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When Opportunity Doesn’t Knock

Jon Keen on why the pathway of youth development has broken down at Reading.

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Stop asking for below-average players to feature just because they’re academy lads, argues Olly. He also justifies this by saying that the majority of the players released have turned out not to be all that good after all, so there are no regrets. There’s also the question: “Why does a player’s quality suddenly multiply by then just because they’ve come through the academy?!”

I couldn’t let this pass without comment, but once my comment reached 200 words I thought it’d be much better answering as an opinion piece. So here we go.

Firstly, that blanket statement “We let go of them and they turned out not to be good enough” is simplistic and doesn’t take into account the realities. Although, of course, it will be true for some players, I can’t see how it is for those I’ll discuss in this piece.

I trust everyone will accept that young players have a development path, one which involves playing games at higher and higher levels as they get older and better. But what if they reach a point on that development path where they need to push on and gain first team experience at the appropriate level of the game, and then don’t get those opportunities. Guess what happens?

Yes, their development is derailed, and their progression potentially stops. Investment in confidence and game time at the appropriate level at the appropriate point in a young player’s development is a crucial part of completing that development. It’s not rocket science – or sentiment - any more than it would be if a child who was a promising and voracious reader from a young age was given a plentiful supply of challenging, higher age-group books up until a certain age – say 13 – and was then told they couldn’t read any books written for teenagers or above. Do you think their reading would continue to progress, or would it stagnate to a point when a few years ago someone would glibly comment “their reading skills aren’t good enough for us anyway, so no regrets.”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If young players don’t get the vital opportunities to develop then the odds are they won’t develop - and then (surprise, surprise!) it’s easy to dismiss them as being not good enough. This doesn’t apply to all young players though – there are some who are almost immediately first-team ready (for example Liam Kelly and Gylfi Sigurdsson). For these outstanding players the route to the first-team is easy and obvious, but they’re the exceptions. The majority of other academy players who have the potential to make the grade need the vital nurturing that acts as a leg-up to turn them into fully equipped footballers at this level.

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People will presumably say: “isn’t that what the loan system is for?” Up to a point, yes - but only for earlier development stages. Loans give game time, build up match experience and stamina, as well as teaching ‘game nous’, but once a player is ready to push on at Championship level then half a season on lower-league mud-baths won’t cut the mustard. Just like the age-appropriateness of books in the example above, matches need to be at the right level of the player’s development – they need to have the opportunity to play with the big boys and prove what they can (or can’t!) do. And that means a good few games in the first-team, with the confidence-boosting knowledge that they’ll get those games for sure.

Like lower-division loans, an occasional substitute appearance in a cup game, or a first-team call-up for a single game every couple of months won’t much help their development – and may even set it back. There’s more to quality development than counting the appearances – and, frankly, defending the current situation by using 25 minutes as a substitute in extra time of a League Cup tie as “making their senior debut under Stam this season” is over-egging the pudding to say the least.

And loans can be counter-productive for young players. The manager of a club taking a player on loan has no great incentive to ensure that the player’s development pathway is followed – they often just want a warm body to fill a hole in their squad. And no matter how bought-in to a young player’s development a manager might be, things change at clubs – managers get sacked, other players come and go, or get injured. All this has the potential to damage a player’s development just as much as no match-time would. In the case studies at the end of this article, I’ll discuss such an example.

Olly also uses the example of Manchester United in his opinion piece – and of course it’s self-evident that the higher up the league pyramid a club is, then the harder it is to break into their first team - although Liverpool might have been a better example, where 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold has made 15 appearances so far this season. But Reading – especially this season – aren’t a team at the same level with anywhere the same level of resources, so it’s an unfair comparison.

Instead, Reading is a team with a limited budget, constrained by FFP regulations, and with a squad of first-team players who are not only patently failing to perform on the pitch but are alienating a fair percentage of the fanbase at an ever-quickening pace. (Cynics at this point would probably joke that this is about the only thing they’re doing at any pace!).

Surely the “quality over sentiment” argument is only valid when there is clear quality – and success – on the pitch, which there blatantly ain’t at the moment. Call it ‘sentiment’ if it makes you feel better, but any day of the week I’d rather see an academy kid in the first-team than a player who’d probably never heard of Reading before they were told about the size of the paycheque by their agent. Of course, you’d not drop an established, successful first-team player to blood a kid who’s not ready, but we don’t exactly have many established, successful first-team players at the moment.

A crowd will always rejoice in the success of a local kid – and also be more tolerant of mistakes they make, because the majority of the crowd, those who think about the game, appreciate that playing first-team football is a vital part of a young player’s development, and so the occasional mistake is inevitable. But what’s important is what the players gain from the matches in terms of experience, confidence and overall development.

Whether it’s true or not I can’t be certain, but there’s always a perception that a young, locally-trained player with something to prove will put more energy and enthusiasm into their performance than a journeyman overseas player who does this every week. But a change of personnel, and maybe a change of pace, would certainly make things interesting for a crowd who are desperate for something – anything! – to change. It might even make watching Reading a bit less of an ordeal!

If winning at all costs is your philosophy, and that philosophy precludes ever taking a gamble on an academy graduate who needs game time in the hope that this investment will let them blossom into a fully-rounded Championship-level footballer, then I feel sorry for you – and don’t forget to turn out the lights when you leave the stadium! But Reading can’t really afford to think short-term only – developing young players requires longer-term thinking – something noticeably absent over recent years.

But to dismiss the academy’s ‘golden period’ of 2009-12 as a one-off is insulting to all those who are involved in the academy, especially as the next generation coming out of the academy promised so very much. We had a young team that was able to stand toe-to-toe with the best of the other Tier One EPPP academies and to triumph – it was fewer than four years ago, after all, that Reading’s Under-21 team beat Manchester City’s over two legs to win the Premier League Cup.

I can’t believe that such a talented group of players somehow all, except one, failed to make the grade here. Certainly I’d not expect all of them to succeed, but the fact that we had such a large number of highly-rated kids coming through is a triumph for the academy. But it’s a badge of shame for the management of the football club (and not just the current management) that so many of them weren’t given opportunities to develop further – a blockage of opportunity that has cost the football club in terms of what might have been, and has cost the young players concerned a far more grievous cost.

Olly might see the stat that “35 players that came through Reading’s academy played in the top five tiers of English football in 2016/17” as something to be proud of. I see it as the exact opposite – a demonstration that we’re producing players who don’t get the opportunity to push on here.

And I’ll vigorously challenge the assertion “It’s just the way the academy system works. Most clubs at our level will generally produce players for teams a little lower down the pyramid…” If that’s true, why do we have an academy at all? Surely that’s not what it’s for? It sounds like it’s in business to produce lower league players, and this, coupled with the wasted under-21 Cup winning team, points to a clear lack of opportunity here - one which prevents players pushing on just when they’re ready and need first-team football.

In conclusion, let’s look at a few case brief case studies of players mentioned - and then tell me that there isn’t an opportunity blockage at the top of this football club.

Michail Antonio

Olly says that this is the only example where Reading released an academy graduate and “were proven wrong by the decision”. The circumstances were slightly different, though, and I’d suggest that they actually prove my point about youth development opportunities. Antonio had great promise – no one doubts that – but the timing was horribly wrong. He’d done the usual rounds of loans at places like Colchester to gain experience and match-time, as well as at Sheffield Wednesday in League One and playing a handful of Championship games for Reading. But at the point when he was ready to step-up as a fully-fledged Championship player, he couldn’t do it with Reading as they’d been promoted to the Premier League in April 2012.

Northampton Town v Reading - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

This is a perfect example of where Reading under Brian McDermott (who always was fully bought into opportunity for young players) did the right thing and allowed him to move on. Recognising that he needed regular first-team football at Championship level and a settled place in a team to fulfil his potential, he was allowed to move on a permanent transfer back to Wednesday. The Owls had been promoted and could provide exactly what he needed – and all credit to McDermott and Hammond for granting him a move (with extensive add-ons, which were realised!). This is how youth development should work, and proves how a promising youngster can push on it when they’re given the crucial opportunity of a run in team at the right time.

Aaron Kuhl

Remember Kuhl? A key member of the Under-21 Premier League Cup winning team, he was linked with a £2 million move to Manchester City in Summer 2014, and played for England at both Under-19 and Under-20 levels. The future looked bright, and in 2014/15 he made eight first team appearances under Nigel Adkins (another manager with a track record of developing young players). Then Adkins left, and Steve Clarke arrived, and that was the end of Kuhl’s opportunities at Reading. Farmed out on loan to Dundee United, he had a torrid time, playing seven games – and having seen him in this spell (link below) I’m convinced that loan spell did his development no favours at all.

On his return to Reading, the next loan spell was at Boreham Wood – hardly a step up when he obviously needed to prove himself at a higher level, and as Kuhl told the Reading Chronicle in June 2017:

“I wasn’t allowed to play because I wasn’t getting a contract. They said they wanted to give the other players a chance to play to get a contract next season.

“I thought ‘fair enough’ but I was just thinking I could help them out because they weren’t doing the best in the league at the time and I’m quite a good, defensive player. I could help them shore up the back and they could help me find a club.”

This is a perfect example of what can happen to the most promising young players when a manager doesn’t give them the right opportunities at the right time. I bet if Adkins had stayed at the club, or even if McDermott had been there at the right time, then Kuhl’s development would have been properly invested in. But instead he had managers who didn’t give opportunities to young players, and who went for the short-term option. Kuhl is currently recovering from injury and is without a football club.

Tariqe Fosu & Jack Stacey

Let’s consider these players together as their careers have followed a similar trajectory, and for me they are the perfect examples of the opportunity blockage we’re currently seeing. Both members of that Under-21 Premier League Cup winning team in 2014, they both had had cameo roles in the Reading team in 2014/15 as 19-year-olds – Stacey played six times, whilst Fosu played just once, replacing Stacey after 30 minutes in the last match of the season as Reading beat Derby 3-0 and stamped on their promotion hopes.

Fulham U18 v Reading U18 - FA Youth Cup Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

The next campaign, they went on various loans as part of their development cycle under Steve Clarke – Stacey to Barnet and Carlisle, Fosu to Fleetwood and Accrington Stanley. They received generally favourable reviews (for instance I saw Stacey score a stunning long-range goal on his Carlisle debut, and Fosu was named League Two’s player of the month for April 2016) and their development seemed to be nicely on track. Then Stam arrived.

The chronology is important here, so I’ll list it below.

  • 13th June 2016 – Jaap Stam appointed Reading manager.
  • 27th June 2016 – Reading players return after summer for pre-season training.
  • July to August – Reading purchase van den Berg, Mendes, Beerens, Meite, Harriott and Wieser, as well as Swift and Moore.
  • 12th July 2016 - Reading depart for their pre-season tour of Holland without Stacey and Fosu.
  • 31st August 2016 – Stacey and Fosu depart on long-term loan moves, to Exeter and Colchester respectively. They never really returned from these loans, and in June 2017 they were both sold.
Leyton Orient v Colchester United - Sky Bet League Two Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At the STAR fan’s forum the next day (1st September) I asked Stam to provide some background to these moves, and an indication of what the future for these two promising players would be. His answer, in forthright terms, was that he didn’t rate the players and also that this was his squad and no-one tells him what to do. I confess that I was less than impressed by the tone and attitude of his answer, but just as much concerned by the fact that after just eight weeks and no competitive matches in which they figured Stam had written these two young players off permanently. The fact that they weren’t taken on tour suggests that, in fact, Stam had written off their careers after more like two weeks.

I don’t believe that these two players were given a fair chance – if they had, who knows how they might have progressed, if the door on their Reading careers hadn’t been slammed (Stammed?) shut after such a cursory viewing? What if he’d given them a fair crack of the whip, a run of games in the first team and a chance to complete their development here?

Of course, they might not have stepped up to the mark given the opportunity here – but it would have been only fair and right to have given them that opportunity. It was also potentially sensible financially if they had made it at this level then that would have saved two potentially expensive foreign transfers, and would have made the long-term investment in academy training worthwhile (in Stacey’s case this was over ten years’ worth of training).

But short-termism and (dare I suggest it, arrogance?) denied them those opportunities. Of course, they might not have either or both made it, but not having the chance to try seems to me to be the worst outcome of all. And over recent years there have been just too many promising young players who have failed to make the breakthrough – or at least haven’t had the chance to do so - for this to be coincidence. As under-21s they were demonstrably as good as any other squad of young players in the country, and in order to get professional contracts as 17 or 18 year-olds, they clearly had the potential to make it through to the first team.

So why did such an alarmingly high proportion not kick on? It can, surely, only be lack of opportunity. Lack of opportunity at the right level, lack of opportunity at the right stage in the players’ development cycle. But it takes a leap of faith and a strategic view to make an investment of time and confidence in the development of both an individual player and in the long-term good of the club. Instead, we seem to have had a short-term, win at all costs, “write off the careers of promising young players in the name of immediate expediency” mentality.

And that makes me particularly sad and particularly angry.