‘Veljko who?’ has Reading flying high at the top of the Championship… and here’s how little-known Serbian Paunovic – who loves to talk about ‘Spartans’ and ‘warrior spirit’ – revived a troubled club and won over the fans
- Reading are the surprise early pace-setters at the top of the Championship
- Many fans were left asking ‘who?’ when Veljko Paunovic was appointed manager
- But the Serb has galvanised the squad and a club that recorded £40m losses
- They have conceded just three goals in their opening eight league games
- And seven wins from eight suggest a promotion challenge could happen
The reaction among Reading fans to the appointment of Veljko Paunovic in late August veered between the bewildered and downright fatalistic.
Aside from the chorus of ‘Veljko who?’ there was an avalanche of Twitter replies featuring words such as ‘shambles’, ‘tinpot’, ‘uphill struggle’ and ’embarrassing’. One fan wrote: ‘How much will you have to pay him when you sack him in December?’
There was also disgust at the club’s treatment of predecessor Mark Bowen who, after making the jump from sporting director by effectively appointing himself, had restored a little bit of respectability.
Reading have enjoyed a brilliant start to the season and sit six points clear in the Championship table after winning seven of their opening eight league games
The appointment of unknown Serbian manager Veljko Paunovic in late August – just one week before the start of the season – had supporters fearing the worst
It didn’t exactly augur well for a successful season. Surely Paunovic was destined to quickly become the fifth manager fired at the Madejski Stadium in the space of three years?
So to see Reading six points clear at the top of the Championship after eight games, yet to suffer a defeat and with just three goals conceded, has surprised many both inside and outside the club.
Reading took a long journey north in their stride on Tuesday night as they beat Blackburn Rovers 4-2 but there’s no time for self-congratulation with a visit to Coventry looming on Friday.
Even by the Championship’s standards, it’s a punishing schedule that affords a new manager precious little time to implement new ideas on the training ground.
More remarkable is the fact Paunovic had the luxury of just one week and one pre-season friendly to get to know his new players after Bowen’s departure and his hasty appointment.
Reading are six points clear at the top of the Championship table following midweek results
Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Rotherham was crowned by Yakou Meite’s stunning bicycle kick
They followed that up with an impressive 4-2 victory away at Blackburn on Tuesday night
Liam Moore (left) and Michael Morrison (right) have formed a formidable defensive pairing
Reading’s great start
September 12 Derby (A) won 2-0
September 19 Barnsley (H) won 2-0
September 26 Cardiff (A) won 2-1
October 3 Watford (H) won 1-0
October 17 Middlesbrough (A) drew 1-1
October 20 Wycombe (H) won 1-0
October 24 Rotherham (H) won 3-0
October 27 Blackburn (A) won 4-2
There was then the issue of barely any transfer budget to work with. Reading, who are owned by the Chinese businessman Dai Yongge, posted losses of £40million back in April, unsustainably spending £225 for every £100 of income on their bloated wage bill.
And that was before the Covid-19 crisis that has seen their 24,161-capacity stadium sit empty on matchdays since March.
It led to a mass clear-out of players over the summer – including academy product and Under-17 World Cup winner with England, Danny Loader – and just a handful of arrivals. Ovie Ejaria’s loan from Liverpool was made permanent, while Josh Laurent arrived on a free from Shrewsbury Town.
The loan arrivals of Lewis Gibson from Everton, Alfa Semedo from Benfica and Tomas Esteves from Porto late in the window plugged gaps but nobody was looking at Reading’s squad and predicting a promotion challenge.
Yet here we are. After seven league wins from eight, Paunovic has quickly banished the mood of disillusionment and fostered a fresh spirit at a club grimly accustomed to relegation battles since losing the 2017 play-off final to Huddersfield.
That fresh spirit started when Paunovic led the squad in a rendition of Happy Birthday for academy graduate Nelson Abbey at 1.30 in the morning after meeting them for the first time at a pre-season training camp on the Algarve.
The Serbian, formerly a midfielder, played alongside the likes of Christian Vieri, Diego Simeone and Fernando Torres in two stints with Atletico Madrid.
Paunovic was a surprise appointment but is getting the best out of his Reading team
Lucas Joao scores his seventh goal of the season – from the penalty spot – against Rotherham
And he followed that up with his eighth of the campaign in the 4-2 victory at Ewood Park
In 2012, he took over Serbia’s youth teams, starting a three-year process that saw the country win the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2015, beating Brazil in the final.
The often nomadic life of the football coach then took Paunovic to Chicago Fire in the MLS. He took them to the play-offs in 2017, for the first time in five years, though he ultimately lost more games than he won in four years there.
So Reading fans could easily have gazed upon the 43-year-old’s CV and feared the worst.
But Paunovic is cultured, engaging and willing to learn. He speaks five languages – English, Spanish, Serbian, Macedonian and Russian – and is currently brushing up his German on audio tapes whenever he’s in his car or out jogging.
His other form of escapism from the pressures of management is to read voraciously and some of Paunovic’s post-match comments so far this season suggest a knowledge of the classics.
Reading’s players celebrate after Michael Morrison found the net in the win at Cardiff City
Delighted Reading players celebrate after their 1-0 home win over Watford earlier this month
Coventry City vs Reading (7.45)
SATURDAY (3pm unless stated)
Bristol City vs Norwich City (12.30)
Barnsley vs Watford
Bournemouth vs Derby
Luton Town vs Brentford
Middlesbrough vs Nottingham Forest
Millwall vs Huddersfield
Preston vs Birmingham
QPR vs Cardiff City
Stoke vs Rotherham
Swansea vs Blackburn
Wycombe vs Sheffield Wednesday
He has referred to Reading’s ‘warrior spirit’ after last month’s 2-1 win at Cardiff and spoke of ‘warriors wanting to become knights’ after Saturday’s 3-0 home success over Rotherham United.
It’s also unlikely that defenders Michael Morrison and Liam Moore have been described as ‘two Spartans’ before but another clean sheet against Rotherham earned them that title.
Paunovic’s language has endeared him to the Reading fanbase. You suspect that if fans were currently admitted to the Madejski, the average gate would be significantly higher than last season’s woeful 11,375.
The rock solid defence has been key with ever-presents Morrison and Moore – and Brazilian goalkeeper Rafael Cabral – breached just the once in league action – by Cardiff’s Lee Tomlin.
Despite three goals on Saturday – including an early goal of the season contender from Yakou Meite, an acrobatic bicycle kick – and four at Blackburn, Paunovic knows his attack still needs work. They create fewer chances than almost all other teams in the division and had just four shots on target on Tuesday night.
But those few chances are certainly being taken. Portuguese forward Lucas Joao is on fire, with his tally of eight goals in seven games already exceeding last season’s overall total of six in 19.
Midfielders Ejaria, Michael Olise, Laurent and Andy Rinomhota have also enjoyed excellent starts to the season, as has winger Meite.
Considering the virtual absence of preparation time, Paunovic has wasted little time in getting a tune out of his team.
It may be the club’s best start to a season in 35 years but fans won’t quite be expecting a return to the Premier League for the first time since 2013 just yet.
Reading fans may be unable to attend the Madejski Stadium but optimism is rising
And less so a repeat of Reading’s extraordinary 2005-06 campaign when they won the Championship with 106 points, scored 99 goals and lost just twice all season under Steve Coppell.
Paunovic has wisely spoke about the need for some form of consistency in a Championship season even more compressed and even more of a slog than ever before.
It’s a year that demands a ‘warrior spirit’ more than ever and, who knows, Reading may just have it.
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