Veljko Paunovic: Reading make impressive Championship start under new manager

Josh Laurent and Veljko Paunovic celebrate Reading's victory at Blackburn
Veljko Paunovic (right) has guided Reading to seven wins and a draw in their opening eight Championship fixtures

Four managerial changes in the past two and a half years and three successive bottom-half Championship finishes have left Reading in a state of stagnation since coming within two successful penalties of promotion to the Premier League in 2017.

A summer of boardroom upheaval and more managerial turnover seemed to spell further uncertainty for Royals fans when a relatively-unknown former Serbia international was appointed to take charge on the eve of a new campaign.

But, in less than two months, Veljko Paunovic has seemingly turned Reading from Championship also-rans into promotion contenders with seven wins and a draw from their first eight league fixtures.

That form sees them take a six-point lead at the top into Friday's away game with Coventry City.

So who is Paunovic? And how has he transformed largely the same set of players that struggled for consistency both pre and post-coronavirus lockdown last season?

From the Balkans to the Balearics and beyond

Paunovic, 43, was an attacking midfielder in his playing days, starting his career in the early 1990s at Partizan Belgrade in the wake of the civil war that ravaged the former states of Yugoslavia.

Football was in his blood. His father Blagoje was also a Partizan stalwart and Yugoslavia international in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while his two younger brothers are also involved in the game in coaching and analysis respectively.

"Up until he passed away in 2014, my father was certainly my biggest influence," Paunovic told BBC Radio Berkshire.

"I was certainly influenced by him loving the game and his passion for it as well as learning through every game you played or watched.

"He was the best role model. He always kept himself to his character and values.

"I recognise a lot of myself and my behaviour in him and that's why I'm always trying to learn as a coach."

By 18, Paunovic had moved from Partizan to begin more than a decade playing in Spain for clubs including Atletico Madrid and Real Mallorca, where he was a Uefa Cup semi-finalist and European Cup Winners' Cup finalist in 1998 and 1999 respectively.

Champions League and international appearances soon followed for Mallorca and during a second spell with Atletico, as well as a goalscoring appearance for Serbia and Montenegro against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in April 2004.

Veljko Paunovic in action for Real Mallorca against Arsenal in 2001
Veljko Paunovic in action for Real Mallorca against Arsenal's Gilles Grimandi in the Champions League in 2001

In that time he was fortunate to play under some stellar coaching names who he values among his mentors, including fellow Serb Radomir Antic, Hector Cuper and Claudio Ranieri.

"Everything I've learned from them and everything I am so far, I'm extremely grateful to all of them," said Paunovic.

"I try to instil that in the group now here, but I'm really grateful to them for being determined to learn and improve."

The latter years of Paunovic's playing career took him Russia, a return to Serbia with Partizan and then the USA, where he would return to develop his coaching career after successfully steering Serbia's under-20 side to a World Cup title in 2015.

Veljko Paunovic coached Serbia to the under-20 World Cup in 2015
Veljko Paunovic helped Serbia Under-20s win the World Cup in New Zealand in 2015

His first foray into club management came during his four years at Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer.

He helped take Germany legend Bastian Schweinsteiger to the Windy City after his Manchester United exit and also took charge of the MLS All Stars sides as they hosted club giants such as Real Madrid.

Getting a tune out of Reading

Despite being parachuted into the club in late August before his managerial predecessor Mark Bowen's departure was confirmed, Paunovic has undoubtedly made the most of a potentially unsettling first couple of months in the job.

Covid-19 quarantine rules prevented him from taking charge of the side until the second week of the season and his first introduction to his new players came on a hastily-arranged pre-season trip to Portugal.

But, without too much tinkering in personnel, he has seen his side keep four clean sheets in four Championship home wins to date. In Tuesday's entertaining 4-2 win at Blackburn, they also seemingly found a way to add goals to that solid foundation.

"What I've found since I've been here is there is a great group of people working on the field and around the players," said the Championship's manager of the month for September.

Veljko Paunovic leading Reading first-team training
Veljko Paunovic had to quarantine on arrival in the UK before taking charge of Reading in September

"The spirit in this group is priceless for any coach. I'm full of gratitude for everything they've done so far and I'm not going to stop demanding from them.

"We've got to keep building and always look to improve. That's the culture we've been building every week so far."

Despite being a newcomer to both the Championship and English league football, Paunovic knows the season will be a long and testing one.

"We keep our feet firmly on the ground," he stressed. "So far, we've been approaching one game at a time and it's going to continue like that.

"What I say to everyone in our environment is 'don't look at the standings, look at our next opponent'."

As well as being able to speak six languages fluently with determination to add a seventh to his bow, Paunovic also cites playing his guitar among his interests outside of football.

If this early season good form continues into next spring, he may find himself with reason to lead the celebration songs for a first return to the Premier League in eight seasons.

Veljko Paunovic was speaking to BBC Radio Berkshire's Tim Dellor.

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