Matthew Crichton: Reading finished 21st in the Championship and were deducted six points for breaching profit and sustainability regulations - what is the situation like off the pitch currently?
Simeon Pickup: Much better nowadays. The points deduction and corresponding business plan from the EFL (which restricts squad size and spending) came from years of overspending, but general mismanagement has been hugely problematic and a source of major concern among fans. Reading have lacked expertise behind the scenes to make decisions and set a broader direction, summed up by former manager Veljko Paunovic having to help out last summer on recruitment.
But we’ve tackled the lack of expertise this summer by adding experienced figures behind the scenes. Former manager Mark Bowen has returned in a wide-ranging ‘head of football operations’ role, while Brian Carey has come into a new ‘director of recruitment’ position. It feels very much as if we have the right men to sort this club out in the long run, and fans have been hugely encouraged by that.
There are still frustrations with the owner, Dai Yongge, who’s never properly engaged with fans in his five years at the club. But he’s stayed committed financially and otherwise despite years of underperformance and the challenges of Covid, which I think supporters appreciate.
Hopefully, the arrival of Bowen and Carey will constitute the right support for Dai in the running of the club.
MC: On the pitch, despite being tipped as favourites for relegation, the club currently sit third, how would you summarise your start to the season?
SP: Very encouraging but ultimately unsustainable. Reading won’t realistically stick around in the top six this season; we don’t have the individual quality across the pitch, depth or any other outstanding strength that’ll allow us to do so.
But what the early part of the season has shown is that we’re more than capable of grinding out wins. That’s generally been a case of sitting deep without the ball, withstanding pressure and edging out a one-goal margin, but doing so consistently takes togetherness, spirit and organisation.
We’ve done really well to instil those qualities (thanks to the manager, behind-the-scenes staff and players) and they’ll stand us in good stead for the rest of what’s still being viewed as a relegation-battle season.
MC: After almost a decade out of management, Paul Ince has started excellently since being made permanent manager of Reading, how is he viewed amongst your fanbase?
SP: It’s not been plain sailing for him, in truth. He was written off by most when he was appointed after eight years out of management and took his time to make a positive impression due to poor early form.
But a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth kicked off a turnaround in results and performances for Ince and Reading, keeping the club in the Championship, and fans began to warm to him.
Even when he kept Reading up (which was far from a sure thing), fans were split over whether he was the right man to take the club forward. After all, he still lacked recent managerial experience, and even performances under him at Reading until that point had lacked consistency.
But the hierarchy backed him early on in the summer and he’s since been able to build a determined, hard-working side that’s currently far outperforming expectations. He’s got few doubters at the moment and is on track (fingers crossed) for a good season.
MC: Andy Carroll looks set to rejoin Reading this week, is this a move that you would welcome on the back of his first spell?
SP: I like Carroll in his own right: he’s a good egg, works hard, is experienced and has clear tactical value of being able to hold the ball up and win headers. But while those are useful traits, he’s not quite the kind of striker I’d have wanted us to go for.
Reading had previously been linked with Theo Walcott and I reckon a mobile forward in that mould would have been a better fit for our 3-5-2, giving us a threat in behind. Carroll’s also not a consistent goal threat and only scored twice in his first spell, although he did net in his final Reading game - ironically up at your rivals Middlesbrough.
Realistically we couldn’t have done much better though; there aren’t many decent free-agent strikers out there, let alone for a club with about 50p to spend. So I’m pleased but not thrilled by his return.
MC: In terms of your recruitment overall, Ince signed his son Tom, as well as the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Shane Long - were fans satisfied by your business?
SP: Very much so. The task this summer was to largely rebuild a squad that was light on numbers after an exodus at the end of last season, and that’s been done commendably well when you consider the financial restrictions. Reading have had to cut the wage bill by £5m from last season - no mean feat.
Despite that, we’ve assembled a squad that’s competitive at this level, looks well balanced and full of good characters. Its makeup is older than we’d like and lacks the same level of individual ability that we’ve been able to call on in recent years, but it’s certainly good enough to stay in the division.
Given we were worried that Reading would have to make do with a League One-standard squad due to the financial constraints, those responsible for recruitment (predominantly Mark Bowen and Brian Carey) have done an impressive job.
MC: Ovie Ejaria enjoyed a loan spell with Sunderland back in 2018, how has he developed since then during his time with Reading?
SP: Frustratingly, he’s stagnated. It’s absolutely clear that Ejaria is a talented player; he’s got some of the best close control I’ve seen at Reading and he can come up with a decisive pass to open a defence. But, besides a strong spell in the first half of 2019/20, he’s just not been consistent enough.
To be fair there are multiple reasons for that. Ejaria’s had injury problems, been overplayed at points and accordingly suffered from fatigue, and often had to play on the left in a 4-2-3-1 which generally hasn’t suited him. But if he’s to meet his potential he still needs to step up his performances, and he’s seemingly just drifted for too long.
The hope is that Reading moving to a 3-5-2 will allow him to really develop as a central attacking midfielder - a role he often had in the first half of 2019/20. But at this stage he’s still injured, so we won’t get to test that for a little while.
MC: I recently read that on loan ‘Boro goalkeeper Joe Lumley has statistically been the worst performing goalkeeper in the league so far - would you say he is a clear weak spot in your squad?
SP: No - the stats are misleading on this one, probably due to a small sample size. Lumley’s performance against xG will have been heavily affected by one particularly bad afternoon at Rotherham United when he made a few howlers - one of the worst individual performances at Reading in recent years.
But he’s otherwise been a solid ‘keeper, looking assured in his shot-stopping and command of his box, not to mention the particular point of bouncing back from that game at Rotherham. While I’m worried he’ll have another bad off day at some point, I’m not concerned that he’ll be a regular weak spot.
MC: Reading have won every home league match so far this season, what do you think makes your side so solid at the Madejski Stadium?
SP: I’m not quite sure to be honest and it may simply be a case that we happen to be in good home form and this trend doesn’t end up lasting over the season.
That said, Reading needed to instil a proper siege mentality and that’s bound to play out better at home, with a supportive crowd behind the team. Reading fans are absolutely aware of the team’s limitations and the danger of relegation this season, and the backing at the SCL has accordingly been excellent.
MC: How do you think Ince will approach the match tactically and which eleven players do you think he will select?
SP: The formation is pretty easy to determine: Reading started the season with a 3-4-3 but wisely moved to a 3-5-2 a few games in and have stuck to it. However, we’ve had to rejig the XI fairly constantly depending on injuries, and Wednesday’s line-up will be determined by the fitness of three key players: Mamadou Loum, Shane Long and Yakou Meite.
At a guess, I think Loum will be fit enough to start, which would leave Reading lining up like so: Lumley; Holmes, Hutchinson, McIntyre; Yiadom, Hendrick, Loum, Fornah, Rahman; Ince, Joao. That looks like a 3-5-1-1 with Ince behind Joao, but he’s been playing as an out-and-out forward to allow us to press a bit higher.
Should Loum not be available, Junior Hoilett could come into a 3-4-3, playing alongside Ince in a two behind Joao.
MC: Sunderland’s last away win against Reading was back in 2004 - what is your prediction for the final score?
SP: As it happens, that was my first-ever Reading game, so I remember it. The disappointment of losing 2-0 set me up well for a life of supporting the Royals…
On paper this should be a home win, given our form at the SCL and Sunderland lacking a few players due to injury. But Sod’s Law decrees things don’t go to plan for Reading when a win looks likely, and you’re due a new-manager bounce too, so I’ll go with the bad feeling in the back of my head and say 2-1 Sunderland.