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Perception and Pragmatism: Reading FC, Jaap Stam And Academy Woes

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URZZ1871 is sufficiently moved by the current situation at Reading that he returns to TTE with a long-form opinion piece on Reading’s perennial player recruitment problems and how these have changed for the worse in the past 14 months.

Reading v Swansea CIty Photo by Jed Leicester/Getty Images

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Here’s a little football quiz to start this off: What do Neil Lennon, Scott Brown and Tom Rogic have in common?

If you’re thinking it’s a Scottish or Celtic link, then you’re wrong. It’s actually that Reading reached agreement with the clubs which owned all three of these players, but the player decided to go elsewhere.

In 1996 Lennon chose Leicester over Reading after we’d agreed a fee with Crewe and in 2007 Brown was identified as a perfect replacement for the imminently-departing Steve Sidwell. Agreement was reached with Hibs, but, in the words of Nick Hammond: ”We couldn’t get him on the plane” as Brown refused to talk terms and instead joined Celtic for a lower fee than Reading would have paid the Easter Road club.

Similarly Rogic had agreed to join Reading in 2011 after impressing in trial matches, but work permit problems put this back two years, and in January 2013, after agreement was reached with Central Coast Mariners, Rogic travelled to the UK but diverted to a Celtic training camp instead of arriving at Hogwood, and joined Celtic permanently soon after.

Celtic FC v FK Astana - UEFA Champions League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: First Leg Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

These are just three of the most memorable players Reading have lost, but there are countless others, and I’m sure TTE readers can name many more over the years. It’s not always just a case of other teams bidding higher fees or offering higher salaries than Reading, as you’d expect, nor is it a case of players wanting to play at the highest level, since the Reading that both Rogic and Brown snubbed was a Premier League club at the time.

No, this has always been a problem for Reading. Although they seem to have no significant problem signing players who’ve been around the game a bit, or in attracting talented youngsters to the Academy ranks, there’s always been a problem signing young players who’ve started to make a name for themselves and who are looking for their next move up.

I can only think of one player Reading have signed who meets that description – and that’s Leroy Lita, for whom there was a special attraction in signing. Lita’s football hero was Ian Wright, and it was the presence of Steve Coppell, the man who discovered and nurtured Wright, that tipped the balance and swayed Lita’s decision when he joined from Bristol City on 2005.

Derby v Reading - Premier League Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

So why is there this problem – why do up such players never see joining Reading as being a move “up”? I think it’s a problem of both geography and history. To put it bluntly, there’s not much in or around Reading to attract a young player to the town – especially when you consider that we’re talking here about players who are typically in their early twenties, with money in their pocket, and who like most in that age group are typically attracted by bright lights and lively nightlife. Up against virtually any other town or city in the UK with a decent football team, Reading fares poorly in any “bright lights and lively nightlife” competition.

To overcome this, Premier League Reading in 2006-2008 put together brochures highlighting the attractiveness of the area and its local facilities as an aid to player recruitment – but of course such things are unlikely to appeal to younger players, who’d typically rather sign for a big-city club.

Coupled with this, Reading’s football history (before 2005, at least) has been largely undistinguished. Let’s be honest, Reading just isn’t a “sexy” club, or a big club. (Is it just me who thinks that whether a club is “big” or “small” seems to have been decided and set in stone in the 70s or 80s – perhaps because that’s when many of the current generation of football pundits discovered the game?)

No, sadly there’s a universal perception that Reading is a small-town club, mostly supported by relatively quiet, mainly middle-class fans – and in many ways an objective observer can’t argue with that perception. We’re not a club from an industrial city, with a long history of top-flight football or FA Cup wins, or with a ground which saw tens of thousands pack the terraces every Saturday once the hooter at the local docks/mills/factories/railway yards blew.

Much as many readers will hate it, we’re a small club made good through good stewardship, but one that holds very little interest to anyone other than its own supporters (and if you doubt that statement, try flogging a book about Reading FC to supporters of other football clubs…) But although in terms of size, reputation and history we don’t stack up well compared to many other clubs (including some well below us in the pyramid) that shouldn’t be taken as a value judgement in any way, even if potential transfer targets do exactly that.

Instead, it should be viewed as a reality of life, an obstacle that we need to overcome and work around, as we recognise that due to geography and demographics we’re unlikely to ever be a big club, with a big budget and a raucous, inner-city crowd. Instead, we need to think and do things in a different way to other clubs, for instance in the way we attract players and bring through youngsters etc.

Above all, we need to be pragmatic, and understand who we are and who we’re not, and compensate accordingly. And this is something that I think the current manager is unable to do – certainly he’s shown no signs of it. Perhaps because he’s spent nearly all his career at massive clubs (PSV, Manchester United, Lazio, Milan and Ajax) means he’s got a “big club” mentality, and that may be why I think he’s the wrong “fit”, psychologically, for Reading.

FUSSBALL: CL 00/01, FC BAYERN MUENCHEN Photo by Sandra Behne/Bongarts/Getty Images

A big name manager, with ideas to match, may not be able to “scale down” his thinking enough to match the resources and the level of players he’s got at Reading. Certainly, in all his exhortations to (and criticism of!) Reading supporters, it’s clear that he doesn’t recognise that Reading is different, in size and fervour, to the clubs he’s played at in his illustrious career. Either that, or he somehow expects the club to be something it’s not – something it will never be.

And on the pitch, too, I don’t think he can think pragmatically and realistically enough, and compromise enough, to be successful here – in many ways I see echoes of Brendan Rodgers, who knew exactly how he wanted the team to play to achieve success but just wasn’t able to recognise that the players he had (and the players he could afford) weren’t good enough to deliver what he wanted.

When called on to be realistic and compromise, when results and circumstances weren’t going well, he had no “Plan B”. This is what inevitably happens when a manager doesn’t properly understand the club they find themselves at, or if they lack the flexibility and pragmatism needed to compensate for the gap between what they want and what the realities of budget and situation mean they actually have.

At this point, before anyone writes this piece off as a knee-jerk “Stam out” response to recent results, I’m certainly not advocating his sacking. Above all, I’m just sad he was appointed in the first place, because the “fit” of his experience and personality was, to me, clearly wrong right from the start – one of the reasons I’ve been largely absent from the pages of TTE since Stam was appointed.

It seems to me that this is a clear example of the owners at the time being seduced by the chance of employing a “big name” manager, without being able to see past that name or consider the “fit” of that manager to the club and its situation. (At this point, I must confess that I don’t know exactly who those owners were at the time – this was one of those occasions when the “Who actually owns Reading FC right now?” revolving door was spinning particularly quickly.)

Glossing over last’s May’s play-off final debacle (one of the most uninspiring games of football ever, and definitely one of the worst “advertisements for the game” I can ever remember – on a world-stage when a little pragmatism and positivity might have made a real difference) the thing that I find saddest about Stam’s reign at the club is just how much it’s damaged the one positive thing the club has had over recent years - our youth development system. In fact, I’d go so far to say that I believe that Stam’s lack of pragmatism has wasted the magnificent legacy Eamonn Dolan left the club.

Clubs of the size that Stam has spent his career at tend to buy in the talent they need, and only dip into the club’s youth development system when they have an outstanding player who’s immediately ready for the first team. Otherwise, they tend not to give other young players, players with potential but who aren’t quite ready for the first team action straight away, the chances they need to develop.

Yes, young players may make mistakes while they’re learning, but that’s something that pragmatic and flexible managers at clubs without boundless assets recognise and understand, because they appreciate that if these young players do fulfil their potential then the club has acquired a valuable squad member without paying a transfer fee. And so that investment of time and opportunity pays itself back in spades in the long-term.

Sending young players out on loan only goes so far in developing them – it gets them game time, yes, but there’s certainly not the continuity, consistency and quality of coaching they’d receive at their home club’s Category A academy, at a crucial time when this is needed to turn them from “promising” to “established”. Clubs loaning players in also tend to use the player in a way that works best for themselves, filling their own short-term need, rather than in a way which best suits the player’s development needs – as a result all but the most exceptional early-developers tend only to blossom once they have proper continuity of coaching and real opportunities at one club.

But this “big club” refusal to invest time and opportunity on young players, so that they can make the step up at a crucial time in their career, seems to be something ingrained in Stam’s approach. Yes Liam Kelly has been given his chance and has blossomed, but he fits into the category of “immediately ready for the first team” – but how many other promising young players have been lost or sent out loan (the sort of loan that effectively dispenses with them) over the past 14 months?

Let’s look at the case of just two, since these were discussed by Stam’s at the STAR Fans’ Forum in September 2016. These are Jack Stacey and Tarique Fosu-Henry, both of whom were sent out on loan by Stam in August 2016 and never returned to the club, except on paper. From Stam’s answer that night, it’s clear he’d written those players off after seeing them for just a week or two in pre-season, and that he preferred bringing in the likes of Joseph Mendes and Sandro Wieser to making the necessary investment in time and opportunity bringing through the club’s own youth products.

Austria v Liechtenstein - UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier Photo by Christian Hofer/Getty Images

If you’re at a big club with endless resources perhaps you this is a valid approach, but I’d suggest it’s inflexible, arrogant and wasteful at a club like Reading where resources are limited. It’s also extremely dangerous in the long-term – which brings us back to where we started and player recruitment. The jewel in Reading’s crown and the brightest hope for its future is the quality of our academy and its ability to attract promising kids.

As a Category A academy we’re in direct competition with some of the biggest clubs in the country for signatures, but the advantage we’ve always had was a track-record of investing in players so they progressed to the first team, something the biggest clubs never offer for all except the most exceptional players, as discussed above. This selling point for the academy of a development avenue into the first team seems has always been crucial for the academy in attracting young players, because they want to develop but they want to see a clear route to first team football.

But it seems to have been slammed shut in the past year, and so I wonder if a kid and their parents, pondering an offer from Reading’s academy, will still look at the example of Adam Federici, Jordan Obita, Michael Hector and Gylfi Sigurdsson (amongst many other players who were invested in, developed properly and channelled into the first team) - or will they look at the likes of Stacey, Fosu and indeed the majority of the players who won the U21 Premier League Cup just three years ago?

It pains me that all that talent seems to have been lost to the club at a crucial time – I refuse to believe that virtually all that echelon of cup winners failed to fulfil their potential at the same time, and I can only think that the manager’s preference for overseas players (players who’d probably never heard of Reading until they received an offer to play here) and his lack of pragmatism and flexibility are behind it.

The damage is done now, and the opportunity missed, but if we’d invested in those players at the vital time where might be a quite different club, playing with a pace and vitality with products of our own youth system and getting better with every game as the players got older. Who knows just what damage has been done, and what the long-term damage in terms of academy recruitment will be? That’s the harder pill to swallow, because with our long-term and apparently insoluble inability to recruit up-and-coming players from other clubs it’s vital to our long-term future that we are able to develop our own players – and this means investing time and opportunity in them at the crucial point in their careers.