In a team containing players from the academies of Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham, it was Reading’s Danny Loader who caught the eye as England’s Under 19s beat the Netherlands 4-1 on Wednesday. The 18-year-old netted twice at St. George’s Park - just the latest star moment of an impressive last 12 months.
Having been in the Royals academy since 2012, Loader first attracted attention when he scored four goals in a 5-2 friendly win over QPR last summer at the age of just 16. He would make his competitive first team debut that August in the League Cup against Millwall, becoming only the third player in the club’s history to make a senior appearance before his 17th birthday.
Whilst more first team appearances didn’t follow for Loader in 2017/18, he did make his mark in the Premier League 2 with five goals and three assists in 13 games, as well as the FA Youth Cup with four goals in two games. Success with England was achieved too, as he helped the Under-17s win the World Cup in India, scoring two goals against Iraq in the group stages. At the end of the season, Loader was nominated for the LFE Championship Apprentice of the Year and also named Reading Sports Personality of the Year alongside Luke Southwood.
The striker has started the 2018/19 campaign in red hot form too, scoring three goals in three Premier League 2 games so far, earning him a nomination for the division’s Player of the Month for August.
With all of these achievements at youth level, Loader is arguably the ‘next big thing’ to come out of Reading’s academy. Is it now time that he is given the chance to step up into the first team?
To answer that question, you have to ask yourself another one - is Loader better than our current striking options? In my opinion, whilst he may not be better (he’s only 18 after all), he certainly has far more confidence right now.
Marc McNulty is still without a goal for the club, fellow summer signing Sam Baldock has made a less than impressive start to life in a Reading shirt with just one strike to his name, whilst Yakou Meite appears to have a lot of heart but not much end product. Meanwhile, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson may have three of the Royals’ five league goals so far this season, but he’s never been the sort of striker you can rely on consistently.
So on those grounds, handing Loader a chance would seem warranted, especially considering something needs to change given our current league position. It’s a fair argument to say if your first team players aren’t performing, then in-form academy players are well worth a shot.
Equally though, you could suggest that the pressure of being at the wrong end of the table is not the sort of environment you want to be throwing young players in to. It’s very easy to get swept along on the Loader hype train when he’s scoring left, right and centre at youth level, but the jump to senior level is not a smooth as it seems, and many players struggle to adapt. It comes down to is what is more beneficial to Loader and the team as a whole - him playing poorly if picked or him not being picked at all.
With Paul Clement’s seeming reluctance to not select young players, how likely it is Loader will actually play anytime soon is difficult to say.
But for me, the manager would do well to at least give him a chance. I don’t think anyone is asking for him to play every game, but if any player from the academy deserves an opportunity in the first team, it’s the 18-year-old striker. It always puts a smile on fans’ faces when ‘one of our own’ steps out on the pitch (especially, in this case, when they were actually born in Reading), and in a time where apathy towards the club couldn’t be higher, a few games for Loader could contribute to bridges being built.
If Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Morgan Gibbs-White, Loader’s England teammates, can be making senior appearances for Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea and Wolves this season, then there’s little excuse for Loader not to be given a shot in the Championship. Even Stephen Walker and Max Aarons, who didn’t make it off the bench for the Under-19s against the Netherlands, have been given first team opportunities by Championship sides Middlesbrough and Norwich City respectively, and Loader appears to be further in his development than that pair.
The worry is if that Reading don’t hand Loader an opportunity, then bigger clubs will come calling. The striker was the only player in the England Under-19s starting XI not to be at a top division club, and with Barcelona scouts reportedly in attendance (I’m not suggesting he’ll make the switch to the Nou Camp), interest will undoubtedly start to form.
On a personal note, he needs to play because there are a Loader good puns I’m waiting to use when he scores a hat-trick against Preston. Here’s hoping.