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Contracts 2016: Stick Or Twist?

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With Nick Blackman talking recently about wanting to renew his contract, we thought that it was time to take a broader look at the contracts situation coming up next summer. Here's who Bucks Royal thinks should be handed a new deal, and whose time at the club is up.

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In all, a dozen members of the senior squad are due to leave the club in 2016, when their current deals come to an end. Specifically, they are... Chris Gunter, Anton Ferdinand, Sean Long, Shane Griffin, Jake Cooper, Hal Robson-Kanu, Jake Taylor, Aaron Kuhl, Jack Stacey, Liam Kelly, Simon Cox and Nick Blackman. Of course, that doesn't include the six players at Reading on loan, who will all depart next summer if no permanent move is finalised.

I've assessed those twelve by putting them into four categories: those who should be given a contract now, the ones that still have something to prove, the players who'll likely leave the squad, and an 'others' section for anyone that doesn't fit into one of the spaces above. So, with those dozen question marks hanging over Steve Clarke's head, what option should the club take with each of them?

Renew their contract ASAP

Luckily, there are only two major first team regulars whose deals run out in the summer of next year. Chris Gunter and Nick Blackman have been key contributors to Reading's impressive run of form of late, albeit in different ways. I've also put the highly rated academy graduates Jake Cooper and Aaron Kuhl alongside Gunter and Blackman, due to their undoubted potential.

At the back, Gunter has played every single available minute of league football, although that's in part due to the lack of a natural right back in reserve. Nonetheless, the Welshman has earned his spot in the first team under successive managers, and reliably puts in solid if unspectacular performances at the back. It's telling that, in a season of financial prudence last term, Gunter's contract was extended by 12 months. Having seen off the challenges of Stephen Kelly and Shaun Cummings in recent years, he deserves an extension to his current deal.

Up front, Nick Blackman has been a surprise revelation to Steve Clarke. The ex-Sheffield United man has completely turned around his previous reputation in Berkshire, currently sitting joint top of the league scoring charts. If I'd written this piece before the summer, I'd have put Blackman down as an unnecessary excess to be cut out of the squad - no longer. Reliable goal scorers are hard to come by at any level, so it's a massive plus that we now seem to have one.

Although not currently part of Steve Clarke's first team thinking, Jake Cooper and Aaron Kuhl probably will be in the coming seasons. With injuries mounting in late 2014, both stepped up to the plate under Nigel Adkins, although better luck for the club on the treatment table meant fewer chances for the young duo. However, Cooper was recently impressive in the League Cup up against Everton's Romelu Lukaku, and Kuhl has been earning rave reviews during his loan spell north of the border. If they haven't done enough to earn themselves new contracts, I'm not sure what they need to do.

The jury's out

In both cases here, I'd be more than happy to award both Anton Ferdinand and Hal Robson-Kanu a new deal if they fully convinced me that a renewal was justified. They're not a million ways away from deserving it, but more is required from each of them.

Of all Reading's signings in recent years, Anton Ferdinand arrived with one of the better CVs. Having played for the likes of West Ham and Sunderland in his career, he brought a wealth of Premier League experience to Reading's back line. What a terrific signing he would have been if he'd only, well, actually played some football. To be fair to Ferdinand, there are few doubts among Reading fans over his quality, even now he's into his thirties. He reinforced that faith with a series of solid showings at the start of the 2015/16 campaign, but injury worries have again recurred. A fully fit Anton Ferdinand would be a massive boost to this side, but it remains to be seen whether or not we'll see that again. He needs to prove that this is just a blip if he's to get an extension.

Hal Robson-Kanu is one of those bizarrely frustrating players. The amount of times we've talked about his 'undoubted potential, if only he had the application to match' beggars belief. Things have looked up for the Welshman this season, following a poor 2014/15, with Robson-Kanu upping his game to win minutes following the arrival of several rivals for his spot in the first team. That said, so far it's not enough - we've seen flashes of brilliance throughout the last couple of years (his cup performances last term spring to mind), but consistency is lacking. Nonetheless, he has plenty of time to prove his doubters wrong in the same way that Nick Blackman has.

Their time is up

The players I've put into this category have one thing in common: they're both academy graduates who, despite impressing at some point, never really kicked on. Simon Cox and Jake Taylor haven't really convinced in any position, and haven't held down a regular spot in the first team.

Arriving from Nottingham Forest in the summer of 2014, Simon Cox got off to a good start. The Irishman found the net regularly in the early weeks, linking up well with Crystal Palace loanee Glenn Murray. But, after that, despite never losing his admirable work rate, the goals started to dry up - we haven't seen one from him since his strike against Norwich at the Madejski last December. Just like at West Brom, the arrival of Steve Clarke seemed to doom Cox, who's managed just one start in all competitions this season and even struggles to get on the bench. With him being an academy graduate and Royal through and through, I want things to click for Simon Cox so badly, but I just can't see it happening.

It's been a relatively similar story for Jake Taylor, who's also struggled for minutes under Steve Clarke. He burst onto the scene with a pinpoint cross for Pavel Pogrebnyak at Doncaster that briefly looked to have helped rescue a Playoff charge, but didn't build on that, despite regularly appearing on the left wing in early 2014/15. Currently on loan at Motherwell, I don't think Steve Clarke will be desperate to see him back any time soon.

Everyone else

Having not seen too much of Jack Stacey, Sean Long, Shane Griffin and Liam Kelly, I didn't think it would be that fair to put them in any of the above categories. Although all, with the exception of Kelly, have appeared for the first team at some level, they're still best seen as academy players. Indeed, Long, Griffin and Kelly all appeared in the Under 21 side's recent 3-3 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, suggesting that that's the level they're expected to play at for the short term at least.

Really, to properly assess their value going forwards, we'd need to see how well those four cope at professional league level. Their colleagues Jake Cooper and Aaron Kuhl made the step up with relative ease, but it remains to be seen if the same will be said for Stacey, Long, Griffin and Kelly. Only time will tell, but I'd say it's worth sticking with them - after all, we could have some real talents on our hands.

*****

Do you agree with what I've said? Has Hal Robson-Kanu done enough to deserve a new deal, or are there still question marks over Nick Blackman? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below, we'd love to hear from you.

For a full write-up of Reading's out-of-contract players, you can check out Maffff's piece here.