Someone recently said to me: ”now isn’t the time for Paul Clement to focus on the academy, we’re in a relegation battle”. This got me thinking - firstly, can you class it as a relegation battle after six games? And secondly, more pertinently and the focus of this article, exactly when is the time to focus on the academy?
I know I’m outspoken on Clement, and I’ll try to put bias aside and remain as non-partisan as I can here in what I see as a kind of follow-on to the fundamental point of the article I wrote just after Reading’s current manager was appointed: Why I’m Sceptical About Paul Clement.
Since my article back in March it’s fair to say that we haven’t seen much progress from the academy. Discounting Liam Kelly and the injured Jordan Obita, as both have been integrated into the team for a couple of seasons now, there have been varying fates this year for those who featured for us in the league or cup.
In this piece, I’ll assess Reading’s youth development by looking at two key areas: where the club’s youngsters currently are in their development (on loan, in the under-23s and so on), and what the future holds for Reading’s academy in general. For that second part, I’ll ask the following questions:
- Have we missed opportunities to promote youth?
- Are we giving opportunities for senior academy players to show what they offer?
- Are we sending the wrong signals to the academy?
- So, when is the right time for the academy to be put first?
All the academy talent Reading currently have on their books
Those who have been loaned out
Sam Smith, Tennai Watson and Andrija Novakovich are out on loan for the season at Oxford United, AFC Wimbledon (both in League One) and Fortuna Sittard (in the Eredivisie) respectively. Smith will return aged 21, with two years left on his contract, Watson will be 22 with two years remaining and Andrija Novakovich, then 22, will be entering the final year of his contract.
Whilst each of these loans are great opportunities for those players’ development at a good level, they will no doubt be expecting to return with the opportunity to stake a claim for the first team. However, unless there are changes throughout the season, each will find themselves with more competition than when they left, given the signings of Andy Yiadom at right back and Marc McNulty and Sam Baldock up front following the departure of Yann Kermorgant.
Axel Andrésson is also reaching a pivotal stage in his career ahead of his 21st birthday in January. With Liam Moore (for how long, who knows?), Tiago Ilori, Paul McShane and John O’Shea currently ahead of him in the pecking order, he signed a new contract until 2020 and joined Viking in Norway on a three-month loan until November when the Norwegian season ends.
We have also loaned out three academy goalkeepers, which appear to be sensible decisions given we have Vito Mannone and Anssi Jaakkola on the books in addition to the signing of Sam Walker over the summer. Lewis Ward (21), who spent last season at Hungerford until January before stepping up to the National League with Aldershot for the remainder of the season, has stepped up again - this time to League Two with Northampton Town for the duration of this campaign.
Both the other loanees have gone to Hungerford Town. Axel Andrésson’s 16 year-old brother Jökull joined on a loan until January but, after he sustained an injury in his second game, regular under-23 goalkeeper Liam Driscoll (19) replaced him at Bulpit Lane.
Reverted to academy
Tom Holmes made his debut at centre-back for Reading last season and appears to be sixth choice at best, although at only 18 years-old and with time on his side, he since appears to have dropped back to the academy. There, he’ll be facing competition from under-23 captain Gabriel Osho and the highly-rated Tom McIntyre, Andre Burley and Akinwale Odemayo who have all appeared in the Premier League 2 so far this season.
Danny Loader, the youngest of this crop, trained alongside the first team throughout 2017/18, although featuring for the under-23s and for the first team in the Carabao Cup. He also appears to have reverted entirely to the academy at this stage.
On the fringes
The other two that featured under Jaap Stam - Omar Richards and Andy Rinomhota - remain on the periphery of the first-team squad. Richards (20) has featured twice in the league this season, playing the full 90 minutes against Derby County in the absence of the then-suspended Tyler Blackett, then coming on as a late sub against Nottingham Forest.
Although featuring in the Carabao Cup, he’s not been a regular in the matchday squad with Blackett staking his claim for the left-back spot before Chris Gunter’s return against Sheffield Wednesday. With the Welshman stepping up his rehab from injury and Jordan Obita back in the next few months it’s likely we’ll see Richards return to the youth set-up for the foreseeable future.
Andy Rinomhota remains behind Liam Kelly, Leandro Bacuna, David Meyler, John Swift and perhaps Saeid Ezatolahi for a midfield position, battling with Pelle Clement for a peripheral matchday place. His only appearance this season was the final 17 minutes against Birmingham City, before being an unused sub against Watford - he is yet to appear on the bench in the league.
Other young players and their potential pathway to the first team
The early signs from this season back-up my fears ahead of the summer: that we’ll favour experience over the academy, and recruitment will continue to aim at plugging holes as a short-term, reactive solution. Whilst this is understandable for a squad that has under-performed for four of the last five years, questions can rightly be asked about where opportunities for long term progression will arise.
At the moment, none of our midfield options are making the shirt their own. Behind Bacuna, Kelly, Meyler and Swift we have Pelle Clement (22) and Andy Rinomhota (21), both of whom are training with the first team squad and seen to be on the periphery - Clement was a standout player in pre-season and Andy Rinomhota has showed signs of potential. Isn’t it right to ask: “can they be any worse than the current options?”
With defensive midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi joining on deadline day, it might make sense now for Andy Rinomhota (who is six months younger than Saeid) to get regular under-23 games, but I question whether we even considered looking internally for a midfield option in the first place. I sure hope Ezatolahi is good…
Frankly, if I had a say, I’d be sending Liam Kelly to the under-23 team for the remainder of this season or until he demonstrated a visible change. It’s the final year in which he’s eligible for the age group.
We also have Luke Southwood who was seen travelling with the main squad for the first few games, and was seemingly backup to Mannone and the newly signed Sam Walker when Jaakkola was injured. Now Jaakkola is returning, it appears Southwood has also reverted to the under-23 team, taking the place of Liam Driscoll as under-23 goalkeeper while Driscoll covers for Andrésson’s injury at Hungerford.
When is the time to integrate young players, and what next?
All of the above brings me to some final questions.
Have we missed opportunities to promote youth?
With Paul Clement wanting to have three goalkeepers, was the signing of Sam Walker necessary? After Lewis Ward had a standout loan last year at Aldershot, and Southwood took the Manager’s, Fans’ and Players’ Player Of The Season awards at Bath City along with an under-20 World Cup winners’ medal in the summer of 2017, wouldn’t this have been the ideal time for one to step-up to the bench?
Anssi Jaakkola’s contract was extended by one year and we also signed Sam Walker on a free from Colchester United. Would we be any weaker with Southwood and Ward as the other two keepers? Probably not – and both are now further down the pecking order than they were last season.
We also signed John O’Shea as our fourth choice centre-back. This makes sense in that it’s with a view to him making the move into coaching when he retires, and to appease the fact that he still has the appetite to play. But, with the previously-mentioned large number of talented centre backs we have at under-23 level, could his spot in the squad have perhaps been better used?
Reading boosted their firepower by bringing in Sam Baldock and Marc McNulty this summer following the mutual termination of Yann Kermorgant’s contract. Both of these additions make sense on paper, Baldock having been a large part of Brighton’s promotion to the Premier League and McNulty having had a stunning second half of the season in Coventry’s promotion to League One.
We also have Yakou Meite who is rather raw and provides another physical presence beyond Jon Dadi Bodvarsson. However, six league and two cup games into the season and goals look hard to come by. Again, would we be in a worse position if Andrija Novakovich were one of our options?
Are we giving opportunities for senior academy players to show what they offer?
Another notable point is that, Southwood aside, the gulf between the academy and the first team looks bigger than it has been in the last few seasons. In the past we’ve seen academy players training with the first team but, Richards (out of necessity) and Rinomhota aside, there’s nothing that indicates players from the under-23s are involved with the first team.
The only opportunities to train with the first team appear to be going to those who were previously integrated. If younger players aren’t given the opportunity to train, test themselves and showcase to the manager what they offer, where will their opportunities come from? This is compounded when the manager does not appear to be watching or following what’s going on at under-23, under-18 and under-16 levels.
Are we sending the wrong signals to the academy?
If we are recruiting to plug gaps and focus on short-term results (which aren’t currently forthcoming), resulting in moving academy players who were involved in the squad further away, what impression is that sending to those in the youth set-up?
If this approach remains in the long term we risk losing players like Ward, Southwood and Novakovich in the next season or two. After two years in the Netherlands, one in the Eredivisie, and becoming a USA international over the summer, do we expect Novakovich to want to come back to Reading?
So what happens on his return? He’ll have one year left where he’ll be expecting assurances and game time before agreeing to stay or extend his deal - or we’ll sell up. Ward will be in a similar position, Southwood possibly too, and all three look like they have bright futures ahead of them. Andy Rinomhota is still with us until 2021, so we have longer to figure that one out.
However, if the younger prospects like Danny Loader feel overlooked, this could lead to others potentially looking to move on. That may have a ripple effect through the under-18s, under-16s and below. Will parents view our academy system as the best viable option for their children at the youngest ages? Will we struggle to get potential recruits to join in the first place?
With murmurings of discontent already existing in the academy from what appears to be the lack of a pathway, it’s a question that the club should be fronting up to - and publicly.
So, when is the right time for the academy to be put first?
Simply put, I don’t know. If we’re really in a relegation battle you want to turn to those who have experience, but on the flip-side giving an academy player or two (I’m not suggesting eleven…) a chance can be galvanising. Fans get behind home-grown players, they’ll be looking to make the shirt their own and the effort will show, even if there’s rawness to their play. It could work, or it couldn’t.
Then again, if we start winning games and move up the table, ‘you don’t change a winning side’.