Reading are in crisis.
The stability of the Steve Coppell and John Madejski era, which led to a record-breaking Championship title win in 2005-06 followed by an eighth-placed Premier League finish the following season, is long gone.
Instead, Royals fans have an owner who offers no meaningful communication and a chaotic mash of players assembled with no clear identity in mind, due to a recruitment policy based on the whims of agents.
Despite this, chairman Dai Yongge retains a smidgeon of local sympathy, purely because he has backed the club financially and invested in good training facilities at Bearwood Park.
Yongge, though, never engage with supporters, he has a director in sister Dai Xiu Li who doesn’t appear to do anything and a CEO in Dayong Pang – with no authority nor footballing experience - who is perceived as a sock puppet for the regime.
The situation is made worse by the fact the previous Chief Executive was Nigel Howe, a respected figure at the Madejski, who knew the league as well as the club, but was sacked by Yongge last year after raising FFP issues.
Communication has been almost non-existent and when it has come, there has been nothing of substance: no recognition of wrongdoing, no outlining of plans, playing style, recruitment strategy, budget, just “we have learnt lessons from the past” without any indication as to what that means.
The lack of transparency increases concerns of natives over the influence of agent Kia Joorabchian, who has connections at big Premier League clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea.
Joorabchian has an independent agenda and benefits from deals individually, as opposed to simply earning money via the club’s payroll.
In fact, Joorabchian is not even listed as an employee on the club’s website, so he may not even gain a basic salary for his ‘advisory role’: in which case, why would he hold Reading’s best interests?
The Iran-born, Britain-educated businessman profits from transactions, so he will influence deals to further his own interests, as opposed to the meeting the needs of the team.
Seb Ewen was appointed Scouting & Recruitment Co-Ordinator last month, having previously been an agent at Sport Invest UK: Joorabchian’s agency.
Can an agent-led recruitment policy ever bring success?
Wolverhampton Wanderers would say yes, because their current Premier League showings would not be possible without Jorge Mendes’ influence, but Reading’s approach has been comparatively scattergun.
The most successful teams pick a clear style, then scout and recruit players who fit into it as well as strengthening the team in areas of weakness or scarcity.
The Royals, by contrast, have signed players due to their availability and convenience, rather than because of the specific tactical role they play in the team.
Luke Southwood, for example, has earned the team far more points than he has lost them, he is popular with fans and is an excellent shot stopper, so the only rationale for replacing him in goal would be if the club favoured experience in that position.
Karl Hein, on loan from Arsenal, has no senior experience and has similar troubles to Southwood in commanding his box, so what was the point in signing him?
Michael Morrison and Scott Dann are defenders who like to hoof the ball clear, which would leave Reading needing a forward who runs the channels very well, yet that player arguably doesn’t exist in the senior squad.
Elsewhere, Alen Halilovic, John Swift, Danny Drinkwater, Ovie Ejaria, Tom Dele-Bashiru, Tom Ince, Brandon Barker and Junior Hoilett, on the other hand, are a mix of tidy midfielders, slight playmakers and enigmatic wide men who all like the ball to feet – but what’s the strategy for giving them the ball to feet?
Josh Laurent, Andy Rinomhota and Yakou Méïté, meanwhile, suit more of an aggressive, counter-attacking system – so why sign other attacking players who have no pace?
Not only was this squad built without a clear identity in mind, it was also expensively assembled, which makes the club’s claim of learnt lessons is especially grating.
George Pușcaș, Rafael Cabral and Liam Moore had to be loaned out in January and those deals, alone, reportedly took the wage bill down by one third – with Moore on apparently £35K-per-week.
The club now has it all to do, regardless of whether it retains Championship status, because just five senior players are currently under contract for 2022-23.
Defender Tom McIntyre, midfielder Dejan Tetek, front-man Lucas João – a shadow of his former self - Southwood and Meite are the only players who do not have deals expiring this summer, and at least three of them could be departing Berkshire for better opportunities elsewhere.
The youth academy, therefore, will make up a huge proportion of Reading’s squad next season, yet head coach Veljko Paunovic has been reticent to blood the youth: even when a touch of exuberance is what the team is crying out for.
Versatile forward Mamadou Camara, for example, has in patches looked more creative than maestro Swift, yet has not got off the substitutes bench for a month, likewise Jahmari Clarke, who scored a brace in November’s 2-1 victory at Birmingham.
Youngsters seem to perform well one moment, then disappear out of thin air the next, which raises further questions over Paunovic, who’s record this season reads 23 points from 31 league games.
The Serb reportedly offered his resignation to the board, but was either ‘persuaded’ to stay on or did not get the confirmation he needed in order to leave the club, so Reading have a manager who does not want to be there and who is now seemingly refusing to answer more questions than he is getting asked.
Andy Yiadom, at least, comes out with some credit after the 0-0 draw at Peterborough, following which fans hung around outside the ground in search of answers that were not forthcoming.
Yiadom spoke to fans and apologized for results, but he claimed the players – whom fans perceive not to be trying hard enough – were in fact “trying too hard”.
Not a convincing answer - and some would say not a truthful one, based especially on showings from some of the more high-profile performers - but better than what has been served up elsewhere at a club that looks destined for relegation, this season or next.
Fans want answers. Fans want plans. Fans want change. Right now, they have neither.