Reading has one of the best academies in the country thanks to the superb work of the likes of Nick Hammond and the late Eamonn Dolan. The number of players who have come through the system to make their first team debuts in recent seasons is fantastic.
Watson's emergence surprising
One of the latest graduates is 19-year-old Tennai Watson, who featured for the first time as a substitute against Preston on the opening day of this season. Since then, he has made a total of five first team appearances (excluding the Checkatrade Trophy) — three starts in the EFL Cup and two substitute appearances in the Championship. Needless to say, he seems to have impressed the majority of the Reading fanbase, and has averaged 6.6 in our player ratings across the campaign so far, no other player averages more.
The youngster's performances have also led to calls for him to be starting ahead of Chris Gunter, and this is what I find slightly premature. Gunter is a figure who clearly divides the opinion of the Madejski Stadium crowd and receives more criticism than most other players. But to suggest that Watson is better than the Welshman, who has made 172 club appearances since the start of the 2013-14 and has 76 international caps, is quite frankly baffling.
This is a teenager who has not made a league start in his career. Of course I applaud Watson for making the step up to first team football so smoothly, but it has to be recognised that he is yet to be really tested. There is yet to be a winger who has really run at him. A couple of good games has suddenly made Watson the 'next big thing', which is unfortunately what seems to happen every time a young player comes through the system and plays 45 minutes in the Championship.
The right-back's situation is very similar to that of Jake Cooper. Two goals against Norwich in his third Championship start immediately raised fans' expectations of the young centre-back, and he was touted as the solution to Reading's defensive woes at the time. Two years down the line, fan opinion has completely changed after a couple of high-profile mistakes and he is one of the most criticised players in the team.
Lack of experience a worry
That is because Cooper had not been out on loan before breaking into the first team and was left to make his mistakes under the spotlight more in the Championship rather than in League One or League Two. I'm not saying that every young player needs a loan spell before playing higher up, Marcus Rashford has proved that you don't, but more often than not it is the case. Even if it just from January until the end of the season, I think Watson could benefit from time away from Berkshire to play regular football a division or two lower. In many ways, the new Football League Trophy system is helpful for academy teams because young players do get a taste of first team football slightly lower down the football pyramid.
I think one of the main reasons why Watson is being touted to start by so many fans is the 'stigma' surrounding Chris Gunter. As aforementioned, Gunter is subject to a fair amount of criticism, and for his sake I hope he doesn't take the fans on social media too seriously. There are occasions where he does have a bad game, but he does not deserve the amount of disrespect that he gets. I'm not saying that he is the best right-back in the world, but he is one of the best in the Championship. If you don't notice him in games, for a defender that is often a good thing.
I'll finish by saying that this opinion piece is not a criticism of Watson, far from it. Nor am I saying that we should block all youngsters' chances in the first team and thus supposedly 'hinder' their development. I think he has the potential to be a very good defender, but not to the extent of other fans who want him in the team now, just because they he's an academy lad and they hate Chris Gunter.
Given a run in the team, he may make mistakes, and such is the fickle nature of football fans, the crowd could then turn on him, which is the last thing he needs. As a former defender, Jaap Stam knows what is best for Watson's development and I would trust in the Dutchman's decision.