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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

How a bridesmaid became a bride when his club needed a saviour

“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”

Last month, with Reading in the hunt for their eighth manager of the decade, Mark Bowen – sporting director of The Royals – decided to take matters into his own hands.

Having initially been brought in as a technical consultant, Bowen was soon in charge of finding a replacement for the departing Jose Gomes.

After 15 years of being an assistant, largely to Mark Hughes, it was Bowen’s time to take centre stage as he effectively announced himself as new Head Coach.

With the Berkshire side picking up seven points in his first three games, Bowen’s self-appointment appears a masterstroke, for now at least.

‘The Self-Appointed One’

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‘The Self-Appointed One’

Reading have been hanging on in the Championship, finishing 20th in each of their previous two campaigns.

They missed out on promotion back in 2017, losing in the play-off final to Huddersfield under Jaap Stam’s pragmatic style.

The Dutchman left the following March with the club nearing relegation after one win in 18 league games.

Paul Clement managed to keep the club up but was gone in December with the club in the midst of a dogfight to stay up.

With the club facing third tier football for the first time since 2002, in came Gomes, who turned results around and saved the club from the drop.

Yet, with the club winning just two of their opening 11 games this season, the club boldly sacked the Portuguese manager in early October.

Upon our visit to Madejski Stadium for Football’s Front Lines, lifelong Reading fan, Jacob Potter explained how Bowen’s appointment left fans somewhat unsure: “It looks as though, from the outside in, that he’s appointed himself, which always looks very dodgy.

“It doesn’t look great but if he can produce on the pitch with results, we’ve got no reasons to complain.”

Let the good times roll

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Let the good times roll

Bowen began his coaching career shortly after retiring as a player at Reading.

Although his time as a player at the club is fairly forgettable – he made just one appearance.

Having hung up his boots, Bowen followed former team-mate Mark Hughes to the Welsh National team as part of the coaching staff.

He spent some time with Steve Bruce at Birmingham and Crystal Palace before returning to the Wales set up with Sparky.

His second stint with the national side caused controversy as the FAW were not aware that Bowen had returned to the set-up.

Seemingly tied at the hip, Bowen and Hughes then worked as a managerial duo at seven clubs over 15 years, including: Blackburn, Man City, Fulham, QPR, Stoke and Southampton.

Anywhere you go…

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Anywhere you go…

Following Hughes’ sacking at Southampton, Bowen decided to go it alone and was snapped up as a technical adviser at Reading.

Fast forward six months and the man once known as Mark Hughes’ shadow is at the front of the stage.

The bridesmaid has become the bride.

Football is very much a results game and Bowen’s best way of keeping the fans onside was to get off to a good start as gaffer.

Another fan of the club, Dean Cooke, explained what’s been going right on the pitch since his appointment: “Good result against Preston, a good draw at QPR and from the tweaks he’s made it does look a lot better.

“QPR, we all pressed as a team and we physically battled against Preston.”

But the looming sense that Bowen may have stuck a knife in Gomes’ back remains at the forefront of the fan’s minds.

“It was a bit odd,” Dean explained, “just because Gomes spoke of him so well last season when he came in. The thing that would worry fans is that he had a say in Gomes’ sacking.”

Wins against second-placed Preston and relegation rivals Millwall will have done wonders in changing the fans’ opinion of their new boss, many of whom had fantasies of a manager with Premier League experience.

Game by game, Bowen is changing opinions.

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Game by game, Bowen is changing opinions.

The club are ready-made for Premier League football; from finances, to the facilities at the training ground and stadium, fans believe the club are fighting at the wrong end of the Championship.

And unlike most stragglers in the Football League, Reading’s owners are committed and putting money on the table.

Dai Yongge has owned the club for over two years and has a ‘£50million project’ for the club.

A lot of that has gone into training facilities with one eye on the long-term for the club.

The first team will move from the dated ‘Hogwood Park’ to the state-of-the-art ‘Barewood’ training ground for the 2020/21 season with the emphasis on the future and blooding youngsters the main goal for the club over the next few years.

“The owners have put so much into the club over the past few years,” Dean said. “£50m on a training ground. All these players, Puscas, Ejaria, you expect something from it so you can see why they sacked Gomes.

“But I think you have to be aiming for top half otherwise I would say it’s a failure for them and us fans and our expectations.”

Ejaria is a cut above most in The Championship

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Ejaria is a cut above most in The Championship

With the likes of George Puscas, John Swift and Ovie Ejaria, the talent is there for the club to make a push up the table this season although most would concede the play-offs are a step too far.

Ejaria has caught the eye of anyone who has seen him this year and The Royals’ fans believe Liverpool have loaned them an absolute steal for the season.

Bowen’s side clearly had more quality than Millwall in the six-pointer at the weekend and if the first few weeks of Bowen’s reign are anything to go by, they can raise expectations for the year.

Reading fans haven’t had a manager for longer than a season and a half since the Brian McDermott era of 2009-13 and not many are confident that Bowen is the man to create the next Royal dynasty.

Clearly confident in his own abilities, the self-aggrandising manager has started a push for where so many think the club belong; the Premier League.


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