‘We are worried’: how Reading hit crisis point on and off the pitch | Reading

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A club statement when Reading supporters are desperately seeking greater transparency from the hierarchy would ordinarily be greeted with open arms. Only the seven paragraphs published on Saturday – when some fans were on the motorway back from Middlesbrough – posed more questions than answers. Hours after conceding a 95th-minute goal that condemned Reading to a fourth defeat in five matches, the club confirmed Liam Moore had been stripped of the captaincy and the owner, Dai Yongge, effectively offered the under-pressure manager, Veljko Paunovic, the dreaded vote of confidence.

It capped a miserable week for Reading, who suffered a record-breaking 7-0 home defeat by Fulham last Tuesday, three days after being dumped out of the FA Cup by sixth-tier Kidderminster. Save for Andy Carroll’s equaliser at Boro and his spectacular disallowed goals against Fulham – an overhead kick and a preposterous chest-and-volley from outside the box – the only reason Reading fans have felt compelled to get off their seats recently is to vent their anger. The bad news is Carroll’s contract expired on Saturday.

“Mr Dai is fully supportive of the manager and his decisions and understanding of the hard few months we have endured both on and off the pitch,” Reading said in a statement that started by saying Moore had made clear his desire to leave in recent months. In 2018 Moore signed a new five-year contract now worth about £35,000 per week, making him one of the club’s highest earners. “Incredibly shocked by the statement,” he said on Instagram, accompanied by 18 face-palm emojis.

There has also been infighting among supporters and the fear is the situation could sour further. One win from their past nine matches, coupled with a six-point deduction for breaching the English Football League’s profit and sustainability rules, has left them three points above the Championship relegation zone. The alarming run gives Derby survival hope despite a 21-point deduction.

It is a similar story to Derby in that exorbitant spending has been a key factor in Reading’s demise from play-off finalists five years ago to the prospect of lining up in the third tier for the first time since 2002. Reading’s 2019-20 accounts show a wages-to-turnover ratio of 216%. “If they had got to the Premier League, the promised land, as they say, all of these problems would have gone away,” says one source. “Aston Villa managed to get up just in time. The owner has gambled, ploughing money in, but it has backfired.”

Veljko Paunovic, Reading’s fifth manager in less than four years, hands the ball to Tyrell Ashcroft.
Veljko Paunovic, Reading’s fifth manager in less than four years, hands the ball to Tyrell Ashcroft. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

Home crowds have plummeted and Star (Supporters’ Trust at Reading) asked to urgently bring forward a biannual meeting with the chief executive, Dayong Pang, and finance director, Bryan Stabler, to address a “perceived lack of direction and connection with the fanbase”. The meeting is scheduled for Friday. “We are concerned and worried,” says the Star board member Roger Titford. “Before the situation becomes irretrievable, we need some kind of oomph and change. The fans have to be able to see key characters around the place and relate to them … We have an absent king.”

The Chinese owners since May 2017, brother and sister Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li, speak little English and are based in Hong Kong. They previously tried to buy Hull City and owned KSV Roeselare and, until the club ceased to exist, Beijing Renhe. Pang, appointed in November 2020, said Yongge watches every game but “does not like publicity, and much like a lot of owners in football, is reluctant to communicate with supporters directly”. In a recent meeting the club said “thankfully, the manager is a great communicator”. Yongge’s last direct communication with supporters was in November, in a statement that addressed the six-point deduction. He said his “determination to succeed has not diminished but has amplified”. A recent survey of 257 supporters by the podcast The Tilehurst End found that 83.5% wanted to hear from Yongge.

People with knowledge of the workings of the club have been left scratching their head at everything from how Reading have allowed key assets such as Omar Richards to leave on free transfers to starting recent games with a teenage midfielder at right-back and a 20-year-old at left-back because both first-choice full-backs are at the Africa Cup of Nations with Ghana. An injury crisis has not helped but the striker Lucas João, a £5m signing, returned to the squad last weekend.

Omar Richards playing for Bayern Munich in October. He joined on a free from Reading, where he came through the academy.
Omar Richards playing for Bayern Munich in October. He joined on a free from Reading, where he came through the academy. Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

The academy graduate Richards joined Bayern Munich in the summer. Reading received £8m for Michael Olise after Crystal Palace triggered his buyout clause but players such as Joe Rodon, Jarrod Bowen and Ollie Watkins were each sold to Premier League teams by other Championship clubs for at least double that. This summer 13 players are set to be out of contract, including the top scorer, John Swift. “When Nicky Hammond was the director of football we would buy cheap and sell dear,” says Titford. “Now it is the other way around. We bought Sone Aluko and Sam Baldock for the best part of £10m [from Fulham and Brighton in 2017 and 2018 respectively] and they both left on free transfers.”

Recruitment is a significant issue. The four-man football board comprises Paunovic, Pang, Stabler and the academy manager Michael Gilkes but sources say the agent Kia Joorabchian has influence in that area. “All of the club’s recruitment seems to go through one person,” claims one agent. Another tells of how his client was approached for the managerial vacancy, only for Reading to lose interest when it became clear that Joorabchian would be sidelined.

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Questions have been raised about Joorabchian’s influence in the club more generally as sources claim he acts as an informal adviser to the owner. He was described by Pang at a meeting with Star in October as a “personal acquaintance of Mr Dai” although he does not have an official title at Reading and Stabler said Joorabchian had not been paid any money as an agent. Reading have been contacted for comment. Joorabchian said it was false to suggest he has influence at the club.

Last season’s seventh place looks more of an anomaly by the day. This week is pivotal with home games against Luton and Huddersfield on Wednesday and Saturday respectively. The owners have invested substantially in players and staff – Paunovic is their fifth manager in less than four years – and in a £50m training facility because of their craving for success. Now they badly need points.

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