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The Tilehurst End Advent Calendar: December 21

Remember the day Alex McCarthy shut out Liverpool on his own?

Liverpool v Reading - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Alex McCarthy

  • Position: Goalkeeper
  • Nationality: English
  • Total appearances: 75

Lurking in today’s advent calendar window is another player ‘who got away’ - goalkeeper Alex McCarthy. A fine prospect from a young age, McCarthy joined the Reading academy at the age of 16 in 2006, and signed professional terms for the club in 2008.

Reading v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

He went on to refine his skills with loan spells at a series of clubs, as varied as Woking, Cambridge United, Team Bath, Aldershot Town, Yeovil Town and Brentford, and eventually broke into the Royals’ first team in February 2011 as Adam Federici was injured late in a match at home to Watford.

Featuring prominently as Reading made their late charge to the Championship play-off final, his 15 matches for Reading that season included just two defeats – one of them a narrow 1-0 loss at Man City in the FA Cup. On the plus side, there were 10 victories, including eight in a row as well as the memorable FA Cup triumph over Everton at Goodison Park. But despite this and rave reviews, once Federici was fit again at the end of April, McCarthy was again relegated to the bench for the rest of the season, which ended with Federici shipping four goals at Wembley.

Much of the following season was spent on-loan at Leeds and Ipswich as Reading clinched the Championship title, and it was the following season that McCarthy came of age, and which included his memorable moment, as, at the age of 22, McCarthy became the youngest player to have played in the top six levels of English football.

He replaced Federici for the third Premier League match of the season when Federici was injured – although doubt was cast over whether this was a genuine injury or was actually a “dropping” by the Twitter outrage of Federici’s girlfriend. McCarthy was outstanding as Reading drew four out of six Premier League matches – including a 2-2 draw at Swansea for which he received rave reviews, but then he incurred a shoulder injury in November when he collided with the post in another drawn match at QPR.

Memorable Moment

It looked like McCarthy would be out for the rest of the season as this injury required surgery, but he returned to the first team much sooner than expected, turning out in April to face Liverpool at the MadStad, and if a whole 90-minute match can be called a “memorable moment”, this was undoubtedly his. Imperious throughout the match, he commanded his area from the start and kept out everything that Liverpool threw at him – making 10 top-class saves in this match against the likes of Suarez, Gerrard and Coutinho.

Liverpool, who had 14 shots on target but scored zero goals, failed to score away from home for the first time in nearly six months – and this was Reading’s first ever clean sheet against them.

Anyone who saw that goalkeeping performance that day will never forget it – and today I still wonder how he made some of those saves! It was, quite simply, a masterclass in goalkeeping. Royals manager Nigel Adkins called it “a fantastic display”, whilst Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was, for once, not speaking in hyperbole when he described it as “absolutely staggering.”

What happened next?

It looked like McCarthy’s future was secure as he kept the first-team spot for the rest of the season and for all but two matches of the next, back in the Championship, with a call-up to join England’s May 2013 tour to Brazil in the break between these two seasons.

But it was not to be. The financial crisis faced by Anton Zingarevich’s empty promises was really biting in 2014, and a massive tax bill which threatened the club’s very existence that summer meant they were forced to cash in on their most saleable asset. With two talented ‘keepers in the squad – and rumours of a refusal from Federici to quietly stay second fiddle - the sale of McCarthy was the most expedient and lucrative option for the club, and he departed to QPR that August.

As I think of yet another player nurtured by the Reading Academy who now plies their trade in another club’s colours it makes me both sad and angry – and even more so in the case of McCarthy, who I felt had the greatest potential of any of the Reading youngsters to reach the very highest level. Because a player with so much potential, and one capable of performing to such a high standard as he showed by keeping Liverpool’s best at bay in April 2013, is now warming a bench for Southampton and so far this season has played just three matches – as an over-age player for Southampton’s Under-21 team.

What a pity – and what a crying shame we couldn’t see him come to fruition in a Reading shirt.

Now you’ve read this, take a look back through MadStad memory lane with some other times academy players grabbed the headlines...