A few weeks ago, many Reading fans were panicking about the prospect about going into the new season without a senior goalkeeper in the ranks. Steve Clarke let go Adam Federici, Mikkel Andersen, Dan Lincoln, Jon Henly, Aleks Gogic as well as goalkeeping coach Sal Bibbo at the end of last season, leaving just Stuart Moore at the club. Towards the end of June, ex-England goalkeeper Dave Beasant was recruited to replace Bibbo, but he still had no senior goalkeeper to coach.
Fast forward three weeks, and we now have two in our ranks – Jonathan Bond and Ali-Habsi. The former was signed from Watford for an undisclosed fee, whilst the latter spent time on trial at the club following his release from Wigan Athletic before being announced as a Royals player on Tuesday. Both players went on the Thailand tour and played 45 minutes each against the all-stars side, conceding one goal apiece. So the question is, who will be our no. 1 come the first game of the season against Birmingham on 8th August?
It’s probably worth discounting Stuart Moore from the equation, who despite a successful loan spell at Basingstoke Town last season, needs to gain more experience perhaps in another temporary move to a League 1 or 2 club. Steve Clarke may already have decided who he will start at St. Andrews, with upcoming friendlies against Bristol Rovers, Swansea City, Crawley Town and Espanyol likely to give us some indication to his plans.
I think the view around many Reading fans is mixed, so I’ll start by looking at both players’ recent stats. Bond and Al-Habsi were both understudy goalkeepers last season to Heurelho Gomes and Scott Carson respectively.
Since breaking into the Watford senior team in 2010, Bond only made 29 starts in five seasons – albeit some of that time was spent out on loan. Last season, he only played six times, conceding 11 goals and keeping one clean sheet against Stevenage in the League Cup. That’s a disappointing record of 1.8 goals let in per game. However, at 22 years old he should have a lot of potential and has earned five caps for the England under 21 side. Furthermore, at just 17 years old he was called up to the senior Wales side. That shows you he is highly rated but perhaps hasn’t played enough games to reach his full potential. Steve Clarke has heralded him as one of "English football’s brightest young goalkeepers"
In stark contrast, 33 year old Ali Al-Habsi has plenty of Premier League experience and has 106 caps for the Oman national side. In 2014-15, he made 13 Wigan appearances as well as one for Brighton, keeping two clean sheets, one of which came at the Madjeski Stadium in February. He also let in 23 goals, giving him a record of 2.1 goals conceded per game – slightly worse than Bond.
In Thailand, Al-Habsi let in a free-kick right at the end of the first half, which I think was a very good strike, whilst others suggest that the keeper should have done better. Bond was slightly hesitant to come out as he conceded Reading’s second but did make a few superb saves in the 2-2 draw.
In general, it’s a very close battle, and I’m sure it’s one that both keepers will relish, with neither wanting to be second choice for a consecutive season. As I say, Steve Clarke could use the pre-season friendlies to make up his mind, or he may have brought both players in with a game plan in mind. I’d trust his decision, and would be happy with either starting against Birmingham.
I think we could see a similar scenario as to that of 2012-13, where Adam Federici started the campaign in goal, but Alex McCarthy broke into the side in the latter stages of the campaign. My feeling is Al-Habsi will be the original first choice, but we could see a change midway through the campaign as Bond pushes for a starting place. They say competition brings out the best in players, so hopefully we can be assured of another season with a reliable stopper between the sticks.