It wasn’t all that long ago that Liam Kelly was being talked up as the next big thing at Reading Football Club. Fresh from a breakthrough 2016/17 season in which he’d taken to Jaap Stam’s brand of possession football like a diminutive duck to water, he was rewarded with a new contract to reward his progress.
Brian Tevreden, then the club’s Director of Football, summed up how many of us felt at the time:
“Developing our own players is exactly what we want to achieve at the club and Liam Kelly is a fine example. He came through the ranks here, broke into the first team last season, we gave him a new contract at the end of December and he went on to do very, very well.
”Liam is an outstanding player. He was a key part of the first team squad last season - he gave us everything and we wanted to give him something back. So the manager, myself, everyone within the club is pleased to see him sign this new deal.”
In hindsight, perhaps this was the point in Kelly’s career that we should look back on as the moment things start to unravel; when he went from being the next Andres Iniesta to a source of constant frustration.
It hadn’t always been plain sailing for him before then, of course. Although he’d announced himself onto the scene as a bright talent with eyecatching goals at youth level - including this wonder-strike for Ireland’s under-19s, and then continued to impress in the academy, first-team football at Reading was not forthcoming.
Instead, he was off to Bath City, but the drop into non-league football kick-started his career, with Kelly netting six times in 16 matches during the second half of the 2015/16 season. Even more important was the change in manager at the end of that campaign: Brian McDermott out, Jaap Stam in.
The Dutchman needed technical midfielders and, in Kelly, he saw just that - despite his distinct lack of height that had hindered his opportunities under previous managers. His league debut would come at the end of October 2016 away to Rotherham United, but it was far from a dream debut. With the Millers piling on the pressure in the opening stages through an aerial barrage, Stam substituted Kelly for Paul McShane - the eventual match-winner. However, the manager made a point of defending that decision after the match:
“Liam can and will play easily because he has the quality for it... He is a true professional. He knows what we think of him as a player - that’s why he started the game. He’s proven himself in every training session and in every under-23s match. He deserved his chance to play.”
After being benched for the next two matches - a home win over Nottingham Forest and away victory at Wigan Athletic - Kelly didn’t look back, playing in all but three of the remaining 29 league matches. He was even rewarded with a new deal in December 2016, extending his stay at the club until 2019.
Despite the comparisons with Iniesta, Reading actually had their very own version of Andrea Pirlo. Kelly was thriving in a deep-lying creative role in front of the back four, getting on the ball and dictating play for the benefit of those in front of him.
That was perhaps best illustrated in the 2-1 home win over Rotherham United - one of Jaap Stam’s few comeback wins in his time at the club. Reading, experimenting with a 4-2-4 formation that featured Danny Williams and John Swift in the midfield, had struggled badly in the first half and went into the break 1-0 down. Kelly was introduced at half time into his favoured quarterback role, Reading went up several gears as a result and won the game.
The play-off campaign was less fruitful for him though. Despite being one of the few players to take and bury his penalty at Wembley, he’d been overlooked in the starting line-up for all three matches. Reading needed a disciplined defensive midfielder in the team, not a playmaker, so in came George Evans - who by all accounts did a marvellous job in shutting down Fulham’s Tom Cairney home and away.
Nonetheless, the future was still Kelly’s. Who better to be the lynchpin of Reading’s possession-based midfield as the Jaap Stam Dutch Revolution marched onwards?
Kelly’s decline in the following campaign was as abrupt as it was frustrating, but working out why it happened isn’t completely straightforward. On the face of it, things were going really well for him - not least a manager that believed in him and wanted to play to his strengths, and a fanbase that was delighted to see one of its own making it on the pitch. He didn’t lack for game time either; Kelly would only be out of the matchday squad eight times before Stam’s departure in March 2018.
So how to explain it? In truth, it can probably be simplified down to two broad factors. The first one - his new contract in the summer of 2017 - affected him in the least visible way, but in hindsight it certainly seems to have had a profound effect.
After just one signature, Kelly’s role in the first team changed; he went from a young, up-and-coming midfielder with a bright future in the game if he continued to work hard to an established part of that first team. That new contract was an endorsement of his development up until that point and showed that the club wanted him there for the next few years at least and were willing to boost his paycheck accordingly.
But it was also his third new contract in just 12 months - what kind of message does that send to a young professional? To be rewarded for his development so readily would naturally lead him to think he’d already made it - that further improvement would come as a matter of course. That’s a damaging idea, and perhaps one that got into Kelly’s head, whether consciously or not, in the summer of 2017.
Things went wrong for him on the pitch too though, with Kelly suffering badly from Reading’s unbalanced midfield that had been caused by poor recruitment and Danny Williams’ exit to Huddersfield Town. Up until that point he’d looked in his element as a deep-lying quarterback where he could enjoy time and space on the ball, with Williams as the box-to-box man and Swift playing as a more advanced playmaker.
However, with Reading lacking a direct replacement for Williams - Leandro Bacuna typically playing full-back in Jordan Obita’s continued absence - Kelly was often asked to play in a higher role. Pushing him up into a more congested part of the pitch meant less time on the ball, and therefore an increased need for physical strength and/or dribbling in order to impose his influence on a match. Neither of those traits are part of Kelly’s skillset.
His situation certainly didn’t get any better with the arrival of the more conservative Paul Clement, who replaced Stam in the Spring of 2018 and swept away his predecessor’s style of play. Clement wasn’t one for possession football, and that naturally meant ball-playing Kelly was less important to the team - or at least less appreciated.
More significant than that though was the lack of a coherent new system. Clement may have had one of the best coaching educations available after working across Europe’s top leagues - often with Carlo Ancelotti, but he had little idea what to do with Reading. Under him, the Royals weren’t overtly set on possession football, counter-attacking, hoofing it long or any other identifiable philosophy.
For any young football player seeking to hone their craft, that lack of direction is hard enough. But it was particularly bad for Liam Kelly, who’d done so much better in his debut season when he was given a specific tactical role in a clear system. It’s telling that some of his better performances under Clement came in late 2018 when he was restored to his role just in front of the back four, such as in the 3-2 win over Bristol City and narrow 1-0 defeat at Leeds United.
Putting too much of his decline down to tactics wouldn’t tell the whole story though, and you have to look to mentality as another key reason for why he regressed so much. In any of his roles on the pitch, whether playing deep, in a box-to-box role or as an advanced playmaker, Kelly was always expected to get on the ball and make things happen.
To do that, he needed to show arrogance and be proactive. In reality though, far too often he took the easy option; making easy sideways or backwards passes that let Reading keep the ball well enough but also meant we did nothing with it.
That’s perhaps best illustrated in the Royals’ 1-0 home defeat to Bolton Wanderers in August 2018. Paul Clement’s side were trailing to a surprise second-half opener, at which point the away side retreated into a deep, solid, defensive set-up to ensure they would come away with the three points.
It allowed Kelly, partnered by David Meyler that day, as much time on the ball as he could possibly dream of, and he duly registered a huge 111 passes and 121 touches. But, of his 59 passes after the goal, just one created a chance. That stat is representative of Kelly more generally: capable of getting on the ball, but lacking the confidence and responsibility to do anything with it.
The arrival of Jose Gomes at Christmas last year should have been Kelly’s perfect chance to turn his Reading career around. Who better than a man-motivating, ever-optimistic manager with a penchant for possession football to get the best out of the midfielder?
Apparently not. Kelly would end the season with just three appearances under the new boss: an impressive 90 minutes at Old Trafford, another 81 against Blackburn Rovers, and a disastrous 19 away to Sheffield United in a 4-0 thrashing before he was hauled off. That would prove to be his final outing in a Reading shirt, and our last words written on him in a player ratings article - by Dave McCormack - were apt.
“Oh what has happened to him? From once upon a time being the saviour of the team and having a squad built around him, to now being far too lightweight and lost.”
Gomes’ failure to turn around his player’s fortunes shouldn’t reflect badly on him as manager - but instead go to show just how deep-rooted Kelly’s problems had become. Even a change in philosophy in the dugout wasn’t enough to trigger a revival for someone who was given minimal game time by the new gaffer.
I’m left coming back to that new contract in the summer of 2017 as the watershed moment in Kelly’s career. After then, his lack of confidence and swagger on the pitch were the same under Jaap Stam, Paul Clement and Jose Gomes. In handing him a bumper new deal, had Reading simply asked too much of him too soon?