Paul McShane (Hull City, free transfer)
Alex Pearce (Derby County, free transfer)
Already In Squad:
Jake Cooper, Anton Ferdinand, Michael Hector, Dominic Hyam, Niall Keown, Pierce Sweeney
In contrast to the full back position, Reading suddenly look a lot stronger at centre half. Last season, the first-choice pairing of Alex Pearce and Michael Hector was only supported by the newcomer Jake Cooper, with Anton Ferdinand a long-term injury doubt. However, the replacement of Pearce with Paul McShane (arguably an upgrade), combined with a marked improvement of fitness for Ferdinand, and the emergence of Niall Keown, mean that things are looking very good for Steve Clarke at the heart of the defence.
Michael Hector: One of the success stories of the 2014/15 campaign, Michael Hector finished the season much more strongly than he started it. Taking Sean Morrison's place in the side following the ex-Swindon Town man's move to Cardiff City, Hector took a while to adjust to his status as a regular starter. However, following Steve Clarke's appointment last December, he certainly found his feet. Increasingly assured performances were seen in his game, capped off with a fine showing at Wembley against Arsenal - when he was individually congratulated by Arsene Wenger. The Jamaican will surely be a first choice next season, and will be looking to build on his previous development.
Anton Ferdinand: Even up to last May, this signing looked to have very much been a case of a gamble that didn't pay off. Brought in by Nigel Adkins to add his vast array of Premier League experience to the defence, Ferdinand barely managed any game time - such was the frustratingly predictable nature of his injuries. However, several pre-season appearances (including his first ever full 90 minutes for Reading against Swansea) have given hope that he can finally stake his claim to a first team spot. Still only 30, and 'keen to make up for lost time', Ferdinand could be a suprise boost to Reading's 2015/16 campaign.
Paul McShane: Reading bagged themselves another experienced ex-Premier League defender in the summer with the acquisition of Paul McShane from Hull City. The Ireland international had been on Humberside since 2008, building up a status as quite the cult hero amongst Tigers fans. In fact, it was McShane that scored the promotion-winning goal against champions Cardiff City to seal an automatic return to the top flight. With McShane now a Royal, he brings much-needed experience to the Madejski Stadium. With that in mind, expect him to compete with Anton Ferdinand for a starting spot alongside Michael Hector.
Jake Cooper: I'd hardly call it a 'break out' season, but Jake Cooper certainly made himself a strong option for the first team squad in 2014/15 with a string of solid performances. A commanding game at Norwich City, capped with a brace, made Reading fans think he was mature beyond his years, and an exciting prospect for the future. Although that's still the case, he's yet to fully recover from the 6-1 mauling at Birmingham City. With Michael Hector and Alex Pearce the pairing of choice under Steve Clarke in the first half of 2015, Cooper struggled for game time. Although he'll remain part of the manager's wider plans, starts could be hard to come by - considering the number of established centre backs ahead of him in the pecking order.
Niall Keown: A more recent academy graduate than Cooper, Keown could yet leapfrog the former to winning a place in the first team. In truth, little had been said of Keown before his start at Watford in March, and the season had similarly ended quite quietly for him. That said, some impressive performances in pre-season, including the 1-1 draw against Swansea City, have shown Reading fans what he can do.
The Others: Beyond that set of five, Reading do have a number of other names of note at centre half. The likes of Dominic Hyam and Pierce Sweeney have all been involved in and around the first team squad recently, so expect their names to come into consideration at some point in the future. As far as emergency options go, Chris Gunter has been known to play centre back on occasion before.
Our options here do indeed look very healthy, as things stand. Obviously, an injury to one or two senior centre backs changes that, but there's definitely more strength in depth than there was a year ago. As with any position, this one thrives when players are forced to up their game, in the knowledge that they can easily lose their place if they don't. With that in mind, it's very encouraging that Steve Clarke can consider five players as realistic starters.
As for who gets the nod, it's much like the goalkeeping position. Having a range of options means that, more likely than not, the partnership will organically change throughout the season as Clarke gets a better understanding of which players are his best bets. Even a short run of form can change a lot - as pre-season has shown with the increased stock of Ferdinand and Keown.
To stick my neck out, I'd rank the current pecking order as something like this... Michael Hector and Anton Ferdinand as starters, with Paul McShane challenging the two. Behind them, Niall Keown and Jake Cooper will provide the strength in depth, with the former currently sneaking ahead.
What do you think of our options at centre back? Has Steve Clarke got enough to work with? Let us know what you think in the comments section below, or tweet us @TheTilehurstEnd.