My pick for last year's Player of the Season award, Garath McCleary was at times unplayable, scoring some unforgettable goals against the likes of Burnley and Queens Park Rangers. He finished that season with some impressive stats- he chipped in with 12 assists, a mighty feat for a player in a team that mostly struggled to create chances, and was also the only non-defensive player (besides McCarthy, Gunter and Pearce) to appear more than 40 times in the league.
Unfortunately ruled out of the start of the new season with a back injury that has carried over from last season, he will nonetheless be a crucial weapon in Nigel Adkins' arsenal, with his pace and end product making him arguably the best attacking player we have at the club. Although I expect the team to adopt the ‘Adkins' style of football to a greater extent next season, I can't see that negatively impacting upon McCleary, with exciting, creative midfielders like Adam Lallana excelling under Adkins in recent seasons.
Should McCleary's injury problems prove worse than hoped, Ryan Edwards will be the man looking to take his place in the team. I don't think it's unfair to say that, over the last few seasons, he's been pretty much out of the picture at Reading. However, a strong set of performances on loan at Perth Glory last term, preceding a so-far impressive pre-season have thrust him right into the mix with less than two weeks until the opening weekend's trip to Wigan.
A goal against Exeter City, followed by assists against Yeovil and Wycombe, has demonstrated his attacking capabilities. Moreover, his deployment in a central attacking position in between Hal Robson-Kanu and Jake Taylor in a 4-2-3-1 formation suggests that this could be where Nigel Adkins deploys him over the coming campaign, rather than having him compete for the right-wing berth with Garath McCleary. Either way, a strong pre-season has given us reason to believe that Ryan Edwards could be next season's Jordan Obita, although that could mean he ends up at right back...
One player who definitely won't be playing at right back next season, or any other position for that matter, is Royston Drenthe, whose greatest talking point this summer has been to have not been awarded a shirt number at all. Signed on a free last summer from a Russian team whose name I won't attempt to spell, the Dutchman had a season that is perhaps best described, albeit with an understatement, as disappointing. Not only was he so talented a player, he even showed it at times last season, giving some dynamic attacking performances in August and September. However, as is the way of things, the rest of his campaign was instantly forgettable (barring a surprisingly good March with fine strikes against Brighton and Leeds United). Looking ahead for Royston, I'd expect a discreet transfer overseas to somewhere where he can (yet again) try to kickstart his career.
Jack Stacey and Tarique Fosu
Although there are some real talents coming through the academy in this position, I think that next season could come too soon for the likes of Jack Stacey and Tarique Fosu. They both had very successful campaigns with Reading's youth teams, with Stacey's strike against Fulham in the Youth Cup particularly worth a watch, but at the age of 18, both will probably go out on loan before they're seen playing regularly for the senior side. That said, with injury troubles surfacing once more, they could get their chance.
Arriving two summers ago on a free transfer from Newcastle United under Brian McDermott, I'd say that Danny Guthrie is one of the most already established players we've seen sign for Reading in recent years. Earlier in his career, he'd had stints in the academies of both Manchester United and Liverpool, before ending up at Bolton Wanderers during their Premier League days. A four year spell in the North East followed, with Guthrie a regular in Chris Hughton's title winning side that finished the season on 102 points (close, but no cigar). Having fallen out with management in our recent Premiership season, Guthrie has since very much come in from the cold under Nigel Adkins, initially being part of the ball retention evolution before it was dropped midway through the season. Despite being hit hard by injuries, Guthrie managed 29 starts, coming up with some strikes that would surely have been higher-regarded had it not been for the aforementioned Garath McCleary.
This coming season I expect to see Guthrie, fitness willing, become an integral part of the side, probably in the quarterback role that he filled last August and September. It's easy to forget that he's a player with significant experience at Premiership and top-end Championship level. With that in mind, a side that can get the best out of Guthrie could be a side that does very well indeed.
The star of the second half of last season, Danny Williams burst onto the scene in January with a string of energetic performances. As our very own Tilehurst End awards show, Williams took the highest number of Man of the Match gongs with 8, despite also being ruled out for significant parts of the season through injury. So far the only player signed by Nigel Adkins for a fee, Danny Williams has already become a fans' favourite with the box-to-box style of play that we've been missing since Steve Sidwell left the club in the summer of 2007.
However, he too has joined the long list of Reading midfielders in the treatment room with knee surgery that will rule him out of the start of the season. Frustratingly, that's the same injury that popped up last season, with the American international having had surgery on his knee in March. This season looks, in that regard, like it'll be a repeat of last season in being a stop-start one for Danny Williams. That said, if he finds regular game time, he'll surely be a key part of Reading's midfield.
There isn't much to say about Jem Karacan's 2013/14 season except that it was short and ended pretty brutally. An encouraging start to the season which saw him slot into the centre of midfield alongside Danny Guthrie was brought to a sudden halt by the annual scrap with Leeds United.
This coming season, hopefully being injury free, should be an exciting one for Karacan. A key part of the side for several seasons having graduated from the academy, the 25 year-old has now been honoured with the captaincy. Asides from the obvious analysis that it shows that Nigel Adkins holds him in high regard, you don't make someone captain if he's not going to be a first-team regular for the long term. It's far too early to tell what sort of season Karacan will have (in truth, you can't tell until the last match day), but he has all the qualities necessary to be a key player for the Royals over the coming campaign.
It's hard to say what progress Hope Akpan has made since signing from Crawley Town. Having been written off before kicking a ball, he soon showed poise and commitment in the Premiership in Reading's annual January surge before gradually trailing away. The first half of last season was uneventful, but Akpan was a key cog in another New Year upturn in form, lining up alongside American Danny Williams regularly after the trip to Watford, blasting home his first goal for the Royals in the famous Didcot Power Station-esque demolition of Bolton Wanderers.
What struck me last season though is that Akpan is very much a confidence player. When he's on his game his energy and enthusiasm shine through, with his key physical attributes of stamina and power serving him well in the box-to-box role we often see him in. However, his mental attributes need working on - pressure can sometimes get to him too easily, as shown in his shaky performance at home to Charlton last December. I've also noticed that he seems largely unwilling to attempt the risky option, such as an ambitious pass or subtle bit of skill. As he gains confidence and experience, he will most certainly improve as a player. With injuries inevitably hitting next year's campaign, Akpan could at times be our only Hope (apologies).
I think some of what I've said about Ryan Edwards can be repeated for Jake Taylor. For most of his Reading career, he hadn't really been considered to be part of the picture, never really bursting into the first team after his academy graduation. However, with a fine set of displays of late, including a perfect cross for the Pog against Doncaster last April and some good performances this pre-season, the Welshman could finally be about to break through into the first team, if he hasn't already. Expect to see him line up as an attacking midfielder, potentially in the 4-2-3-1 that has been seen over the last couple of games.
Aaron Kuhl and Aaron Tshibola
Next season could very much be a Tale of Two Aarons. Messrs Kuhl and Tshibola, like Jack Stacey and Tarique Fosu earlier up the page, excelled in the youth teams last season with some dominating performances in the middle of the park. However, in contract to Stacey and Fosu, I feel that Kuhl and Tshibola are closer to the first team and are more likely to get appearances over the next season. With them both coming through an academy system which very much preaches the Adkins gospel of ball retention, they could arguably slot in easier than Hope Akpan, despite him being higher up the pecking order at this moment in time.
In summary, it's very much a matter of how heavily the midfield is hit by injuries. Both on the wings and centrally we have decent numbers, although reinforcements are needed, particularly out wide. However, with several key players currently in the treating room, there's only so much punishment that a squad can take before it starts to feel the strain. The academy graduates give us plenty to look forward to over the coming campaign but, as I said in my defenders' preview, over-exposure due to senior players being ruled out injured for too long could harm their development.