The Reading Academy has no doubt been a huge success, for both the club and the players fortunate enough to come through its system. Not only has it produced 41 men who have gone on to play for our first team, such as Gylfi Sigurdsson, Shane Long, and Jem Karacan, but it has given many others the chance to build a successful career elsewhere, ranging from World Cup appearance-maker Oliver Bozanic to SPL star Jonny Hayes.
In recent years the Academy has also had its own on-pitch success, with our youngsters competing in a wide range of competitions both in this country and abroad. The 2013/14 was arguably the peak for our sides, with the Under 18s reaching the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup, and the Under 21s winning the inaugural Premier League Cup.
There is an argument however that things have stagnated since then. Despite the incredible achievements of the first team this season, the club has only seen three Academy graduates start games in the league this season, compared with seven the previous year, and thirteen the season before. One of those three, Dominic Samuel, now finds himself back out on loan.
With the club focusing on a hard-fought and unexpected promotion campaign, first team chances for the youngsters have been sadly limited. However, with the introduction of the Premier League 2 and the Checkatrade Trophy, alongside existing competitions such as the aforementioned PL Cup and Premier League International Cup, there have been plenty of playing opportunities for the Under 23s to prove themselves as genuine prospects.
It must be said the club’s coverage of our Academy’s progress has been somewhat limited in recent years, especially when put up against other teams often providing live streaming and minute-by-minute commentary, so it has been difficult to follow exactly what has been going on for our youngsters this season. With that in mind however, we'll do our best to have a look at all that has gone on for our Academy sides this season, as well as who and what to look out for as the campaign draws to a close.
The Relegation Race
The PL2 is the country’s premier competition for the Under 23 age group. Launched this season and replacing the old U21 Premier League, the PL2 is split into two divisions of 12 teams each, with both promotion and relegation to play for. Thanks to the success of previous years, Reading have remained in the top division, following a 9th place finish last season which came after a promotion campaign from Division 2 in 2014/15.
Their place in the top flight remains a close-fought battle however, as the Royals have hovered above the relegation zone for most of the season. With the bottom two clubs relegated, Reading lie in 9th place, just one point ahead of 11th place Manchester Utd, who our guys saw off 2-0 in their most recent match. With five games to go, and the bottom six clubs separated by just three, it will be a hugely dramatic finish to the campaign.
Reading’s next game is on the 6th March, with the Royals hosting Liverpool at Adams Park. This is followed by a trip to Spurs, before three consecutive home games to finish against Arsenal, Leicester and Sunderland, with the final two games being played at the Madejski Stadium. It’s going to be close.
Our youngsters wouldn’t really be able to call themselves Reading players unless they had form in cup competitions, but it’s pleasing to say the Academy have been living up to their first team counterparts, with the Premier League Cup heading towards its conclusion.
Arguably the most publicised campaign was that of our Under 23s in the Checkatrade Trophy, a competition which threw up huge controversy from fans around the country and mass protests following the inclusion of youth sides for this year. Despite sixteen Under 23 teams entering the competition, only Swansea’s youngsters, eventual quarter-finalists, lasted longer in the competition than our boys.
Following surprise wins over the senior players of League 1 Bristol Rovers and League 2 high-flyers Portsmouth, the Royals qualified through to the knockout stages, where they drew Academy rivals Southampton. Renowned as one of the best youth setups in the country, Southampton have usually had the upper hand over our young sides, however Niall Keown’s goal allowed Anssi Jaakkola to perform his legendary shoot-out heroics, and see us into the Last 16.
A battling performance away at Yeovil’s first team followed, however with Sandro Wieser seeing red after less than 20 minutes, our young side were unable to perform any more heroics, despite goals from Andrija Novakovich and Josh Barrett.
Further disappointment came in the club’s debut in the Premier League International Cup, where the Royals took on international opposition in competition for the first time. Despite starting so promisingly against Athletic Bilbao, leading 2-0 after 9 minutes thanks to a Yakou Meite brace, the youngsters slipped to a 2-3 defeat, before bowing out of the competition with a 0-2 loss at home to Hertha Berlin at the Madejski.
All is not lost however, as the expanded Premier League Cup continues to roll on, with all 37 EPPP sides competing this year. Following a lengthy group stage with home and away ties against Reading’s group rivals Sheffield Utd, Stoke, and Birmingham, the Royals breezed through, topping the group with just a single loss. They will now be seeded for the Last 16 stage, as they look to win back the trophy they first secured in 2014.
Champions League Football?
Dropping below the Under 23s, we have the U18 Premier League, a competition that has seen its first stage come to a conclusion, with Reading well and truly in contention.
Split into two regional divisions, the Royals play in the Southern League of twelve sides, with the Top Four from the North and South qualifying for the final stage. Following a superb campaign, our youngsters comfortably qualified for the Last 8, holding onto 2nd place behind runaway leaders Chelsea before a slip in form and just one win in our final five games (a 7-0 defeat of Swansea) saw Arsenal overhaul us into 3rd.
However, this is fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of the competition, as the Royals once again head into the Final Stage. Last season saw Reading finish 7th, with Man City storming to the title. Having seen them dismantle our youngsters 4-0 in the FA Youth Cup this season, they look the team to beat following huge investment into their Academy structure.
Overcome City and the always competitive Chelsea, and there’s a huge reward potentially for our youngsters. The UEFA Youth League, usually run alongside the UEFA Champions League, has previously seen those CL sides compete in parallel to their first team counterparts. Although this structure remains, UEFA has introduced places for the Youth Champions of each country, a space that will be filled by this year’s U18 Premier League winner. If our youngsters ever want to get a taste of Champions League football, albeit at a smaller scale, this might be their best chance.
That's where we are right now. Tomorrow I'll be giving an update on some of the players to watch out for over these closing weeks of the season.