Just under five years ago we launched The Tilehurst End and it all began with an article I'd written about Reading's Academy. A lot of the points I covered that day still apply, but in that time we've had two new owners, a promotion, relegation and an entirely new youth system launched.
That new system, the 'Elite Player Performance Plan' moved the goalposts somewhat so instead of Reading spending around a million a year, suddenly the costs tripled to be among the country's best academies. At an annual cost of closer to £3 million, the Academy could no longer financially justify itself simply by churning out the odd big name sale like a Gylfi Sigurdsson, or by picking up the odd few hundred grand for a James Henry or Ben Hamer. Now the youth setup has to provide either quality first teamers that offset the cost of spending on the open market, or generate enough players with sale value to recoup the costs of running it.
So based on those two factors, just how should I rate the current state of Reading's Academy?
Is it making the club money?
In terms of transfer fees, right now the picture doesn't look particularly remarkable. Since Sigurdsson left in 2010, only two Academy players have been able to generate seven-figure transfer sums; that's if you discount Shane Long and Michail Antonio who had cups of coffee with the youth setup after being largely developed elsewhere.
Goalkeeper Alex McCarthy netted the club three million or so for his move to QPR and Michael Hector £4.5 from Chelsea, but elsewhere there's been very little cash taken in. We've seen Simon Church, Jake Taylor, Jem Karacan and Alex Pearce all walk away on free transfers with Hal Robson-Kanu looking almost certain to join them this summer. Of the other names I picked out in my 2011 potential team of the future, Jack Mills never played a professional game, Julian Kelly was out of league football by 2013 and Scott Davies saw his career spiral downward largely due to a gambling addiction. Jordan Obita was the other name on that list but thankfully he does seem to have plenty of transfer value if not a long-future in Berkshire.
The beauty and frustration with a youth setup is that it can take a decade plus for a player to come through to the first team, with leading figures in the game suggesting getting hold of a player between six and 10 is the optimum age to start training with a professional club. So with the EPPP only being introduced within the past four years, it could still be a good five years or so until we even start to see the true results of our investments.
The bottom line is that right now it's around £9m spent and with addons probably the same earned so for now the Academy has funded its three seasons at Category One level.
What about providing players for the first team?
It's not just transfer fees that can earn the club money. Every player you develop inside the club means one less transfer fee you have to pay another club. Likewise, bringing through your own players helps keep down agent costs, signing on fees and the sort of lofty contracts you often have to dish out in order to lure players in (Pavel Pogrebnyak I'm looking at you...).
Likewise an Academy player is far more likely to be patient and fill a spot on the bench. Aaron Kuhl or Jack Stacey are probably going to be much happier having a season or two on the bench than say Paolo Hurtado or Ola John.
In terms of bringing players through into the first team, Reading have done pretty well for themselves over the past decade. As well as the players mentioned above that racked up hundreds of Reading games, we're now seeing the next generation emerge. Jake Cooper, Aaron Tshibola, Stacey, Tariqe Fosu and Kuhl have all shown they're viable options for the first team squad, with Cooper and Tshibola in particular already playing significant roles at Championship level. As we've seen with Davies, Taylor and Kelly, it might take a while for their true level to be decided but right now there's plenty of cause for optimism.
What about the standard of players we're producing though?
Unfortunately it's easy for fans to get wrapped up and over hype their own players. We have that natural tendency to think that the hot young star of the Academy is just going to come up and blow the league away but aside from Sigurdsson there's not really been a home-grown Reading player that's made a big impact at Premier League level. McCarthy and Hector are both young enough to make it but right now both have a lot to do to really cement themselves as top players.
On the flip side we've produced plenty of players that have gone on to contribute at Championship level and others that have held their own in the higher divisions. Pearce, Simon Cox, Darius Henderson, Karacan, Robson-Kanu, Henry, Hamer and Church have all clocked up plenty of games at second tier level and each filled useful roles at Reading.
As for the next generation, well their results at youth level are certainly promising. We're into the last eight of the FA Youth Cup for the second time in three years and are holding our own in the top tier of the U21 Premier League. Likewise Obita, Cooper and Tshibola have all shown good promise in the Championship at a very young age, with Fosu and Dominic Samuel also showing glimpses of talent out on loan.
So is it a success?
This is a question that's tricky to answer but for now I'll give the Academy a thumbs up.
Transfer fees for our graduates may be unspectacular but the sheer number to make it at Championship level and the number of games they've played for Reading mean that to me it's a financial success. In terms of impact, plenty have put in impressive spells with several being key parts in three top eight finishes second tier finishes in the last five years.
The only negative right now is that there's a slight question mark about whether we're producing any future Premier League stars but that's something we won't know the full answer to for a while to come.
Yet beyond all of those factors, it's the feel good factor that comes with our Academy that makes me consider it a success. As a fan I love seeing seeing players come through into the team and proud when I see them making it elsewhere. It's also great to know the football club is providing a place for hundreds of local kids to play and develop their skills and it's one of the few parts of the football club that really remains closely connected to the local community.
So hats off to Eamonn Dolan, David Dodds and all those that have come before them like Nick Hammond and Brendan Rodgers. You've all helped create one of the most special parts of this modern day Reading FC.