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Youth Matters - The Royals Academy In Focus

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Hello and welcome to the first of what I hope will be many posts here on The Tilehurst End.

I thought I'd start by looking at a topic that divides opinion for fans of almost every club, is the club's Youth Academy set-up a success?

For Reading Football Club, the desire to make the club financially self-sufficient has led to an increased focus on the Academy over the past few seasons. The logic is that players who come through the ranks will be A) cheaper than bringing players in, and B) will be brought up with the club ethos, making it easier for them to come into the team and hopefully more inclined to stay long term.

In terms of measuring success I'm going to look at it two ways; from a financial and a performance standpoint. In terms of finance, that's the amount of money generated by the Academy through player sales, and from a performance standpoint, the number of first team players to have come through the club's youth system.

Financially the RFC Academy has been a major success in the last 2-3 years, with the club receiving somewhere in the region of around £8 million in transfer fees and sell-ons from the sales of Simon Cox, James Henry and most notably, Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson alone could net up to £7 million for the club, while Henry was sold to Millwall for £200,000 plus a 'hefty add-on fee', the type of clause that turned Simon Cox's £200,000 move to Swindon in 2008 into a total windfall of £800,000 when he was sold on to West Brom just over a year later.

With the Academy reported to cost around £800,000 a year,that means that that the academy has all but paid for it's twelve year existance, simply on the dealings of the past 18 months.

But those dealings don't tell the full story with the Academy running for over a decade, Sigurdsson was the first and only player so far to have generated a seven figure windfall.

Since the formation of the Academy in 1999 the Royals have received three significant transfer fees for it's graduates and all of those came during 2004. The club received around £400,000 for goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown when he moved to Portsmouth,£100,000 was recouped for Darius Henderson when he was sold to Gillingham and £250k went into the coffers through Nathan Tyson after his moves to Wycombe and Nottingham Forest . So during its first decade the Academy barely paid the cost of running it for a single season, making it a financial burden on the club rather than a positive asset.

But as noted, in the past two years that situation has changed somewhat, with another three significant windfalls and several Academy graduates at the club right now who could generate another £5 million or so for the club. So if the Academy was struggling to justify itself on a financial basis in its early years, it is now producing far more saleable quality.

To many fans, the sale of Sigurdsson went against the very purpose of the academy system, to provide players for Reading's first team, not for other clubs. However, if £7 million secures another nine years for the Academy, is that worth it, and can the Academy be relied upon to develop talent?

When it comes to our youth setup's record in producing first team calibre players it's once again a tale of past failures and recent success.

According to the official club website, 22 Academy graduates have played for the first team, with a further 11 having at least made a match-day squad. On the surface, two players per year seems like a decent ratio but considering half of those 22 managed less than five starts for the club it seems fair to say that the Academy wasn't producing players of sufficient quality in it's earlier years.

Of those 22, 10 made their debut between 1999-2006 and only Ashdown, Henderson and Tyson made an impact on the first team* as the club instead opted to bring in talent from other academies. James Harper and Steve Sidwell were plucked from Arsenal for 6 figure sums, Kevin Doyle and Shane Long were recruited from Cork and Nicky Shorey from Leyton Orient. Those players were given time to develop with Reading at League One and Championship level as the club moulded a hungry young team that made it to the Premier League in spectacular fashion in 2006.

The team's two seasons in the top division made it more difficult to blood younger players in the first team and as a result, many Academy graduates were sent out to lower league clubs to gain first team experience, or in the case of Cox, allowed to leave to find regular first team football.

After relegation in 2008 the club was forced into selling its top talent and shedding squad depth to balance the books, opening the door for Academy players such as Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan, Julian Kelly and James Henry to all make contributions during Steve Coppell's final season in charge. The following season Simon Church, Sigurdsson, Scott Davies and Hal Robson-Kanu all featured for Coppell's successor, former Academy Director Brendan Rodgers, and his successor, former reserve team manager Brian McDermott.

Fast forward to this season and in our last league match away at Barnsley, three players in the starting line-up had come from the club's youth system, with four of the substitutes also home grown. If Sigurdsson remained at the club it would be possible to name a strong starting line-up that contained more Academy graduates than players brought into the club. Would the line-up below be totally out of it's depth in the Championship next season or two?

GK: A McCarthy

RB: S Davies

LB: J Kelly

CB: J Mills

CB: A Pearce

RM: J Obita

CM: J Karacan

CM: J Taylor

CM: G Sigurdsson

LM: H Robson-Kanu

ST : S Church

While I'm not suggesting that the above team would be promotion contenders, it's possible to envision that side being at least being competitive in the Championship.

Moreover the Academy is now producing talent that's going on to win International honours. Robson-Kanu and Church have represented Wales at full international level, Taylor has also represented Wales at U21 level, with Karacan representing Turkey in the U21's, Pearce at the same level for Scotland and Alex McCarthy just got the starting nod for England U21's in goal. Jordan Obita has been tipped as a future star by Football Association Director of Development Sir Trevor Brooking, while Jack Mills is also hotly tipped and is enjoying a successful loan spell in the Dutch second tier with Tellstar, having already represented England at U19 level.

The prospect of a totally home grown XI is a dream for the club's accountants, but it's also a testament to the work of Eamon Dolan, Nicky Hammond, Brian McDermott, as well as previous academy chiefs such as Brendan Rodgers.

So how does Reading's Academy stack up next to other Championship sides?

Below is the number of academy graduates per championship team. (Players must have started 9 games in the Championship this season)

MIDDLESBROUGH 6
WATFORD 5
READING 4
CRYSTAL PALACE 3
BRISTOL CITY 2
COVENTRY 2
FOREST 2
MILLWALL 2
NORWICH 2
PRESTON 2
SCUNTHORPE 2
SHEFF UTD 2
BARNSLEY 1
BURNLEY 1
CARDIFF 1
DONCASTER 1
HULL 1
IPSWICH 1
LEEDS 1
LEICESTER 1
PORTSMOUTH 1
SWANSEA 1
DERBY 0
QPR 0

In Simon Church, Hal Robson-Kanu, Alex Pearce and Jem Karacan, the Royals have the second highest number of Academy graduates playing regularly in their first team, behind only Watford and Middlesbrough. So compared to other teams in the Championship, Reading are using four times as many former youth players than half of the division.

One final point to consider is also the knock on effect that having so many home grown players will have on future youth recruitment. Young players who may be torn between Reading and another club can look at the number of opportunities given to younger players, compared to other big clubs in the region without such a track record.

So is the Academy a success in either financial or performance based terms?

In my opinion, a resounding yes. While financially the Academy has only recently begun to pay for itself, it is now is producing players of such quality that its running costs could easily be made up through player sales. The combined value of the seven graduates in the Barnsley match day squad could be conservatively estimated at around £3 million, a figure that would fund the academy for close to the next four seasons. If you consider that the academy has produced 12 graduates in the past four seasons, and 11 in the last three then financially it is now self-sufficient.

In terms of the providing players for the first team, the Academy was under performing for most of its first 6-7 years but Church, Robson-Kanu, Pearce and Karacan have all shown they are solid Championship players, or at least have the potential to be. Even more promising is the amount of international honours the 'next generation' has been accumulating, suggesting that even more will be able to make the step up in the next couple of seasons.

For me, the Academy is vital going forward in the current financial climate. The cost of buying in talent far exceeds the cost of developing it and with our chairman Sir John Madejski wanting the club to become financially self-sufficient, the Academy has a massive part to play if we hope to compete in the top two tiers in the long term.

Please feel free to comment below and if you want to write a counter or supporting opinion piece then please email us! The contact details can be found in the about section of the site.

*Note - Shane Long is included by the OS as an academy graduate who made his debut in 2005/2006 and whilst it's true that Long came to the club at a young age, the fact he was at least a squad regular by early 2006 means that I don't think it's particularly fair to class him as an academy graduate