The standout performer in this category last season was none other than the winner of both the Tilehurst End's and the club's Player of the Season award, Jordan Obita. The academy graduate became a first-team regular at the left-back spot following an injury to Wayne Bridge and poor performances from replacements Stephen Kelly and Shaun Cummings. After coming into the side in a trip to Watford, the man dubbed #BerkshireNeymar turned out for the full 90 minutes in every single match for the rest of the season bar a 74th minute substitution at home to Leicester City.
Having shown such consistency in the second half of last season, the only real question is if he will be given games further up the pitch, either in the centre of midfield - where he made his first appearance against Derby in September, or on the wing - from where he scored his first goal for the Royals, a winning strike at the City Ground in November. His inheritance of the number 11 shirt from former Royals captain Jobi McAnuff suggests the latter, but if the ongoing takeover rumbles on, a season at full back could beckon - with Obita the club's only recognised senior left back. That said, with the season he's just had, that's far from a bad prospect. However, keeping hold of the young star could be a tall order, with the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool reportedly keeping tabs on him.
Another strong contender for last year's Player of the Season award was Welshman Chris Gunter, who was also strongly touted by some for the captaincy before it was awarded to Jem Karacan. With accomplished, consistent performances throughout the whole of last term, the young Welshman played in all but two of the 46 league games available. He also impressed on the international stage, becoming Wales' youngest ever player to reach 50 caps - that's a mighty feat considering the competition from greats such as Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Gareth Bale.
Looking at the season ahead, with competition for the right-back slot minimal, another impressive season is certainly on the cards. Provided both he and Garath McCleary are still at the club come September 1st, the link between the former Forest duo down the right side could once again be a crucial weapon in Nigel Adkins' armoury, with Gunter's attacking elements on display throughout last season, perhaps best demonstrated by his cross for Jobi McAnuff's winner against Birmingham City.
Stephen Kelly and Shaun Cummings
I've grouped these two together for the reason that they both had similarly poor seasons in 2013/14. The former, Stephen Kelly, was brought in in January 2013 by Brian McDermott to add experience to a position that was desperately short of it and, to be fair, did a decent job in the Premiership at both right back and left back where others had failed to do so. Unfortunately, Kelly's experience didn't come through last term, being ruthlessly exposed in November's horror show of a trip to Sheffield Wednesday. Although it's slightly harsh for Reading fans to repeatedly criticise a player for poor performances in an unfamiliar position, the fact of the matter was that Kelly was indeed very poor in too many games, and average at best - for a player with plenty of experience at both Premiership and international level, that's not good enough at Championship level. However, it's still worth taking time out to watch Stephen Kelly's finest moment of last season, a moment that made him Reading's joint top-scoring full back alongside Jordan Obita...
It's unsurprising that the Irish international failed to hold down his place at left back, losing it in the short term to Jamaican Shaun Cummings. The 25 year old had a similar season to Kelly, largely filling in at left-back. Like Kelly though, Cummings failed to impress, probably being the reason for a total of just 11 appearances.
For both Kelly and Cummings it's fair to say that neither had good seasons, but by extension of that, without moves this summer, they'll both be very keen to turn the corner for different reasons. Although probably neither have a long term future at Reading in a Bunditkitsada-funded team, a good 2014/15 is a must for someone at the end of his career who could easily slip into the lower leagues, and especially for a 25-year old whose career looked bright in a title-winning side, but has failed to kick on.
Once proclaimed the ‘next John Terry' by former boss Brendan Rodgers, Alex Pearce has, with the Premiership season a slight wobble, gone on to be a regular for the Royals since becoming a regular in the 2011/12 title winning side. Bemoaned for his lack of pace and turning circle of an oil rig, he is nonetheless a rock of a centre half both when throwing his body on the line in his own penalty area, and attacking set pieces at the other end of the pitch. With that in mind, the academy graduate can count himself unlucky to have not been awarded the captaincy by boss Nigel Adkins this summer.
An ever-present last season, Alex Pearce got the full 90 minutes in all but two games in 2013/14, chipping in with 3 goals in the process. For a team blighted by injuries and lack of form, that's no mean feat, considering only him, Alex McCarthy and Chris Gunter finished last season with at least 40 starts. Indeed, WhoScored actually rate Alex Pearce as our Player of the Season for 2013/14 with an average rating of 7.43 which made him the 9th best player in the Championship by that record and, surprisingly, finished joint second in the league for WhoScored's total number of man of the match awards with 8. The stats show that he's back to his best, with the consistency to match his dominating performances of the 2011/12 season. Fitness willing, it's likely that we'll see Pearce churn out a similarly high number of appearances this coming season, most likely alongside this man...
Since arriving at the club in January 2011 from Swindon Town, Sean Morrison has become a rising star for the Royals, forming up a famous Flames partnership with former Swindon loanee Jem Karacan, and embarking on a #CerealQuest during Reading's Premiership season. Breaking into the team in that very season under Brian McDermott, Morro has gone on to become a regular starter for the Royals, winning 21 caps last season despite injuries throughout, with his only goal coming at home to Millwall in October.
It's hard to believe that he's not an academy graduate, such is his strong link to the club and the fanbase. It's also worth noting that he's still only 23 and, having put in strong performances both at Premiership and Championship level, the future's clearly very bright for the man from the South West. Even with investment into the defence following the impending takeover, I very much expect Morrison and Pearce to maintain their partnership throughout this upcoming 2014/15 campaign.
The man hoping to throw a spanner in those works is Michael Hector, known affectionately as Big Hec. Yet another academy graduate, the Englishman made his name whilst on loan with Aberdeen, scoring a cracking strike live on Sky against Partick Thistle. Coming back to the Royals in January following that loan spell, he turned out 9 times in the remainder of the season both in defence and also in central midfield due to the injury crisis that gripped Reading throughout last term. As a sidenote, he also turned out in the commentary booth for some of Reading's academy games alongside Jake Taylor, perhaps honing his skills for his post-playing career.
As far as this season goes for Big Hec, it's easy to see him getting games at centre half should either Alex Pearce or Sean Morrison pick up injuries, suspensions or lack of form. The obvious no.3 now that Kaspars Gorkss is gone, the opportunities will certainly be there for someone who many see as the ball-playing centre half that Nigel Adkins craves for a Reading side that play his brand of football that has been seen at Southampton and Scunthorpe.
With such a small squad due to Anton-induced under-investment, there could be a big chance for some of the current academy players to make their mark on the first team. Pierce Sweeney's comments that he's very much after first-team games next season will surely be echoed by the likes of Shane Griffin, Niall Keown, Sean Long and Jake Cooper, although next year could come too soon for some of them.
This coming season will surely be a big transition for Reading's defence, with Nigel Adkins likely to be keen to make the back four comfortable with keeping the ball and distributing it on the deck to players further up field. The academy players will surely be important in that process long term, with the likes of Pierce Sweeney and Michael Hector learning their trade in youth teams that play the ‘Adkins' brand of football.
However, it's still worrying that the defence is so under-equipped as far as quantity of senior players goes. A long term injury to any starting XI defender - Chris Gunter, Alex Pearce, Sean Morrison or Jordan Obita could be devastating to Reading's season, so reinforcements in this transfer window are vital once new funds come through. With that in mind, expect moves from Nigel Adkins and the team for, at the very least, a back-up left back and a centre half - presumably both with significant experience under their belt.
Personally, I'm worried about the current state of our defence as, despite talent and quality very much being there, there aren't enough experienced defenders and, should they be ruled out long term, Championship football could easily overwhelm academy graduates if they're pushed into the deep end too soon. Samrit Bunditkitsada, it's over to you.