It used to be that Reading never needed to buy goalkeepers. A combination of dominant first choices and a production line of talented young stoppers from the academy meant this department was effectively self sufficient. For pretty much a decade between 2005 and 2015, there were few doubts over the quality and supply of ‘keepers at the Royals’ disposal.
The inspiration for, and timing of, this piece both came from one curious stat. As of today, it’s been exactly five years since an academy-produced goalkeeper played competitively for Reading: Mikkel Andersen, making his third (and final) league appearance for the club at Rotherham United. As it happens, the Millers’ goalie that day went on to play for the Royals a few years later: Emiliano Martinez.
From his point of view, Andersen’s progression to the Royals’ first team was fairly unique. He only made his competitive debut for the club in September 2014, some seven and a half years after joining the club under Steve Coppell, midway through our first season in the Premier League.
More importantly though, the fact that he had a pathway to the first team was a sign of how healthy and well-managed the goalkeeping position was. It may have taken time for the Dane to pull on the gloves, but that was in large part due to the calibre of young talent coming through to challenge established first choice Adam Federici.
Alex McCarthy made his mark in 2010/11 and went on to make 75 appearances for the club before leaving in 2014, while Ben Hamer may well have had a similarly bright Reading career if he’d been given a chance at the club rather than heading to Charlton Athletic for first-team football. In the end, both went on to play in the Premier League. McCarthy played for Queens Park Rangers, Crystal Palace and Southampton, while Hamer was part of Leicester City’s 2015/16 title-winning squad. He even turned out for them in the Champions League the following season.
Simply put, Reading had a steady supply of talented young ‘keepers without needing to sign any. In fact, between Andersen joining in January 2007 and playing against the Millers in April 2015, the club signed just one established goalkeeper: Stuart Taylor on a free transfer from Manchester City in 2012.
It’s a very different story now. After Andersen and Federici left in 2015, Reading have since signed at least one ‘keeper each season until the present day. Ali Al-Habsi and Jonathan Bond that same summer, Anssi Jaakkola a year later, Vito Mannone in 2017, Sam Walker and Emiliano Martinez last season, and Joao Virginia and Rafael Cabral in 2019/20.
From that list, only Al-Habsi established himself as an undisputed, convincing first choice for more than one full campaign. However, somewhat embarrassingly, the club were “powerless” to prevent him joining Al-Hilal in the summer of 2017 - then-manager Jaap Stam was unaware of a release clause in his contract.
At least partially due to the surprise nature of his departure, Al-Habsi wasn’t properly replaced. Mannone was well below the standard of his predecessor (despite some key penalty saves in his debut season), and Reading eventually got to the stage when, in 2018/19, they went through four different ‘keepers across the course of the campaign: Mannone, Walker, Jaakkola and Martinez.
It’s similarly damning that, in both of the last two campaigns, Reading have felt compelled to sign a goalkeeper after the start of the season because they weren’t content with a player they’d already signed for that campaign. Martinez’ arrival followed that of Walker in 2018/19, and Rafael was signed after Virginia had made just one league appearance.
The club did try to plan for the future with a long-term ‘keeper signing - Bond joining from Watford shortly before Al-Habsi signed in 2015. However, despite arriving as a talented 22 year-old with experience for England’s under-21 side, he left the club having made just 14 appearances.
All of the above may simply seem like a failure in one part of the squad, of a relatively insignificant problem in the grander scheme of things. For me though, the Royals’ goalkeeping department is a microcosm for how Reading has lost its way in recent years more broadly. Both that position on the pitch and the club overall used to gain their strength from stability, self sufficiency, effective long-term planning and a production line of young talent, but that’s been replaced by instability, poor recruitment, short-term thinking and a reduced pathway for the academy.
It does feel though as if we’re making steady progress. On the first point, stability, Rafael has made the starting spot his own, earning rave reviews from Reading fans, neutrals and even the national media. He seems happy in Berkshire, and unless a tempting offer comes in from a bigger club, he should be Reading’s established number one for some time.
As for self sufficiency and long-term planning, Reading would surely prefer to have a younger player as Rafael’s second choice rather than the more expensive Walker. The former Colchester United man is an able backup, shown not least by his crucial saves in the penalty shoot-out FA Cup win over Cardiff City, but replacing him with an academy player makes sense both financially and for the sake of long-term squad planning.
There’s plenty of bright young talent ready to take Walker’s spot. In fact, after five years without an academy ‘keeper playing for the first team, three have made it into a matchday squad in the last few months, all in the FA Cup: Luke Southwood, Coniah Boyce-Clarke and Jokull Andresson.
Southwood looks the most ready to be in first-team contention after impressive loan spells, most recently for Hamilton Academical. However, Boyce-Clarke and Andresson have real pedigree. Both have been linked with big clubs (Boyce-Clarke with Manchester United, Andresson with Arsenal), while Boyce-Clarke’s rapid rise from playing for the under-23s aged just 15 to getting onto the senior side’s bench at 16 suggests he could break through sooner rather than later.
They’re just some of the talent that’s come through Reading’s academy in recent years though. Four others have come through our system before joining Premier League sides in the last two years: Gabriel Rosario to Huddersfield Town, James Hillson to Arsenal, Adam Desbois to Brighton and Hove Albion, and Myles Roberts to Watford. A good indication of the standard coming through at the Madejski Stadium.
It’s clear that Reading have a high standard of young ‘keepers coming through at the moment, but it’s vital that the club: a) ensures those individual players have a viable pathway to the first team, b) properly plans out how it sees the goalkeeping department changing in the long term.
After all, Rafael won’t be here forever; although his contract is due to expire in 2022, he could well be snapped up by a bigger club before then. But with thorough planning and long-term thinking - things that have evaded Reading in recent years - that eventuality can be properly prepared for.
And all without signing a new ‘keeper.