It’s been a slow start to the January transfer window for Reading, but two relatively minor exits have been confirmed: Joao Virginia has returned to Everton after his parent club cut short his loan deal, while Josh Barrett has completed a permanent move to Bristol Rovers.
Neither transfer will bring too much disappointment to Reading fans. After all, Virginia and Barrett only made a combined 10 appearances for the Royals this season. Virginia started the first two league matches and got another outing in the League Cup, while Barrett appeared five times in the Championship and twice in the League Cup.
Plus, Mark Bowen has plenty of other options to pick from in both positions, so both moving on will have a minimal impact on the squad. Judging by the reaction on social media, fans are similarly untroubled. In a poll we ran on Twitter, just under 60% of you said letting Barrett go was the right call, while posts about Virginia’s exit were predictably negative - if not outright nasty in some cases.
But, all the way back in the summer of 2019, attitudes towards the young duo were very different.
It’s pretty easy to overlook now, but Reading Football Club has moved on significantly from the state it was in during, say, the pre-season trip to Spain. Back then, the squad was packed full of academy graduates, with Reading’s ‘soft transfer embargo’ preventing them from bringing in the raft of reinforcements that was badly needed.
However, given those limitations, it’s fair to say that we were all accepting of what was (apparently) in store: fast-tracking young players’ development to get them into the first team. Essentially a repeat of 2014 when, due to a prolonged ownership saga in the summer, Nigel Adkins was left with an inexperienced squad for the start of 2014/15 - hence debuts for Craig Tanner, Aaron Tshibola, Aaron Kuhl and others.
That happening again, five years later, opening the door for players like Barrett and Virginia to get regular football. In the first case, an academy graduate with a point to prove in the first team, and in the second a highly rated Premier League talent who needed a proper exposure to senior football.
At the time we knew - or at least should well have known - that neither would be flawless. Inexperience does that to players. But only with proper patience could we get the most out of Barrett and Virginia. No worry though, Reading’s financial situation meant that they - and numerous others - would have to be played.
That’s exactly how it started out, with both Barrett and Virginia starting Reading’s pre-season finale - an entertaining 4-3 Mad Stad defeat to Chelsea - and Championship opener at home to Sheffield Wednesday, a 3-1 loss.
Barrett and Virginia couldn’t have fared more differently. The former opened the scoring against Chelsea before deftly setting up Yakou Meite for an equaliser against the Owls, while Virginia generally lacked composure and could have done much better for two goals: Kenedy’s long-range effort and Kadeem Harris’ powerful finish at the end of a Wednesday counter attack.
Nonetheless, their situation stayed the same: both needed game time.
They would likely have been getting it for months to come had Reading not gone on the mad spending spree we saw at the start of August. Lucas Boye, Rafael, Pele, Lucas Joao, George Puscas and Ovie Ejaria all came in, adding the first-team quality that we’d been crying out for for so long.
But that spree also blocked off the development of Barrett and Virginia, and in hindsight it guaranteed that neither had a long-term future at the club. No regular game time, no development, no chance to see what either player was truly capable of. It was essentially a case of moving the goalposts - a touch ironically in the case of ‘keeper Virginia - as both would have had reasonable expectations in pre-season of being shown at least a decent amount of patience and first-team exposure.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Reading should have been less ambitious at the end of the summer transfer window for the sake of keeping Barrett and Virginia happy. The club’s interests had to come first and, when cash was available to bring in the kind of talent that could help the team to promotion, investing that cash was the right thing to do.
Neither were completely discarded as the season progressed. Barrett scored twice against Plymouth Argyle in the League Cup and was involved in the build-up to Boye’s equaliser at Wolves in the next round. That game should also have been Virginia’s chance of redemption after the infamous howler at Hull City. However, an even worse error in letting Bruno Jordao’s long-range effort squirm past him - killed off any possibility of challenging Rafael for the number-one spot.
Looking back, it’s hard to argue that the club were wrong to bring in an established stopper to replace Virginia in the form of Rafael Cabral - himself perhaps an outside contender for player of the season. His command of the box and impressive saves have, especially in recent weeks, helped massively tighten the side up defensively.
It’s a different case for Barrett though. The young Irishman may not be at the level of Reading’s best playmakers - particularly John Swift and Ovie Ejaria - but would he be a significantly worse option off the bench than Garath McCleary or Lucas Boye? In fact, Barrett has contributed to more goals and assists this season in all competitions (3) than the Argentine (2) despite playing less than half Boye’s total number of minutes.
Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter. Both have moved on to pastures new and should hopefully get the game time Reading couldn’t offer them - Barrett with Bristol Rovers and Virginia probably at a different loan club. Don’t rule out both of them succeeding.