The Checkatrade Trophy over went a controversial re-haul over the summer, with Category One academies entering in a new group stage to play against senior teams from Leagues One and Two. As one of the country’s leading academy set-ups, Reading were selected and drawn in a group with Bristol Rovers, Portsmouth and Yeovil.
Whilst these sides – the first two teams having traditionally been as big a team as us over the years – must feel a little insulted to have to play our kids in a competitive game, it was to be an intriguing set of encounters and a good test to see just how good our youth team really is.
Reading lined up in a 4-4-2 formation that seemed slightly at odds with the more fluid 4-3-3 that Jaap Stam’s first team have been using this season, with a mix of experience and youth starting the match. Senior goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola was between the sticks, with a back four formed of Tennai Watson, Gabriel Osho, Tom McIntyre and Shane Griffin (the two full-backs having been around the first team before, with the centre halves much less experienced). Josh Barrett and Andy Rinomhota were picked in the centre of the park, with Jack Stacey and Tariqe Fosu out wide behind a strike partnership of Dominic Samuel and Joseph Mendes that wouldn’t seem out of place in the senior side this season.
The Royals started the first half much as the senior team tend to – controlling a large part of the possession and playing some neat passing football to create chances. However, in the early exchanges it was clear that the youth team were also missing a clinical striker, with some decent moves being ended by speculative long shots or failing to find that final ball to split the defence. Mendes had a long shot deflected to hit the bar, and Samuel hit the post on the 15 minute mark to confirm that Reading were in control of the game.
It didn’t take too much longer to get the opening goal either. Just after the half hour mark Fosu, lively as ever, managed a clever ball across to Stacey, who hit it first time to beat Rovers goalkeeper Kelle Roos and put Reading ahead. Celebrations were a little muted in an away end, mostly filled with friends and families of the players, but there was an optimistic rendition of "Que Sera Sera".
The Royals continued to probe Rovers for the remainder of the first half, with Samuel bursting forward and being unlucky to add a second after a nice through ball from Barrett, with the follow up also failing to hit the target. Ultimately, as the half time whistle blew, the youngsters knew they had controlled the game against a decent standard of senior opposition, and it looked positive for the second spell.
After the break, however, Rovers manager Darrell Clarke made two changes, bringing on Olly Clarke and Matty Taylor for Cristian Montano and Billy Bodin (son of former Reading man Paul) in an attempt to pack the midfield and restrict the passing football that had allowed the visitors to control the game.
It looked like it had worked too – whilst Reading were still able to create chances and play some nice football, the hosts came back into the game. Immediately Taylor, who scored 27 league goals last season, had a chance (which just went wide), and it only took him 15 minutes to get the equaliser with a powerful header.
This began a spell of pressure from Rovers, who forced Jaakkola to make a couple of saves and clearances from crosses. Perhaps it was good for the youngsters to face a bit of pressure like this, as certainly it would be different to playing against the likes of Arsenal U23s in their league campaign. About 15 minutes later Tyler Frost – who had come on for Samuel, alongside Jake Sheppard for Barrett, was given a great opportunity in a one-on-one, but just took a little too much time and could only find the keeper.
In the end, Reading went ahead again in the 77th minute, when a bit of a scramble in the box saw Stacey hit the post, with teenage substitute Sheppard hitting the rebound in. At the time I thought it had been cleared off the line with some last-ditch defending, but the linesman indicated that it had crossed the line, so who am I to complain?
The lead only managed to last five minutes, however, as in an increasingly fractious game Rovers created another spell of pressure and managed to capitalise with a long range shot from Jermaine Easter after Fosu lost possession.
With a penalty shoot-out looming for an extra point, Reading thought they’d get some extra practice in as just two minutes later Mendes – running through on goal – was fouled in the box to give the youngsters a spot kick. The French forward duly converted the penalty to give Reading the lead yet again, before being substituted for Harry Cardwell.
The five minutes of added time that followed gave way to another run of Rovers attacks, but with tired legs setting in from the older pros, Reading were able to hold it back and ultimately gain a good win against League One opposition. Combined with the pre-season win over Swindon, the youth team are certainly showing their credentials – and with two more games against senior sides coming up in the next couple of months it can only be a good experience for the kids to keep testing themselves against older and more experienced players.