The academy honours board at the Madejski Stadium’s main entrance serves as a proud reminder of Reading’s youth development success over the last two decades. From club captains to full internationals, the number of professionals who honed their craft in Berkshire is an impressive number.
Academy success is a central part of the club’s identity, and supporters love being able to cheer on ‘one of our own’. As a result, interest is always high in how the latest crop of youngsters are getting on.
This summer was one of huge change in the academy, with 12 under-23 players leaving the club at the end of their contracts and another two under-18s departing as their scholarships concluded. Jordan Holsgrove also headed for the exit in September as he signed for Celta Vigo.
To highlight the impact that exodus has had, the table below shows this season’s academy squad, with those who departed in the summer added in bold. For reference, we’ve categorised an ‘academy’ player as someone who has played for the club’s under-23 or under-18 side but has not made more than one start for the first team.
In short, the summer’s mass cull effectively wiped out two whole age groups - 1998/1999 and 1999/2000 - leaving Reading with just one academy player over the age of 19 on 1 September 2020 (Omri Luzon was yet to join by that point); Ryan East was the outlier in a squad full of teenagers. That isn’t necessarily unusual, but it does mean that 2020/21 signifies somewhat of a new era for the academy following so many departures. It should also provide context when discussing whether Reading’s current academy players are ready to step up to senior level.
Firstly, it’s worth assessing exactly why there was such an overhaul in the summer and what the impact will be. It was reported in April that Reading had placed some of their under-23 squad on furlough, so the decision not to extend contracts in the summer is likely to have been in part down to the Royals’ financial position. Many other clubs also let high volumes of young players go in an attempt to cut costs in the middle of the pandemic.
Reading will have felt it was a worthwhile move considering the amount of options coming through from younger age groups. There is depth in all positions as the table above shows, and the decision may well have been made to start prioritising the development of the next generation.
It was also a relatively poor season for Reading at under-23 level last season, as they were ninth out of 12 teams in the Premier League 2 Division Two table when coronavirus curtailed all academy football. This was a significant drop off from their third- and fifth-place finishes that had earned them two unsuccessful shots at the play-offs in the previous two campaigns. Meanwhile, in the under-23 Premier League Cup, a competition which Reading reached at least the semi-finals of on three occasions between 2014 and 2017, the club were knocked out in the round of 16 for the second successive season.
At the time of writing, 10 of the 14 youngsters let go have found new clubs, with Akin Odimayo landing at the highest senior level by joining League One Swindon Town (although Marcel Elva-Fountaine has joined Burnley’s under-23s). Five are playing in non-league.
It’s fair to say that, at this early stage, Reading don’t appear to have made a glaring mistake in letting any move on. The only way we’ll truly know if the Royals were wrong is if they reach the same level as the club in future or even become a transfer target à la Rob Dickie, Tariqe Fosu and Jack Stacey.
In recent weeks the club have looked to start bulking the academy back up following the clear-out, with two new unofficial arrivals so far: Jayden Oden, formerly of Brentford, and Israeli youth international Omri Luzon. This is likely to continue throughout the season, with many youngsters still without clubs after being released in the summer. Lincoln City forward Jordan Adebayo-Smith and former Manchester United defender Joseph Nkwonta have both had unsuccessful trials in Berkshire in recent weeks.
Perhaps the most significant change over the summer was the departure of under-23s manager Scott Marshall, who had been at Reading for three years and also taken charge of three first-team games following the sacking of Paul Clement in 2018. It’s not clear whether there was a particular reason for this, but it would appear that it was the club’s decision to relieve him of his duties. The official statement at the time simply said Marshall’s “employment with the club has ended”, while the 47-year-old has not moved on to a new role elsewhere.
Over a month on, and there is no news on whether Marshall will be replaced. The current academy coaching set-up, as per the official club website, includes Michael Gilkes as academy manager, Mehmet Ali as under-23 assistant manager, Michael Donaldson as under-18 professional phase coach and Mikele Leigertwood as professional development phase coach.
Player-wise, it’s worth assessing just how good Reading’s current crop of academy players actually are. By removing the departed players, we can see exactly what options the Royals have at their disposal at youth level in 2020/21.
It’s hard to make definitive judgments on individual quality considering we have seen no more than 90 minutes from the majority of those names above. None of them are banging on the first-team door with Danny Loader levels of hype, but perhaps that’s a good thing. From what we saw in the two Carabao Cup games earlier this season, Ethan Bristow looks a competent back-up at left-back, while Dejan Tetek was a bright spark in midfield and won our man-of-the-match award against Luton Town.
Meanwhile, Thierry Nevers top scored for the under-23s last season while still effectively an under-18 player. Similarly, goalkeeper Coniah Boyce-Clarke has been playing for the under-23s since the age of 15 and there is plenty of hope for his future. Boyce-Clarke and Tetek both represented England at youth level last season (the latter has been with Serbia’s under-19s this month), as have Jeriel Dorsett, Imari Samuels and Nelson Abbey.
Six academy players have made their first-team debuts so far this season: Southwood, Bristow, Nahum Melvin-Lambert, Tetek, Lynford Sackey and Abbey. That impressive number is already higher than last season’s tally (five) and only bettered by the 11 debuts handed out in 2014/15.
However, it’s worth adding some context - this figure may not have been as high had the club not let go of so many under-23 players in the summer. For example, if Ramarni Medford-Smith, Akin Odimayo and Ben House (who all made their debuts last season) were still around, they may have featured instead of Bristow, Abbey and Melvin-Lambert respectively. This is of course hypothetical, but the pathway to the first team for many players has certainly been cleared by the summer’s academy exodus.
It should also be noted that results at under-18 level have been rather disappointing of late. The club have found themselves at the wrong end of the 12-team under-18 Premier League South in the last few years, having previously been one of the better sides in the division.
Meanwhile, Reading have been knocked out in rounds three and four of the FA Youth Cup in the past two seasons, a competition in which they have made the quarter-finals and semi-finals in the past. There was however success in the under-18 Premier League Cup in 2019/20, as the club reached the semi-finals, having never previously made it out of the group stage since the competition’s inception in 2017/18. Results certainly aren’t the be all and end all at youth level, but there has undeniably been a drop-off from the standard Reading were at five years ago.
The fact that two whole age groups were cut from the club’s academy system in the summer means there may be a little wait for the next youngsters to assert themselves on the first team. We have come to expect at least one breakthrough star a season in recent years, but that may not necessarily be the case in 2020/21 given that the academy squad are all teenagers and, generally, those who step up to become regulars are in their early 20s.
There are of course a number of academy graduates already in Veljko Paunovic’s squad (in bold below), so it is not to say that there is a problem with the club’s production line. Quite the opposite - Reading remain one of the best clubs in the Football League for academy representation in their first-team squad.
Realistically, four of those players - Andy Rinomhota (80 senior appearances), Omar Richards (67), Tom McIntyre (19) and Michael Olise (32) - can consider themselves to be established members of the first team, emphasised by the fact that they all now have single-digit squad numbers. In addition, Luke Southwood and Tom Holmes have become regulars on the bench in 2020/21 after loan spells away from the club last season.
It also underlines what an exceptional talent Michael Olise is, and how far ahead of his peers he is in his development. He bucks the trend of youngsters not becoming regulars until their 20s, as the midfielder doesn’t turn 19 until December but is already a key part of the Reading team - he has missed just six league games since the start of 2020. In scoring against Barnsley, he became the second-youngest player this century to net for the Royals, behind Danny Loader. Any future success for players from the 2001/02 bracket should not ignore how early Olise broke into the first team.
It is undoubtedly still an exciting time for the club’s academy. Reading are one of just eight teams beneath the Premier League with category one status - something that is not easy to sustain when you have been out of the top flight for as long as the Royals have. A key part of that is the new Bearwood training ground that has some of the best facilities in the country for young players’ development.
And yet, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. Will a new under-23s manager be appointed? Can the academy achieve results this season with a squad made up of teenagers? Do results even matter? Which, if any, players will make the step up to first-team football this year?
Predicting the future is a notoriously difficult task in football, but a new academy era is dawning in Berkshire and that should provide cautious optimism at the very least.
Note: The tables by no means provide a complete list of all Reading’s academy options in the age groups included - particularly as you progress to the younger groups information is harder to come by. However, all the players who have played for the under-23 or under-18 side this season are included.