On 8 July 2017, Reading beat Queens Park Rangers 5-2 in a pre-season at friendly at Hogwood. The Royals hero was 16-year-old Danny Loader, who netted four times, including a perfect hat-trick. The striker had only signed his first professional contract the day before, but he was suddenly on every supporter’s radar as the hottest prospect on the club’s books.
He made his competitive senior debut in the EFL Cup the following month, becoming the third youngest player in Reading’s history in the process. It would be over a year until Loader featured again, but his stock only continued to rise in that time. The teenager hit prolific form for the Royals’ Under-23s, while on the international stage he was part of England’s Under-17 World Cup winning side alongside Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Phil Foden.
Simply put, I can’t remember an academy player with so much hype and expectation around him without a league appearance to his name. Ahead of Loader’s Championship debut at Wigan in November 2018, he was framed as a potential savour to Reading’s drab campaign. Paul Clement’s side were 20th in the Championship table with just four wins to their name. They weren’t exactly struggling for goals, but summer signing Marc McNulty was yet to score, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson was out injured and Sam Baldock’s form was patchy at best. Loader himself had scored eight goals in nine games for the Under-23s.
Just three days after coming on as a sub against Wigan, Loader made his first league start at Elland Road against promotion chasing Leeds United, which certainly isn’t the easiest of away trips. He would go on to make 21 Championship appearances last season. The only 18 year olds to play more were the highly rated Reece James, Max Aarons, Jayden Bogle and Jack Clarke - four of whom are now on the books of Premier League clubs.
Loader won’t turn 20 until the end of August, and it’s certainly easy to forget quite how young he is because he came into supporters’ consciences so early. He is currently at an age at which Liam Kelly, Andy Rinomhota and Hal Robson-Kanu were yet to even make their first team debut.
None of this is necessarily intended to defiantly defend Loader, but to provide context to the cauldron he was being thrown into at such a young age with so much expectation. Perhaps he was always destined to disappoint.
I’m not going to say Loader has significantly impressed for the first team. He hasn’t. Two goals from 35 games is underwhelming, he appears too lightweight and it’s not particularly clear what his best position is. But we’re talking about a player who is still developing under huge scrutiny.
The fact that Loader’s contract runs out this summer has not helped the situation. That is largely down to Reading for not attempting to renew it sooner, and allow what has turned out to be an unwanted, tedious saga over the last 12 months. Reported interest from Juventus, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal is enough to turn anyone’s head, and when a deadline day move to Wolves fell through last summer, Loader had every right to be unfocused and bewildered. He played only once more in the league under Jose Gomes and Mark Bowen has started him just twice - in FA Cup games against Blackpool and Cardiff. He has not played at all since January. Perhaps there is a reluctance to continue developing a player who is unlikely to be at the club beyond the summer.
Behind the scenes, Loader’s search for a new agent did not come at an ideal time as contract talks stalled. He hardly would have been short of offers though. One of only two outfield members of England’s Under-17 World Cup squad that wasn’t on the books of a top-flight club (and he’s now an Under-20 international), with interest from some of the biggest clubs in the world: he could no doubt make any agency an awful lot of money. It’s a lot to take in for, I stress again, a teenager.
In the end, he settled on Colossal Sports Management - also home to Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kingsley Coman. There’s no doubting he could not be in better hands, but perhaps if a deal had been wrapped up sooner, he may have been able to focus on the pitch a little more.
Ultimately, we may be left wondering ‘what if’ about the forward. There may not be many players come through the academy with such raw ability as Loader, but there are unlikely to be as many who face such pressure and expectation either. It’s a lesson for the future, and even the present, as the Royals’ impressive production line continues to run. Let players develop at their own pace, otherwise we risk jeopardising great talent.