I’ve been around the Select Car Leasing Stadium for two months now and I have one prevailing question: What in the world is going on at Reading Football Club?

This question latches itself in my brain as a scene of epic delirium plays out in front of the eyes of the Reading world. But it’s not Reading players celebrating - there’s been very little of that over the past few months. Instead, it’s the club 79 places down the football pyramid, enjoying one of their greatest ever days at the expense of the Royals. 

Club historian David Downs calls it “the most humiliating result” in his 78 years following Reading Football Club.

In an extremely challenging season, Saturday’s FA Cup exit at the hands of Kidderminster Harriers was certainly the nadir. But it could just as easily represent rock-bottom for an entire era.

The defeat to their sixth-tier foes was bad enough but the events of the weeks and months leading up to it just emphasise why it’s purely an exclamation mark on the problems at nearly every level of the club.

The sad reality is that Reading fans are being pushed away by their own club. A strong group of 1,407 away supporters travelled to the Midlands for the FA Cup third-round tie, but just 11,082 Reading supporters arrived at the SCL for Monday’s opening game of 2022 against Derby County. That number had dropped by the time the full-time whistle was met with a chorus of boos.

Reading Chronicle: Reading fans at Kidderminster. Image by: JasonPIXReading fans at Kidderminster. Image by: JasonPIX

Attendances are on the decline and who can blame fans who find themselves feeling alienated or apathetic towards Reading Football Club. Whether it’s active or passive, their club is being loosened from their hands.

On the pitch itself, the team that capitulated to Derby’s late comeback are a tough group for Reading fans to truly rally around. Ten of the eleven starters are out of contract this summer while six of eleven were signed last summer or even more recently on loans and short term deals.

Only goalkeeper Luke Southwood, whose deal runs until June 2023, has terms past the end of this season from that XI. Andy Carroll is set to be a free agent again this month and while there has been lots of talk about the ‘talks’ Reading are in with the striker’s agent, there has been no public movement on the matter since those discussions were first revealed.

The vast majority of these players likely won’t be at the club next season and that consideration means it's difficult for fans and players to create any kind of special connection. On top of that though, Reading currently sit 21st in the Championship table just three points clear of the relegation zone so the joyous moments through which memories and legacies can be forged have been missing as well.

The ugly scenes at Aggborough in which a member of Tom Holmes’ family was allegedly attacked by a Reading fan is certainly not reflective of the fanbase as a whole but it sums up the sad state of affairs and the disconnect between players and supporters. Something like that is never acceptable even if feelings of frustration and anger are understandable as things around the club go from bad…to somehow worse.

While criticism of the coaching staff and players is fair - criticism the Reading Chronicle has been a part of - it’s time, now, to look higher. 

Dai Yongge has spent heavily since his 2017 takeover, but Reading couldn't be further from the Premier League.

After spending twice the amount on wages than they were bringing into the club, Reading started to make more of an attempt to follow the EFL’s guidelines this summer. But the damage was already done and they were handed a six-point deduction in November.

Meanwhile, the outgoing business has hardly been much better. The Reading academy continues to produce talented players at a remarkable rate but the club is not reaping the rewards this work warrants. 

The combined £8m earned last summer for Omar Richards (free to Bayern) and Michael Olise (£8m to Crystal Palace) is laughable in comparison to what they’re really worth or will be worth in the near future.

Richards’ departure came at the end of his contract while Olise’s low fee was largely due to him having just one year left on his deal. Long-term contracts were frequently handed to expensive new arrivals but the handling of young homegrown players’ terms has been much less committal.

Reading Chronicle: Michael Olise in action for Reading. Image by: PAMichael Olise in action for Reading. Image by: PA

History is now continuing to repeat itself. Nottingham Forest are interested in Tom Holmes and the academy graduate will be free to leave in the summer when his contract expires. He’s another Reading have been in talks with about a new deal, but movement on that has not been apparent.

In addition to the mountain of players with expiring contracts, a strict business plan means it will largely be free agents and loans incoming for Reading over the next few windows. It will take an incredibly savvy operation to pull that off and make this team competitive regardless of whether that’s in League One or the Championship.

The way things have gone over the last few years, it’s hard to have a huge amount of faith that those people are currently at the club. 

When Dai Yongge visited the SCL for Reading’s 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest in November, he was joined on the pitch after the game by none other than ‘super-agent’ Kia Joorabchian. It remains unclear what the Brazilian’s exact role is at this time but the fact that he seemingly still holds the confidence of Reading’s owner is a major concern.

Attempts to ask the club for clarification on Joorabchian’s involvement were met with ‘no comment’, the only official line in the past being that Joorabchian is a personal acquaintance of Mr Dai’s. However, a source with knowledge of the situation has informed the Chronicle that they believe the agent is still heavily involved at Reading.

Reading Chronicle: Kia Joorabchian (left) with client Carlos Tevez. Image by: PAKia Joorabchian (left) with client Carlos Tevez. Image by: PA

The footballing decisions at the club have been mediocre to downright disastrous and Reading fans need concrete proof that things are going to change. And while the manager and players take the scrutiny for an entire club’s failings, those truly in charge are keeping quiet deep in the background.

When Reading’s points deduction was handed down on November 17th, the announcement included a note that Dai Yongge is still absolutely committed to Reading Football Club. And in a rare case, he was quoted with these 153 words:

“As the owner of your club, I am naturally dismayed and disappointed to accept the punishment issued by the EFL. And as a fan, I too am hurt by a deduction of six points this season. However, my determination to succeed has not diminished but has amplified.

“My team and I believe this settlement is just and will still enable us to be competitive as a football club this season and beyond. So, in the short-term, our aim is to fight for every point there is to fight for this season.

“In the long-term, we pledge to fix the issues of the past and together build a club capable of competing with the very best and challenging for honours. But we can only do that with your support, so I would like to personally thank you for your loyalty to your club! It is truly appreciated by all who cheer on the Royals.”

The quotes state that Mr Dai watches every Reading game at home on Royals TV, but fans have heard little more than those 153 words from their club’s owner since he arrived and there have been no follow-up statements with more detail since.

One source with ties to the club calls the Reading owner “Houdini” due to his total disappearance from the picture.

READ MORE: Frustrated with the state of Reading FC? Have your say here

Said to be a man with limited command of the English language and a desire for privacy, Mr Dai has kept to himself. In a recent forum between the football club and the Supporters' Trust at Reading (STAR), the topic of 'communication' - or rather the absence of it - was brought forward.

“There seems to be a lack of communication from the club, both from the top and the bottom. 

What do you plan to do about that?” STAR asked.

“There are many other club owners and CEOs who prefer to stay in the background and don’t regularly comment publicly, but we appreciate the question and the request for comment from the hierarchy at the club and aim to improve going forward where possible." 

“Thankfully, the manager is a great communicator, always willing to talk to fans and media. 

“Following our previous Operations meeting, we have listened to STAR’s request and posted a RFC Who’s Who on the website and a more in-depth directory putting names to roles in our recent Royals 150 magazine. We are open and communicative in regular meetings such as these and the Fan Engagement Panel we hosted late last year. However, we will look into how we can build on the notes and publicise them to a wider audience from a club perspective.

READ MORE: STAR calls for "urgent" meeting with Reading decision-makers

"We can also explore ways in which we can make the points discussed in these meetings come alive with a bit of audio-visual, maybe including comment from a member of the club’s hierarchy. 

“We can explore options for a Fans Forum next month – maybe in person with limited ticketing in Princess Suite or via Zoom again.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Firstly while it is true that “there are many other club owners and CEOs who prefer to stay in the background” very few clubs are in the position Reading finds itself in. Struggles on and off the pitch have given the entire club an uncertain and precarious feel. So yes, while many club owners and CEOs don’t comment publicly, most aren’t lacking clarity and direction in the way Reading is.

Secondly, this sentence is hard to ignore: “Thankfully, the manager is a great communicator, always willing to talk to fans and media.”

Reading Chronicle: Veljko Paunovic watches on as his team draw 2-2 with Derby. Image by: JasonPIXVeljko Paunovic watches on as his team draw 2-2 with Derby. Image by: JasonPIX

While the meeting was held prior to the Kidderminster catastrophe, it’s safe to say that at this point supporter sentiment towards manager Veljko Paunovic has reached almost unanimous opinion. Fans have lost faith and belief and results give credence to this thought process. 

It appears that no decision on Paunovic’s future is forthcoming with Reading preferring to take a patient approach in regards to the Serbian. But how much of that is based on his footballing and managerial strengths? His role as a politician and spokesperson for the club is clearly appreciated while the financial costs of paying him off and bringing someone new in is another sticking point.

The rest of Reading’s response to concerns over the communication from the club lists the possible ways this problem could be helped. The group representing Reading FC at the meeting included Jackie Evans (Director of Operations & Head of Human Resources), Mark Bradley (Director of Communications), Ray Booth (Stadium Manager), Tim Kilpatrick (Head of Commercial), Mark Ilsley (Head of Merchandise), Rob Coleman (Supporter Services Manager), and Paul Collins (Head of Ticketing).

Crucially there was no Dayong Pang, club CEO, or of course, Dai Yongge. It’s unclear how much can truly change when those two aren’t involved in the conversation with fans.

Reading Chronicle: Reading owner Dai Yongge. Reading owner Dai Yongge.

Football clubs, in general, are becoming more secretive, keeping as much private as possible from…the fans. And Reading is certainly not a leader when it comes to open communication.

Fans of Reading, Royals for generations, are being kept at an arms’ length by their own club. The lack of transparency on pretty much everything is frustrating, disheartening, and sad. 

It’s placed the manager and players in the crosshairs and while they do deserve blame for this troubled campaign, those above them are almost impervious as they hide away deep behind the scenes.

A look back at the Dai family’s footballing track record leaves major room for concern. Of the three clubs Mr Dai and his family have owned, Reading are the only one still alive.

The owner has certainly been generous with his finances at Reading, but it’s a scary mirror of what happened at Belgian club KSV Roeselare. Money was pumped in, results got worse, and eventually, Dai Yongge’s sister Dai Xiu Li, co-owner at Reading, pulled out. The club went bankrupt and folded in 2020.

In 2010, Dai Yongge began investing heavily in Chinese club Shaanxi Baorong Chanba. Over the ensuing years, he twice moved them to new cities, eventually becoming Beijing Renhe in 2016. Last March the club went out of existence.

At Reading, credit has to go to Mr Dai for financially supporting the club. Each month the wages - the astronomical wages - get paid. But there are too many unanswered questions and far too much murkiness in their football portfolio to have any real confidence in the leadership of Reading at this time.

Reading Chronicle: George Puscas, an expensive mistake of the Dai Yongge era. Image by: JasonPIXGeorge Puscas, an expensive mistake of the Dai Yongge era. Image by: JasonPIX

And all this comes with Reading’s season, and perhaps their future, resting on a knife-edge.

The balance between short terms gains and long term viability means tough decisions will have to be made in the coming days, weeks, and months. In the short term, everything has to be set on avoiding relegation this season. With so many problems mounting, relegation and the loss of revenue that comes with it would be an absolute disaster. But in the long term, there’s a club and team to rebuild regardless of the division they end up in.

“This is what happens when you don’t have football people making football decisions,” a source close to the club commented on the situation.

Perhaps the appointment of an experienced and qualified Directory of Football could help oversee the major upcoming rebuild if the owner continues to stick to the background, but that is still a fantasy at this time.

In the Royals’ 150th anniversary season, much of the focus and PR coming out of the club has been linked to the traditional togetherness and proud communal history of Reading. But are those values part of the planning for the next 150 years?

As Reading supporters get pushed to the fringes of their own club, the time for answers has arrived. What is the strategy for the club to survive relegation? What is the strategy for next season? What contingencies exist in case the club gets relegated to League One? Where is the transfer strategy headed? What is Kia Joorabchian’s role? What is the plan to rebuild the squad considering the limitations imposed by the EFL? What exactly are those limitations? What will change to give fans more of a voice?

I could go on and on.

The lack of transparency from the club means the answers to these and more questions likely aren’t forthcoming in the near future. That in itself is not good.

On Monday afternoon STAR released a statement requesting an "urgent" meeting in the next two weeks with the Chief Executive and Finance Officer. The response to this very necessary request will prove telling.

Hiding in the background is no longer an acceptable position for people who control the fate of a football club loved and needed by so many.