Behind Enemy Lines: Reading

MILLWALL are back on their travels this weekend seeking their first away league win of the season.

Gary Rowett is looking for a second consecutive win as Lions boss as he faces a manager in Mark Bowen taking charge of just his third game.

Alex Grace spoke to Reading fan Simeon Pickup this week

Twitter: @TheTilehurstEnd

Why do you support Reading?

I get my love of Reading from my mum, who started taking me in 2004. That came just in time for our famous Championship-winning 2005-06 season when we won the league with a record 106 points.

It wasn’t long before I was hooked.

What has been your favourite season following the Royals?

2011-12. Reading recovered from defeat in the play-off final to Swansea City in the previous campaign, and an awful start to the season, to win the league.

Pipping the widely favoured Southampton and West Ham United to the title was a huge achievement, especially for a Reading side built largely from rejects and academy graduates. But it was a tough, gritty team that never knew when it was beaten.

My personal highlight of that season was a dramatic 4-2 win at Upton Park, when Reading all but sealed automatic promotion against a West Ham side that would eventually have to settle for the play-offs.

Unfortunately I missed a Friday night 3-1 win over Southampton that decided the title – instead I was celebrating like a lunatic in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow, listening on the radio.

And the worst?

2017-18. We started out confident of building on a shock third-placed finish – and trip to Wembley for a play-off final – but everything that could have gone wrong did.

Jaap Stam wasn’t able to manage the unfolding disaster in his second season in charge, the recruitment was dire, fan apathy spread widely, and wins were few and far between.

One low point of that season for me was the 2-0 home defeat to Millwall. Coming at the end of a positive week that should have turned our season around – winning at Burton Albion in midweek (our first victory in ages), and also signing Chris Martin and Tommy Elphick on loan – Reading instead put on a gutless performance that summed up our campaign.

It’s been a slow start to the campaign for the Royals – why do you think that has been the case?

If I had to narrow it down to one factor, I’d go with Reading’s poor form in front of goal.

Although there have certainly been other problems, such as Jose Gomes’ inability to settle on one system and the need to bed in plenty of new players, we had been regularly creating enough chances to win games. Had we put away those clear-cut opportunities, we’d be in mid-table.

That’s particularly true for record signing George Puscas, who let half a dozen or so golden chances go begging – enough chances to cost Gomes his job.

Jose Gomes left the club in October – was this something the fans saw coming and was it move that was supported by the fans?

Although his future was in question because of poor results, the clear consensus in the fanbase was that he deserved more time to turn our fortunes around. After all, we were only a dozen or so games into the season, and Gomes had already got the achievement of keeping Reading up last season.

He had a great connection with the fanbase, and was probably the most well-liked manager since we were last relegated from the Premier League – certainly the most popular at the time of departure.

That popularity was really refreshing, and undid a lot of the apathy that had built up under Jaap Stam and Paul Clement.

Mark Bowen was the man chosen to replace Gomes in the hot seat – is he the man to take the club forward?

At the moment, I really don’t know. Although Mark Bowen was a deeply unpopular choice with the fans due to already being sporting director – there were accusations that he’d effectively stolen Gomes’ job – the truth is likely much closer to the owners simply wanting an internal appointment that could make an immediate impact.

He’s certainly done that so far with a last-gasp win over Preston North End and dogged draw against QPR – both performances showing Reading’s increased fight.

But he’s still inexperienced. The Millwall game will be his third as a manager in his entire career – and he is only due to stay until the end of the season.

I’ve got no idea where we could potentially go under him in the long term.

The Royals are currently struggling towards the bottom of the table – what would be a good season for Reading?

A top-half finish. That’s more than achievable given how good the squad is, and we’ve got plenty of time to turn things around.

If we get into the top half sooner rather than later, which can’t be ruled out, then that momentum may well take us closer to the play-offs.

But it’s too early to be making any predictions at this point.

Ever since that play-off final defeat to Huddersfield in 2017 there seems to have been a decline at Reading – why do you think that is?

Reading’s decline probably started as far back as 2012, when ownership passed hands from Sir John Madejski to Anton Zingarevich.

Although we were in the Premier League that year, Zingarevich’s lack of funds caused us financial problems in late 2013 and into 2014, kicking off upheavals behind the scenes including two takeovers and various alterations in the balance of power.

Amid all that, Reading were unable to build a coherent long-term plan that could move the club forwards on or off the pitch.

Managers came and went, while recruitment was all over the place.

The 2016-17 play-off campaign was largely the exception to the rule. Jaap Stam did a fantastic job of uniting the club and quickly making a team that could win games regularly (however unfashionably), and that should have been the start of a new era.

However, a takeover just before the play-off final and a change of CEO not long after it meant more upheaval.

That CEO, Ron Gourlay, never really understood the club, and the recruitment under him was dire. Both him and Paul Clement were replaced around a year ago, with Nigel Howe returning as CEO.

Gomes (Clement’s replacement) should have been a long-term appointment but wasn’t given the time.

In short, the merry-go-round of incompetence has been impossible to stop.

Gary Rowett is Millwall’s new manager – do you think that’s a good appointment?

I sure do.

Neil Harris did very well for Millwall in getting you promoted and keeping you up, but a more experienced – and perhaps more dynamic – manager was probably required to take you further.

I believe your squad underwent a fair amount of change in the summer, so perhaps a new man in charge is the right way of getting more out of them.

Millwall signed Jon Dadi Bodvarsson in the summer. What was the reaction to his departure?

Not too many fans were unhappy to see him leave. He was certainly well-liked and never did anything to annoy the fans, but he would have been well down the pecking order if he’d stayed.

Plus, despite his fine work rate, he didn’t score regularly enough to warrant keeping. But a move to Millwall, a club where he’s probably a better fit stylistically, made sense.

If you could sign one Millwall player who would it be and why?

I’d gladly have Jake Cooper back.

We could certainly use his physical strength and aerial ability, which would help to shore us up defensively and give the set-piece threat we’ve largely lacked in recent seasons.

Otherwise, bringing back fellow academy graduate Alex Pearce would probably go down pretty well with the fanbase.

Who will be your key men on Saturday?

Ovie Ejaria and John Swift, two of the best creative midfielders in the division.

Ejaria loves to run at defenders, and is one of the most proficient dribblers in the league, while Swift’s technical ability and passing range make him capable of unlocking most defences. Even when he’s not at his best he still has a knack for coming up with a goal from range.

Will you be at the game on Saturday?

No – I’m on holiday for a week so it’ll be the first home league match I’ll have missed in quite a while.

What is your predicted Reading starting XI and formation?

3-4-1-2: Rafael; Miazga, Morrison, Moore; Yiadom, Swift, Rinomhota, Obita; Ejaria; Baldock, Puscas

Finally, a score prediction?

2-0 to Reading. A fairly close game, but goals from Ejaria and Puscas will get us the win.

Graphic: @ShedCreative