When an academy honours board was unveiled at the Madejski Stadium earlier this month, Alex Haddow’s name, found in the top left hand corner, was one of the less recognisable alongside the likes of Shane Long, Jem Karacan and Gylfi Sigurdsson.
In the late 1990s, Haddow was the very first player to come through Reading’s newly formed academy and feature for the first team. His career would see him appear at an FA Cup final and represent England, but perhaps not in the way he would have dreamt when he first joined the Royals aged 13.
“I was never really that interested in football,” Haddow says. “My dad played for Woking and so did his two brothers, and my brother was mad on football. But if it was a weekend, they went off to football so I went along. I didn’t start playing until I was 11.”
Haddow grew up in Fleet, Hampshire, and was scouted by Arsenal before an injury saw him drop out of the Gunners’ set up. It was then that Reading beckoned as Haddow recalls: “My dad took me to some open trials with the Reading youth set up, along with my brother, who was a year older. We went to the trials because it was the only professional local club to us. At these trials I got asked to sign schoolboy forms and started playing. When I was 15 I signed YTS [Youth Training Scheme] forms, which was actually a year earlier than I was expecting.”
At the time, Elm Park was still Reading’s home ground and only a Centre of Excellence existed to accommodate young players. But Haddow saw an exciting transition first-hand as the Madejski Stadium was opened in 1998 and then academy status was granted the following year to allow the club’s youngsters to compete against the country’s elite.
“It just seemed like everything was moving forward for Reading Football Club so it was quite a good time to be involved,” he said. “There just seemed to be a bit more of a buzz around the place because of it [the new stadium] and because of this new academy status.
“We had such a good youth team and were doing well before it was an academy, so when we started playing Chelsea, Arsenal and teams like that, we were really holding our own. I think we beat Chelsea regularly, we seemed to be their bogey team. We were really strong amongst that group of teams, so the general standard did lift, but we were good enough to be there anyway.”
By the start of the 1999/2000 season, Haddow had worked his way into the plans of first team manager Tommy Burns, but had to wait a little longer than expected to make his debut. “There was a bit of a false start,” he said. “I got sent off at the end of the previous season, it was some crappy youth team game, I don’t even remember who it was against.
“But I had been told that I would be part of the squad for the first game of the season [at home against Bristol City]. I even went to the ground, I drove there in a new suit and was ready to make my debut, but when I got there I got told I couldn’t. When they’d submitted the squad, I’d obviously flagged up on the FA’s system. I was absolutely gutted as you can imagine.”
Three games later, Haddow’s chance arrived, and by appearing against Peterborough in the League Cup, he officially became the first academy product to make his senior Royals bow.
“It was great [to make my debut]. I just remember working so hard at the start of that season. I was only 17 but I was working my arse off, I was the fittest in the team and I was pushing and pushing. I was almost a bit relieved when I made my debut because you just want it to come so quickly, it’s what you’ve been waiting for all your teenage years. So it was absolutely immense, like a dream come true. My dad and my brother were there watching, so it was surreal. Playing for my local club that I’d been at for years, I absolutely loved it.”
Haddow played with the likes of Darren Caskey, Nicky Forster and Andy Bernal on his debut, and recalls how reserve team manager Kevin Dillon didn’t give him the easiest of welcomes into the first team:
“I remember the first day when I went in and sat in the first team changing room, I was 16. Kevin Dillon walked in with a letter that my dad had written him, as I’d moved out of home. He’d written this letter saying ‘Alex is obsessed with fishing’, which was true, we always used to go fishing on the River Kennet.
“Dillon continued reading from the letter, ‘would you mind finding digs close to the River Kennet because Alex loves fishing and he’s grown up fishing on the river’. Kevin Dillon read this out in front of the entire first team squad and I had no idea my dad had written it so I was horrified. They’re all laughing their arses off and I’m think oh for f***’s sake dad why did you do that? Obviously they then ripped it out of me for the next six months.
“There was lots of things like that that as a young lad you just keep your head down and get on with it. But then when things are going well, they totally accept you. I remember in training if someone like Caskey gives you a bit of a nod or you start playing with him it’s awesome.
“Training was pretty lively, I remember getting absolutely smashed in training. I think it was Neil Smith whose place I was probably going to take, and I remember he absolutely cleaned me out and it was embarrassingly obvious.”
As for Tommy Burns, the academy graduate has nothing but positives to say about the Scot: “Tommy Burns was a real gentleman, a lovely, lovely human being. It’s unusual to get a character like him in football. I didn’t experience anyone else like him. He was like a fatherly bloke walking around.
“He didn’t say an awful lot, and I didn’t know him that well, but I what I did know, I had total respect for. I thought he was a good coach too, he was trying to do things at Reading that I think given more time would have worked.”
More time did not come for Burns though, and he was sacked by Reading in September 1999, just as Haddow was breaking into the first team. He was replaced by Alan Pardew, who Haddow bluntly calls a “complete dick” that “ruined” his Reading career.
“I was thinking anyone can take the manager’s job apart from Alan Pardew! He was my reserve manager the previous year and didn’t really favour me in the reserves. So when he was appointed I just thought ‘F***!’ as I’d been on a good run and was getting games.
“I had been promised a contract by Tommy Burns, a four-year one, but then Pardew came in and I sat on the bench.
“I remember within three weeks of him coming in, a magazine article came out which I didn’t have any idea about. It was in FourFourTwo, they did a section on ‘ones to watch’ each month, and I was one of them. It was saying that I had aspirations to play in the Premier League and that Alan Pardew should get the contract out of the filing cabinet or it would be too late. I honestly had no I idea about it at all.
“We came in after training and Pardew called me into this empty changing room next door. He grabbed me round the throat and pinned me up against the wall and started saying ‘How could you f***ing write this?’. He started throwing me around, I thought he was going to smack me. He thought I was making him look bad, because I hadn’t been put on a contract, and all this sort of stuff.
“I was 17, I’d just made my debut, was trying desperately to impress, people can write whatever they want to write. But he properly roughed me up, it was my worst nightmare. In retrospect I just think he was a coward, manhandling a 17 year-old lad. If that’s how he chooses to handle things, then one day it’ll come back and bite him on the arse and maybe it has.
“I actually really respect Alan Pardew as a coach, I think he was a very good coach. Some of the things I learnt and the way he was going about things with the squad I was really impressed with. He put some principles and processes in place that made the team work.
“I try to look at it from an objective point of view and I wouldn’t slag off his coaching style because he has had some really good success. I think’s probably the rest of it that lets him down.”
Pardew never favoured Haddow, largely dropping him back to the reserves and playing him in just one further game – a ten minute cameo against Brentford in September 2000. The following summer, after just four first-team appearances, Haddow was released by the Royals, ending a six-year association with the club.
Click here for part two of our chat with Alex, as he discusses life after Reading - including playing for the England national futsal team and retiring from the game.