When Veljko Paunovic took the reins at Reading a week before the first game of the season, a flawless start seemed unlikely. It was a messy induction – players flew to the Algarve to meet their new manager straight after a pre-season defeat against Tottenham – and before their first competitive match Paunovic, unable to attend because of quarantine measures, gave his pre-match team talk via Zoom.
“It was a crazy, chaotic week that turned out really well,” says the defender Michael Morrison. “Any manager would say they would have liked longer to prepare but our start to the season was incredible.”
Reading racked up seven wins from their first eight league matches and it was no flash in the pan. Since recording victory at Derby on the opening weekend, Reading have spent all but seven days in the top six. There have been wobbles along the way, namely in November and last month, but on both occasions they rallied.
They reached the Championship play-off final under Jaap Stam four years ago but have not finished above 14th since. With 11 games to go, the first a trip to Nottingham Forest on Saturday, they are nestled in the play-off zone after three successive wins.
“We have surprised ourselves,” Morrison says. “But we were all aware that we had some talented players. When I spoke to other people in the game, they would always say: ‘Why is the team in the relegation spots, because you have some incredible players?’ Nobody was expecting us to start so well and nobody was expecting us to maintain it.”
One of Reading’s key performers has been the 19-year-old Michael Olise, who joined the club as an under-15 player after his release by Chelsea where his younger brother, Richard, remains. Only the Norwich midfielder Emi Buendía can better Olise’s tally of nine assists and the No 10 opened the scoring from the penalty spot for his fifth goal of the season in the win against Sheffield Wednesday last Saturday.
Olise’s nonchalant flicked pass with the outside of his left boot to free Yakou Méïté to score against Bristol City in November perhaps best encapsulates one of the Football League’s brightest prospects.
“Michael is a real maverick,” Morrison says. “He can do things that many others can’t. It’s not just the ability on the ball but his athleticism and he is somebody who has got the potential to go all the way to the top.”
Mark Bowen, who took charge against Spurs in August, exited via the back door after rejecting the offer of reverting to an upstairs role having previously held the position of sporting director.
Kia Joorabchian is thought to remain an influential adviser on Reading’s recruitment under the club’s Chinese owners, Yongge Dai and Xiu Li Dai, the brother and sister who acquired the club in 2017 but have said next to nothing publicly.
“I think people Googled him [Paunovic],” says Morrison. “We’d seen he’d been in charge of Chicago [Fire] but as players you’re thinking: ‘How does that translate into the Championship?’ We were on the training pitch the next day. It was a first-day-of-school experience.”
Paunovic, who grew up in Yugoslavia, was a left-field appointment. The 43-year-old’s only previous senior post was a four-year spell in Major League Soccer but his coaching background with Serbia’s youth teams – he guided the Under-20s to victory in the World Cup final six years ago – appealed.
Another young talent, Omar Richards, who joined the club from Fulham in 2016, is set to join Bayern Munich at the end of the season while the academy graduates Andy Rinomhota, Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre have played key roles. There are high hopes for the 18-year-old midfielder Dejan Tetek. Lucas João has scored 18 goals, while Ovie Ejaria continues to blossom after arriving permanently from Liverpool. Josh Laurent has been a revelation in midfield.
For Morrison, reaching the Premier League represents the final piece of the jigsaw. “The last time I had such a good opportunity I was at Leicester and we lost in a penalty shootout against Cardiff in the Championship play-off semi-final [in 2010],” he says. “I’m trying to tell the young lads what they’re doing now doesn’t happen every year. It’s such a good opportunity and I want to grab it with both hands.”