – “I will put Reading in the Premier League” – and the early signs encouraging but Reading require more than charisma to haul themselves clear of the drop.
Off the field there remain questions over the ambitions of Yongge Dai and Xiu Li Dai, the brother and sister who acquired the club in 2017 but have rarely spoken publicly. There has also been upheaval. Brian Tevreden (who brought Jaap Stam to the club) left as technical director in September and two months later Ron Gourlay resigned as chief executive. Tevreden’s replacement, Gianluca Nani, has swiftly exited while Nigel Howe replaced Gourlay and sacked Paul Clement as manager a day after returning to that role.
As for Joorabchian, the businessman behind Philippe Coutinho’s move to Barcelona, he has again wooed the Reading hierarchy after working with Pairoj Piempongsant, who brokered the sale of the club in 2014. Joorabchian was influential in the unsuccessful signings of Orlando Sá, Paolo Hurtado, Ola John and Lucas Piazon. It remains to be seen what activity Reading, who have a bloated squad, do in January.
After Stam came within spitting distance of delivering an unlikely promotion, the club invested in the following months in an effort to go one better. Too many signings have simply not worked – Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock are among those yet to fire – but there is a talented young spine emerging. The academy has always been a source of pride and in Liam Kelly, Andy Rinomhota and Danny Loader, they have another wave of talent to be excited about.
There is particular intrigue around Loader, the striker prolific at youth level and a World Cup winner with England Under-17s; his older brother, Ben, is a wing for London Irish, tenants at Reading’s Madejski Stadium for the past 18 years. If Gomes can tap into their quality and eke out more from players such as John Swift, another guilty of underwhelming this season, then Reading can prosper.
“He [Gomes] hasn’t had long and hopefully after a busy period we can get more work done on the training ground and become more clinical when we get the ball in the final third,” Swift said. “He wants us to play with freedom, get at players and when we are in the defensive area to move it nice and quick. Hopefully we can go into 2019 and really push on and get some wins on the board.”
The overriding priority is victory against Swansea but, with an FA Cup trip to Old Trafford on the horizon, there is a sense of what might have been. It is a land of ifs and buts, though had Reading, instead of Huddersfield, prospered at Wembley 18 months ago a new year visit to Old Trafford could well have been a Premier League fixture.
If Reading are to return to the top tier, from which they were relegated in 2013, they have a long road ahead. “When I looked to the fixture schedule, I thought I could play against a Portuguese coach, but he left,” Gomes said of Saturday. “But we are talking about one of the best clubs in the world with great players. It will be very difficult for us.”
• Graham Coughlan has thrown his hat into the ring for the Bristol Rovers job after three consecutive wins as caretaker manager. The 44-year-old former Plymouth defender was placed in charge after Darrell Clarke’s departure last month and could not have wished for a better audition for the role on a permanent basis. “If anybody wants this job, they’ll have to fight me for it,” he said. “I don’t make the calls. But I know the call I would be making if I was in that position, but I am not so it is not up to me.”
• Aitor Karanka’s job at Nottingham Forest remains in peril, with a poor result at home to Leeds on New Year’s Day likely to spell the end for the Spaniard. Forest are 10th in the Championship and winless in five matches, with the owner, Evangelos Marinakis, increasingly agitated at the failure to mount a serious promotion challenge after an aggressive, and expensive, summer recruitment drive. After defeat at Millwall on Saturday, Karanka said: “The only thing I can tell you is that I am doing everything in the way said when I signed the contract. The agreement was to build a team like I did at Middlesbrough.”
• Aston Villa have failed to score only once in the league but they have been conceding far too many goals for Dean Smith’s liking. Bolton and Reading boast better defensive records but the return of Tommy Elphick from a loan spell at Hull should help bring order to the chaos. The 31-year-old, who captained Bournemouth to promotion in 2015, was a key figure in Hull’s recent revival and will provide Villa with some much-needed defensive nous. “I wanted to be a part of what the manager’s doing going forward,” Elphick said. “It’s a style and a way of playing that I’m very used to and had great success under Eddie Howe, and Gus Poyet before that.”