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OPINION: Quality Over Sentiment When It Comes To The Academy

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Stop asking for below-average players to feature just because they’re academy lads, argues Olly.

Notts County v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League Two Photo by Andrew Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

The sale of Rob Dickie to Oxford United last week sparked a debate that had coincidentally been brought up by BucksRoyal that very morning. Why are academy graduates being sold and not being seen in the Reading team?

They’re just not good enough

It’s a question that doesn’t really bother me that much. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing an academy player become a first team regular just as much as the next fan, but only if their quality merits it. For me, there seems little logic in sacrificing results just so supporters can cheer an academy product that probably isn’t good enough.

You don’t get points for having the most academy players in your squad, you get points for winning games. And you win games by having the best players, which, more often than not, will not come from your academy.

Success at senior level is very rarely built on a club’s academy, however discouraging that may be. The only player in Wolves’ Championship topping squad to have come through the club’s youth system and start a league game this season is 27-year-old Danny Batth. None of the players that started a league game for Reading in the 2005/06 season had come through the Royals academy (no, we’re not counting Shane Long).

There seems to be a worry in Berkshire that we’re letting academy players go too easily. This baffles me. Not since Michail Antonio, five and a half years ago, have Reading let go of an academy graduate and been proven wrong by the decision.

The departures of players of such as Jack Stacey, Craig Tanner and Jake Taylor in recent years have seen supporters claim that they should have been given more of a chance at Reading. But for me, they did little during their time at Reading or out on loan and have done little since leaving to show why this should have been the case. They have just seven appearances above League Two level between them, and are quite clearly not Championship standard-players. Of course, in their early twenties they can still develop, but it is still an age where you can gauge the potential of most players.

If we were linked with signing a player of similar quality as those three, but one who didn’t have history in the academy, the rumour would be laughed at by most and the player described as ‘nowhere near good enough’. Why does a player’s quality suddenly multiply by then just because they’ve come through the academy?!

Realistically, an average Championship club will not have an academy full of players who go on to be Premier League regulars, perhaps not even Championship regulars. If they’re that good, then they wouldn’t be at a Championship academy.

Figures released by Training Ground Guru in October revealed that 35 players that came through Reading’s academy played in the top five tiers of English football in 2016/17. Nine of those were in the Premier League or Championship, but the remaining 26 plied their trade in League One, League Two or the National League. It’s just the way the academy system works. Most clubs at our level with generally produce players for teams a little lower down the pyramid, as those statistics show.

In the same way, many of those who become Championship quality players will have come from Premier League academies. Looking at the current squad, Paul McShane and Tyler Blackett were at Manchester United, George Evans came through at Manchester City, John Swift started at Chelsea, Vito Mannone was at Arsenal and Liam Moore graduated at Leicester.

Reading’s ‘golden period’ of 2009-12 when Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jem Karacan, Alex Pearce, Hal Robson-Kanu and others came through and contributed to was fantastic but it set an unrealistic benchmark. It hasn’t been repeated, but no one should expect it to be. That’s not one person’s fault or a problem with the system. It’s simply a case that the players coming through aren’t as good or ready to step up. The success that Manchester United’s Class of ‘92 achieved has not been matched at Old Trafford since, but there’s absolutely no one lamenting that.

No lack of opportunity

People will point to the Reading youngsters of 2013/14 that won the Premier League Cup and reached the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup, and question why only Jake Cooper and Liam Kelly have gone on to make more than 20 appearances for the first team. But in reality, that’s certainly not a below average ratio.

Taking a club of similar pedigree to Reading, of the Fulham side that reached the FA Youth Cup final that year only Emerson Hyndman and Moussa Dembele have since made 20+ first team appearances. Similarly, of the Norwich City team that won the competition the previous season, twins Jacob Murphy and Josh Murphy are the only pair to have made it beyond 20 senior games.

Southampton v Norwich City - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round Replay - St Mary's Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

So the suggestions that Reading have ‘done wrong’ by their academy products or have ‘thrown away’ Eamonn Dolan’s legacy are an absolute myth. I can fault Jaap Stam for many things, but I cannot understand why people are criticising him for not giving youth a chance. The aforementioned Liam Kelly was on his way out of the club before the Dutchman gave him an opportunity and turned him into a regular. Omar Richards, Andy Rinomhota, Sam Smith, Danny Loader and Axel Andresson have all made their senior debuts under Stam this season.

Will those five players all become first team regulars? It’s highly unlikely. But again, that shouldn’t be an area of concern. At least two will probably depart (to a lower league club) after a succession of uninspiring loan spells and comments that ‘they should have played for us more’. But if they’re not good enough to be regulars and aren’t happy staying in the Under 23s or continually going out on loan, who’s to blame them for leaving permanently in search of game time?