It was 4:30pm and Reading’s under-18s had just finished training. Craig Tanner and Niall Keown went into the Hogwood canteen to quickly get a green tea and a snack for the journey home. They bumped into Eamonn Dolan.
“We ended up sitting down with him for about five hours just talking all things football,” Tanner tells The Tilehurst End. “Going through all our games, what we needed to do to improve and things like that. He’d always check in to see how you were doing, and just small things like that go a long way. When he saw you were a bit down he knew when to put an arm around you. For me he’s the best man-manager and the best at reading people that I’ve ever seen.”
Dolan, who sadly passed away in 2016 after a courageous battle with cancer, was arguably one of the most influential figures in Reading’s modern history. Under his watch, the club’s academy became one of the best in the country. Tanner, like every other player fortunate enough to be coached by Dolan, can’t speak highly enough of his impact:
“I was devastated when he passed. Everyone saw him as family. We were all his children. So it was like losing a family member. I miss him. He was such a massive part of why I became a professional footballer and if you speak to anyone about him, they’ll tell you what a great man he was. You’ll never meet anyone like Eamonn, he was a one of a kind guy.
“If you look at all the players that he brought through and the careers they’ve had since, it’s all down to Eamonn and how he developed them not just as players but as people too. If you talk to anyone at Reading who met Eamonn, they’ve all got a different positive story about how he affected them.”
Dolan, along with Lee Herron, Martin Kuhl and David Dodds, was hugely influential in Tanner’s development at Reading, but it was Brendan Rodgers who first brought a Liverpool-mad eight-year-old to the club.
“I had interest from a few teams, such as Southampton and Fulham,” Tanner says. “But Brendan Rodgers got me into Reading by somehow getting me a signed Liverpool shirt. It had signatures from Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard too, which won me over. I idolised Owen at the time and had my hair cut like him.
“Brendan was so knowledgeable. You could tell by the way he spoke and the way he handled himself that he was important. He had that aura about him. When I was at Motherwell I played against his Celtic team and he still remembered me, which was nice.”
Tanner progressed through the ranks with the Royals and was a vital part of the side that won the first ever Under-21 Premier League Cup in the 2013/14 season, along with the likes of Jake Cooper, Jack Stacey and Liam Kelly. Tanner scored in the first leg of the final against Manchester City as Martin Kuhl’s team won 4-3 on aggregate.
“We were such a close-knit group, and we all still keep in contact now,” he says. “I think that closeness showed and we had the right balance of good spirit off the field and when to take things seriously on it. We had a nasty streak too that brought us all together.”
At the start of the following season, Tanner and several other youngsters were given their chance in the first team by Nigel Adkins, as the club’s problems behind the scenes limited transfer activity.
“He was brilliant with all of us,” Tanner says of Adkins. “He took the pressure off everyone and he knew what sort of players we were because he used to come to as many games as possible. He knew we had the ability, but it was just about keeping us relaxed and not getting carried away.”
The forward made his debut at the age of 19, coming on as a late substitute against Newport County in the League Cup and scoring within minutes to wrap up a 3-1 win. “I was just buzzing to be on the bench,” Tanner recalls. “I’d been on the bench a few times before but never managed to get on, so I didn’t expect it. It all happened so quickly, I remember Newport had a corner, but we broke away and I just ran forward in the hope of getting the ball and Ryan [Edwards] passed to me. It was a natural finish.”
Tanner went on to play four more times in the opening month of the campaign, as Adkins relied on a team largely made up of young players. For the 1-0 away win at Middlesbrough, 13 of the 18-man squad were academy graduates.
“It was unbelievable,” Tanner says. “To go through every single age group and make that transition into the first team was amazing. I have such fond memories of that period. To do it with players that I’d come through with as well made it all the more enjoyable. It was just a special moment when I looked around and thought how I’d been in the under-15s and under-16s with so many of the lads. We’d all been on such a journey, and to make it into the first team all together was so special.”
Unfortunately, during this run of games, Tanner sustained a knee injury that would end up keep him out of action for a number of months. By the time he returned, Adkins had been sacked and replaced by Steve Clarke, who thought it best for the forward to go out on loan, and he spent the remainder of the campaign in League Two with AFC Wimbledon.
“I was absolutely gutted when Nigel got the sack because I really felt that he could have helped kick on my career,” Tanner says. “I still believed there was a pathway there for me at Reading, but Steve Clarke perhaps pushed a few of us younger lads back a bit. He went for a bit more experience, which most managers are going to do in that situation as we were going through a bad patch.
“But I really enjoyed my time at Wimbledon, I played up front with [Adebayo] Akinfenwa and it was a real eye-opener. I think if I hadn’t gone there, I might not have had the career I’ve had since. It showed me what first team football really is, people’s mortgages are on the line and you’re not playing tiki-taka academy football anymore. The games were physical, the pitches weren’t great and it throws you completely out of your comfort zone.”
Tanner was sent out on loan again that summer, and would end up spending the next two seasons at Plymouth Argyle, a period which he says is the best of his career so far. He made 84 appearances in total for the Pilgrims, scoring 12 goals and getting eight assists. In 2015-16, the team reached the League Two play-off final before losing to his former side AFC Wimbledon, but went one better the following year by winning automatic promotion.
There was no future for Tanner at Reading upon his return though, and he departed at the end of his contract in the summer of 2017. In the same year, many members of the side that had won the Under-21 Premier League Cup three years earlier – Shane Griffin, Sean Long, Niall Keown, Jack Stacey, Tariqe Fosu, Aaron Kuhl and Harry Cardwell – also left the club with just 23 first team appearances between them.
Tanner says: “Sadly Eamonn had passed away by that point, and I think if you look at that period, a lot of our age group was pushed to the side. Brian Tevreden came in and maybe wanted to create his own legacy, that’s the way we saw it.
“I do believe that if Eamonn had still been around I might have got another contract at Reading and things would have been different. I think that was the case for a few other lads as well. He would always fight your corner no matter what, and he was the one always pushing you to the first team. He made sure all the coaches knew everything about you. His passing affected everyone, but it definitely took a toll on people’s careers as well.
“If you look at that under-21 squad and who is still in the Football League it’s a remarkable number. I think a few of us were definitely unlucky not to get further in our Reading careers.
“It would have been nice to have a team along the same lines as Jem [Karacan], [Alex] Pearcey, Gylfi [Sigurdsson] Hal [Robson-Kanu] and [Simon] Churchy. That generation is spoken about a lot, and I did feel that we could have had something very similar as well. But football is all about timing, and everything happens for a reason. It just wasn’t meant to be that way, but everyone has gone on to have cracking careers so far.
“You look at Jack Stacey who’s having a great career, Shane Griffin is doing really well over in Ireland, Sean Long at Lincoln, Tariqe [Fosu] at Oxford. The list goes on and on.”
Tanner met with a number of League One and League Two clubs that summer as he looked to decide on his next move. However he ended up signing for Scottish Premiership side Motherwell, having been recommended to the club by midfielder Carl McHugh, a former Reading academy player and housemate of Tanner’s when he was in digs. The fondness with which the forward speaks about his time north of the border is clear:
“It’s quick, it’s physical and there’s some quality players up there. You’re playing in front of 50,000 fans at Rangers and 60,000 fans at Celtic. The standard of football is really high and I don’t think it gets enough credit. Maybe it’s the rivalry between England and Scotland, but it’s a top league and it shouldn’t be mocked in the way that it can be sometimes.
“I’d love to go back to Scotland one day, it was a really nice place to live. We used to go and do loads of walks at Loch Lomond, and I definitely made the most of my time up there.”
He started life at Fir Park in excellent form, scoring nine goals and getting eight assists in his first few months, helping The ‘Well reach the final of both the Scottish League Cup and Scottish Cup. But in March 2018, Tanner suffered a devastating knee injury in training that would ultimately rule him out for the next 15 months. Motherwell manager Steven Robinson described it at the time as a “freak injury”. Almost as if it’s imprinted on his brain, Tanner himself can vividly remember what day of the week it was (Wednesday) and which game the team were preparing for (Celtic away).
“No one was around me, I went to hit a long pass and something just snapped. My knee cap went half way up my thigh, so at first I thought I’d just dislocated my knee. But I was taken to hospital in an ambulance and I couldn’t even lift my leg, so I think I realised then it was quite bad.”
At 23 years old, Tanner had suffered a ruptured patella tendon and dislocated kneecap, leading to a “nightmare” period of his career that was tough to comprehend.
“It was very difficult. My recovery started off really well, and I thought I might be back ahead of schedule but then I hit a brick wall. I was getting pain that wasn’t going away, and it was really painful to just go down stairs and get off the sofa. I couldn’t do basic things properly. I was just full of pain and loneliness, because I was in the gym every day on my own doing rehab and not getting any better.
“I ended up getting cellulitis, my leg tripled in size and I was in hospital for three nights on a drip. That infection was worse than the originally injury, so I had to restart everything again. It takes six weeks for cellulitis to get out of your system, so I was sitting around doing nothing.
“It wasn’t even a common injury. I was 15 pages deep on Google at four in the morning trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, and there was just nothing out there about it. I couldn’t get my head around it, and without my family I don’t know where I’d be because they kept me going. Especially my girlfriend, who dragged me out of bed to take me to the gym three times a day.
“We got a little dog at the time [Elvis, a mini dachshund, who has over 13,000 Instagram followers], so at least I wasn’t at home on my own and he kept me company. All of my family were back home in Camberley, so me, my girlfriend and my dog somehow managed to grind it out.”
The hard work paid off, and Tanner returned to full fitness last summer, and played a number of games for Motherwell’s reserve team, but turned down a contract offer from the club. Such a lengthy spell on the sidelines had sadly taken its toll not just physically, but mentally too.
“I needed a break from football,” he says. “I had been chewed up and spat out. I just needed to get away for a few months and clear my head, I wasn’t in a great head space at that time. I had been out for 15 months, but I wasn’t excited to be back training or playing games. I needed to find myself again and find a bit of happiness away from football to then come back in start enjoying it again.”
The 25-year-old would spend the next few months working with his dad doing attic conversions before signing for National League side Aldershot Town at the start of December, just a few miles away from where he grew up in Camberley. He has already made his mark with The Shots, scoring three times in five games, and the team are unbeaten in the league since his arrival.
“I’m loving it so far,” Tanner says. “I’m slowly getting that buzz back for Saturdays. It’s not happened overnight, but I’m getting more and more excited about it. I’m just incredibly proud of myself because I think a lot of people would have given up. A lot of people wrote me off, so I’m just immensely proud of how I dug in. To not only sign for Aldershot, but to play five full games in a row in a three weeks. I don’t know how I’ve done it!
“I think when you’re injured for as long as I was, you lose all the stock and credibility you had in the game. You need to prove you’re over that injury because no team is necessarily going to want to take that risk on you. And to be honest, the National League is a tough league these days, it’s not far off League Two. I’m just trying to make as positive an impact as possible. I want to use my experience in the dressing room and in games to get us up the table because it’s a terrific club. It’s my local team too, I used to play cup finals here when I was at school.”
A recent 3-3 draw with Chorley marked Tanner’s 150th career appearance, and at 25 years old, he has time on his side after a difficult couple of years. Although he admits that he would like to play abroad one day, the forward has one main aim for the rest of his time in football:
“I’m a firm believer that you need to put your happiness first, so I would take being settled and happy off the pitch over relocating for extra money. I haven’t got a set plan in place, I just want to play as many games as possible and keep proving the critics wrong!”