It's awards season in football at the moment, with the prestigious Ballon D'Or being awarded to Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, and Leeds United's Adryan taking home the trophy for Fallon d'Floor. That got me thinking - looking through the current Reading squad, who are our best players? Some key contenders in recent times left in the summer, with Adam Le Fondre departing for Cardiff City before Alex McCarthy signed for Queens Park Rangers. Nonetheless, Steve Clarke still has some talent to pick from.
This piece is more a discussion of players' quality as footballers, rather than analysis of how much they are financially worth. Someone's financial value is extremely temperamental, and can depend on things like contract length just as much as anything else. For a take on the economics of the squad, Will analysed this subject last December.
With that in mind, I've taken the most interesting examples from Reading's squad and put them into four categories based on how good they are on the field.
- 'Rough diamonds' are players with a lot of potential without being the final product.
- 'Antiques' had the quality in the past, but are arguably now on a downwards trajectory.
- 'Functionals' are crucial for making up the backbone of a team, but don't often excel.
- 'Cream of the crop' are the best players in the squad - the first names on the team sheet that can win you matches.
- Finally, there's an obligatory section for 'none of the above'.
Aaron Kuhl, 18
Still only 18, Kuhl burst onto the scene with some impressive displays for the youth side last season. Composed on the ball and can pick out a pass with precision, Kuhl has a bright future ahead of him. It'll be interesting to see how he develops now that the 'Adkins style of football' is out of the window, but could be a key player in years to come.
Jordan Obita, 21
Judging him on his solid performances at left back last campaign, I would have been tempted to put him in the cream of the crop section. Obita adapted to his relatively new position with ease, and is unlikely to be moved elsewhere any time soon. But a dip in form this season (admittedly no worse than anyone else in the squad) show that, for me at least, he has much to learn. However, that's not to say that he won't - for me, Obita is one of the brightest prospects we've produced in recent years.
Michael Hector, 22
Another one with a lot of potential but his inexperience at defending shows at times, especially during Saturday's game against Middlesbrough when his poor judgement of the bounce of a long ball terrified the home crowd on several occasions. Having Steve Clarke, an expert at organising a defence, in charge at the Madejski now will do him a world of good. I fully expect him to be a solid first team regular in the long term.
Hal Robson-Kanu, 25
The name that stands out like a sore thumb in this section is none other than Hal Robson-Kanu. Whereas Kuhl, Obita and Hector can all safely go down as young players with a lot of potential, the Welsh winger earns his place here for a different reason. Going back several years ago, he was just one of a string of 'ones to look out for' that had emerged from the academy. But now, in 2015, despite the oft-quoted breakout season in the Premiership, he has failed to kick on. Nonetheless, Robson-Kanu still has time on his side. At the age of 25, his best years could certainly be ahead of him, and returning him to his previous form would be a massive boost for Steve Clarke.
Pavel Pogrebnyak, 31
Perhaps a little harsh on the Big Russian who had a good season in 2013/14 and could still be important throughout the rest of this one now that Glenn Murray has left. That said, being the wrong side of 30 and not exactly pulling up any trees in his appearances this campaign doesn't suggest that he's a long term option. Despite professing his love for the English game in his seemingly endless comments to the Russian media, my guess is that the Pog will move back to his homeland in the summer transfer window. However, his experience could still be a major asset until that point.
Anton Ferdinand, 29
Yes I know, 29 is hardly an ancient number to be talking about when it comes to centre backs. On the contrary, the likes of Kaspars Gorkss to name but one have made major contributions to a Reading side whilst in their fourth decade. My concern with Anton Ferdinand though is twofold: his worryingly poor fitness, and the resulting lack of football in recent years. Earlier in his career, Ferdinand had a very respectable Premiership career, turning out for the likes of West Ham, Sunderland and QPR. However, since leaving the Fake Hoops in 2013, his stock has fallen. Moves to Bursaspor and Antalyaspor in Turkey before almost signing for Police United in Thailand aren't exactly ringing endorsements. At the moment, Ferdinand looks like a poor signing but, if he regains his fitness, there's every reason to believe that he could resurrect his career and provide crucial experience for Steve Clarke's defence.
Chris Gunter, 25
Since arriving at the club in the summer of 2012, Gunter's record is perhaps best describes as 'has done pretty well'. The Welsh international didn't immediately impress in the ill-fated Premiership season, looking shaky before being replaced by Stephen Kelly in January 2013. However, 2013/14 was another matter, giving solid defensive performances and lung-busting attacking ones. Recent games suggest he's getting back to that level, and is more than capable of being a top Championship right-back, but has a lot to do before he can get into a higher category.
Oliver Norwood, 23
The ex-Terrier looks a steal at the reported ~£700k figure he arrived for in the summer. Judging by our Tilehurst End match ratings, he's been one of the most consistent players this season, winning our monthly awards for September, November and December. It's certainly no mean feat for a new signing to stand out even when the side as a whole is under-performing. However, for me, like Chris Gunter he needs to add an edge to his performances before he can be considered one of the squad's best. At the age of 23 (the youngest in this section), time is definitely on his side.
Simon Cox, 27
The proverbial 'fan on the pitch', Simon Cox has both passion and quality. He's one of those players that will always give their utmost for the team, and has been a key part of the team throughout this season (despite the bizarre droppings at Brentford and elsewhere). Moreover, 8 goals in the league so far makes Cox our top scorer for the campaign. Even so, I think Cox might agree with me in saying that's a slightly disappointing return so far. Despite his qualities, he's not a prolific goalscorer - and that has to change if he's to be considered more highly.
Danny Williams, 25
This choice is probably quite controversial, as Danny Williams has shown a lot of quality in his time at Reading. But for me, what I said about Jordan Obita roughly equates to the American midfielder. Break-out performances in the second half of last season showed his worth and suggest high quality, but has suffered from poorer ones in recent months. Of the four in this section, Danny Williams is the most likely to break out into being a cream of the crop player. He clearly has the ability to be an effective box-to-box player, and is very solid at this level. I don't think that he can be put into the most prestigious category just yet, although I look forward to him proving me wrong.
Cream of the crop
Adam Federici, 29
Despite temporarily losing his first team spot to Alex McCarthy in 2012/13 and 2013/14, Adam Federici has been a top goalkeeper since he originally succeeded Marcus Hahnemann in 2009. Reading have produced quality goalkeepers for a number of years now, and McCarthy would certainly have been in this section had he not left in the summer. Against Middlesbrough at the weekend, Federici once again showed why he's such a quality 'keeper, expertly denying the visitors on several occasions. What really elevates Federici into this section is his ability to single-handedly win points - something he's shown on countless occasions during his Reading career. During the title winning 2011/12 season, he earned the most clean sheets and conceded the fewest goals of any stopper in the division. It's imperative that he's retained beyond his current contract which expires in the summer.
Garath McCleary, 27
Wins Reading points at the other end of the pitch to Adam Federici, and is capable of moments of magic. Garath McCleary gives the Royals an attacking edge that is conspicuously absent when he's not playing. His searing pace is matched by the quality of his end product, as shown by his imperious form last season. At 27 years of age, McCleary is probably coming to the best years of his career, so the news last October of his contract renewal was a massive boost for the club.
None of the above
Jem Karacan, 25
Having been out on the sidelines for 16 months, it's hard to tell how Jem Karacan will respond. His form before that point largely suggested a spot in the functional category, but with strong indications that he was rapidly improving. Composed on the ball and terrier-like off it, he's a vital part of the team regardless of what type of football Reading are playing at the time. Now club captain, deservedly, he exudes a passion for the side that endears him to every fan. Still only 25, he has a long career to look forward to; how much of his potential he achieves is an exciting prospect to ponder.
Danny Guthrie, 27
Had it not been for a series of injuries last season, I think Guthrie could have developed into a cream of the crop quality player. It's odd to think that the former Newcastle United midfielder was one of the stars of the early part of the 2013/14 campaign, winning three consecutive Tilehurst End Player of the Month awards. Since then, it's been very stop-start, but an extended run in the first team and a fresh start under Steve Clarke might give Guthrie the opportunity to impress once more before his contract expires in the summer.
Alex Pearce, 26
For me, Pearce goes down as one of those players that excels at doing the basics well, but struggles when he's asked to play a more complicated game. That was certainly shown earlier this season when the Ireland international looked shaky at the back before being unceremoniously dumped in favour of the younger Jake Cooper. Nonetheless, he's shown in his Reading career that he has what it takes to be very solid at this level, such as his dominating performances alongside Kaspars Gorkss in 2011/12. Depending on how well he performs under the tutelage of Steve Clarke, Pearce could quite easily slot into the functional or cream of the crop sections.