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Youth, Recruitment And A Loss Of Identity

When talent doesn’t come through, the club’s pride takes a hit.

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Watford v Reading - Vicarage Road

Reading FC seems to be a club that’s lost its way recently. Whether you blame the manager, the owners, the scouting department, Kingsley and Queensley or a mixture of all the above, things just aren’t on the right track.

In particular, the mood around the club seems low. Sure, plenty of that is to do with the poor league form and bad performances that we’ve seen this season, but even when things were going well during last campaign’s third-placed finish, the atmosphere was still pretty flat.

This hasn’t happened overnight - far from it in fact. Go back a few years to the Sir John Madejski era, and Reading was a club that knew what it was about. Despite the limitations of the financial model (cautious prudency at all costs), we could compete at the highest level - 2015’s 19th-placed finish was the first time the Royals had come in below ninth in the second tier since Jamie Cureton sent us up at Brentford all the way back in 2002.

In fact, that model helped shape Reading’s identity - the Royals were always the plucky underdog scrapping for a fight against the big bulldog. Were we a big club? No, we didn’t care, and we didn’t pretend to be one.

Key amongst that was an academy which helped push through players that wanted to give their all for the club. Perhaps the best time for that was the period between 2009 and 2012 when Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jem Karacan, Alex Pearce, Hal Robson-Kanu and others made their first team debuts and featured heavily under Brendan Rodgers and Brian McDermott. Even Simon Church - hardly the most prolific of strikers - ran himself into the ground for the team that gave him his break in senior football.

With changes in ownership over the last few years came different transfer models - Anton Zingarevich and the Thai consortium all wanted Reading to be an established Premier League team, so adjusted the recruitment style accordingly (to mixed results).

In came players from teams as varied as Hoffenheim, Alania Vladikavkaz, FC Baku, Al Rayyan, Colorado Rapids, Antalyaspor, Legia Warsaw, Paços de Ferreira and Billericay (huge brownie points if you can match players to those clubs without looking it up). Out went the likes of Jake Taylor, Ryan Edwards, Pierce Sweeney, Conor Shaughnessy, Tariqe Fosu, Jack Stacey and Dominic Samuel.

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Watford v Reading - Vicarage Road

I’m not going to argue that they’re all really good players - they didn’t make it for good reasons - but it means so much more to the fans when academy lads like them make the grade. With all respect to Jure Travner, he didn’t contribute anything more to Reading Football Club than an answer to a half decent pub quiz question.

Who played left wing back in a 4-1 loss at Watford two days before the 3-0 win over Bradford in the FA Cup?

Beyond comedy value, Travner’s appearance at Vicarage Road didn’t mean anything to me as a fan. Despite the thrashing, I was delighted to see Mikkel Andersen, Niall Keown, Jake Cooper, Jack Stacey, Jake Taylor and Andrija Novakovich get minutes. They’d spend years with the club, working hard behind the scenes before finally getting their chance to shine. For them and the fans, making the grade had emotional pay-off.

The depressing fact of the matter is that the gulf between the first team and the fans has widened in the last few years. For me, you can draw a pretty direct link between there being fewer opportunities for academy players and a much more subdued atmosphere at the Mad Stad.

What’s the answer?

In short, give the current crop more chances in the first team. For example, I like Pelle Clement and hope he does well - but if he’s not going to get any opportunities, why keep him in the squad to block the progress of Andy Rinomhota? Adrian Popa was shipped in from Steaua Bucharest and has played barely more than a dozen games - if it’s a squad player we’re after, give someone like Fosu a go.

Any shortages in defence? Don’t loan in a West Ham teenager for a few months - save some cash and promote Rob Dickie, Axel Andresson, Tom McIntyre or Gabriel Osho. I can’t promise you they’ll be the next Paolo Maldini, but the fans will love seeing one of their own pull on the hoops.

More of that, regularly, over the next couple of years and the emotional bond between fans and players can start to be mended. Will playing academy graduates a lot more solve all of Reading’s problems overnight? No, of course not, but it’ll start to restore some passion and joy to a fanbase that really needs something to be proud of right now.