On Monday, Jack Stacey joined the growing list of youngsters to depart Reading this summer, following in the footsteps of Tariqe Fosu the previous week. It's hard not to feel slightly disappointed - they came through the club's academy after all, but their decision to leave is completely understandable. They just want to play football.
It sounds almost idiotic: a footballer wanting to play football. But gone are the days when young players are happy to sit on the books of Premier League or Championship clubs, making loan move after loan move, occasionally playing in the cup for their parent club. In the modern era, younger players are a lot more proactive. The desire for regular, stable football has increased massively, and they're prepared to drop down a few divisions to get it.
Cycle of loans
Loan moves can evidently go either way. Take the Premier League Cup winning side of 2014 for example. Aaron Tshibola and Liam Kelly both spent time out on loan at Hartlepool United and Bath City respectively, and came back to Reading to break into the first team and make a real impact on the squad. On the other hand, we look at Stacey and Fosu who have had six loan spells between them in the last two years yet couldn't make it into the Royals team, thus decided to leave.
Staying at Reading simply wouldn't have made any sense. Both players will turn 22 within the next year and are still not really any closer to starting regularly in the Championship. As wingers, they're behind Roy Beerens, Garath McCleary, Adrian Popa, Callum Harriott and Yakou Meite in the pecking order and that's before you even consider that Jaap Stam won't always use wingers if he decides to pursue the three/five at the back system. So then, the only option would have been going out on loan again, which at this point in their careers really wouldn't have had much impact.
One or two loans are ok, but when you enter your fourth loan spell away from your parent club, it begins to become very unsettling and brings a whole load of uncertainty. Stacey had already been as far north as Carlisle and as far south as Exeter, where was he going to end up next?!
Meanwhile, players who are permanently contracted to a club are likely to be given more game time than loanees, as it's in the manager's long-term interest to develop a player they're actually keeping for more than a few months.
Jordon Mutch at Reading is a prime example. Of course we can all agree he was p*** poor, but the likelihood is, he still would have featured more towards the back-end of the season if he was on the club's books permanently and not only on loan.
Whilst staying on at Reading would have simply continued the cycle of loans, signing a permanent deal somewhere else lower down the football pyramid at least brings with it stability. Making that decision now was almost better than having the decision made for them in two years time.
In all likelihood, had Fosu and Stacey stayed at the Madejski Stadium until 2019 (the new deal offered to Fosu ran out then, as did Stacey's contract), they would have spent another two years out on loan before being let go and joining a League One or League Two club. By joining hypothetical League One or League Two club now, they won't waste another two years of their career. In fact, there is more chance that they will be playing Championship football in two years time because they have moved on than if they had decided to stay.
Reading have also been a beneficiary of this chain. Youngsters not settling for loan after loan also occurs in the Premier League, and is exactly why John Swift, Liam Moore and Tyler Blackett all dropped down a division last summer to sign for the Royals. Indeed, Moore spoke of how he wanted stability and to settle down with his family as a major reason for deciding to leave his home town and sign a four year contract in Berkshire.
So why can't all this 'regular football' you're talking about be played at Reading, Olly? The simple answer to that is that the young players are simply not good enough. Sure, it's great to see academy graduates in the team every week, but not every single player can make it.
Fosu and Stacey may have had a certain hype surrounding them, but the reality is, as Wimb pointed out last week, they haven't performed consistently in League One or Two so why would they suddenly make the jump to play regularly in the Championship?
The success of Reading's academy 10 years ago has almost put an expectation on the club to play more graduates in the modern era. Between 2007 and 2009, the likes of Alex Pearce, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jem Karacan, Hal Robson-Kanu and many more progressed through the youth system in Berkshire to cement themselves as first team regulars. In reality, that era was an anomaly. It is incredibly rare for that number of players to come up through the ranks and into the senior team all in one go.
Just because there aren't as many players from the academy making the grade in 2017 doesn't mean that the academy has got worse or the 'identity has been lost', it is simply a case of the current youngsters not being as good. It is now a fairly impressive achievement if clubs have one or two players from the academy making the step up per season, and Liam Kelly fulfils that hypothetical quota for Reading.
Many fans seem to still picture the likes of Fosu and Stacey as teenagers and academy players. Yet the reality is, they are at a stage of their careers where they need to kick on and play regularly. It's now time to look at the next generation of young Royals, such as 16-year-old Danny Loader and 19-year-old Axel Andresson.