Reading may have struggled for goals last season, but there was no such problem for Andrija Novakovich. In fact, the young forward - who spent the campaign on loan at SC Telstar - scored more goals (22) than all of his parent club’s senior strikers combined (15).
That stand-out season was also a long time coming for the American who, despite making his Royals first team debut all the way back in 2015 (in a 4-1 drubbing at Watford), had been largely confined to the under-23s (bar a four game spell at Cheltenham Town).
“When you get opportunities, show what you can do. To get consistent minutes, that’s exactly why I went there on loan from Reading.
“It was a great experience, I enjoyed every minute. It’s just about developing and getting better. It’s a massive confidence boost.”
With so many players impressing at youth level, but failing to properly make the step up to men’s football, it’s great to see a young Royal making the transition with such ease. Although the quality of the division (the Dutch second tier) wasn’t great, getting regular game time and scoring regularly is the best kind of experience for a rookie striker.
As Novakovich himself admits about his time with Telstar, players learn a lot from swapping academy games for competitive action:
“It’s been challenging. I went there to get experience on a first team in a competitive atmosphere.
“Fans care. We’re fighting for promotion. It’s what football is all about, With the U-23s, I didn’t really get that.”
There’s some solid Royals-related precedent in recent years for this - both Aaron Tshibola and Liam Kelly looked good on paper at youth level, but it was experience out on loan that really kick-started their Reading careers. Tshibola played 23 times as Hartlepool completed a League Two edition of the Great Escape, whilst Kelly’s spell at non-league Bath City caught the eye of then-incoming manager Jaap Stam.
Now, fans are increasingly optimistic about Novakovich’s chances of succeeding at the club. The departures of Joseph Mendes, Deniss Rakels and Chris Martin, not to mention the impending retirement of Yann Kermorgant, leave an opening for the Wisconsin-born frontman - who made his full USA debut last March - in next season’s squad.
Clement has made it clear that he wants “quality” rather than quantity up front next season, but that shouldn’t rule out Novakovich. Going into 2018/19 with a core set of three forwards - himself, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and another forward - should still give him plenty of chances to impress at Championship level, assuming that Reading continue to play one out-and-out striker up top.
Competition is the essence of driving a squad forward to perform at their highest level, and Clement can ensure that by making it clear to Novakovich that he can progress at Reading. I still hope that the Royals can bring in a proven goalscorer in this transfer window but, whether we do or don’t, a young, ambitious back-up in Novakovich can only increase the team’s firepower.
Although Danny Loader and Sam Smith are alaoy fine talents, I'd say Novakovich's impressive campaign at Telstar puts him higher up the pecking order than them. Perhaps a year out on loan beckons for Loader or Smith?
The elephant in the room here is Reading’s disappointing record in recent years of academy graduates who haven’t made the grade. Tariqe Fosu, Aaron Kuhl, Dominic Samuel and more have all fell by the proverbial wayside, and I’d hate to see a similar fate for Novakovich, arguably one of the club’s better talents from the last few years.
What do you think? Should Novakovich be promoted to first team action next season? Let us know in the comments or on social media.
Stats via Transfermarkt.