A strong defence is key to any Championship side that wants to gain promotion to the top flight.
Our 2011/12 title-winning season was proof of that: 46 games played, just 41 goals conceded. In that campaign, a central defender ended up winning the club’s official player of the season award and proved to be a key figure in the Royals’ side as we climbed to the top of the second tier. That player was Alex Pearce, a consistent defender who graduated from the academy and fought for his spot in the senior squad.
Another academy graduate, currently at the club and looking to fight his way into the first eleven is Tom McIntyre, who made his professional debut against Rotherham United in December 2018. Even though he sustained a facial injury in Yorkshire, he battled bravely to continue playing to the final whistle.
Only a late Joe Mattock goal denied McIntyre picking up his first clean sheet on his maiden Championship start – and gave supporters something to shout about at a time when nothing seemed to be going right for the club. Paul Clement had been sacked, results had not vastly improved under caretaker Scott Marshall and the first team faced an injury crisis in central defence.
That only got worse when McInytre was ruled out the next game against Middlesbrough and Gabriel Osho started alongside Tyler Blackett as his replacement. There is no doubt that both the Scottish youth international and Osho stepped up at a time of crisis for the club and performed well - that should not be forgotten.
However, even though there was a lot of excitement after McIntyre’s debut performance, consistency is key and he needed to continue making an impression in the first team.
Unfortunately, the signings of Michael Morrison and Matt Miazga (loan) last summer have limited the amount of football he has managed to play so far this season. His performance away at Huddersfield Town early on in the season was probably one of his best performances in a Reading shirt - and it is a shame that we did not get to see even more of him.
He is more than capable to be third in the pecking order, which will give Moore and Morrison healthy competition, while allowing the 21 year-old to develop his skills further. However, two possible events in the summer could be detrimental to McIntyre, as he looks to secure his spot in the first team squad for the next campaign.
Tyler Blackett’s imminent departure
This summer, Mark Bowen faces a dilemma. Matt Miazga is set to return to Chelsea at the end of the season, leaving Liam Moore and Michael Morrison as the first-choice pairing. However, who will be challenging the pair for a spot remains to be seen.
Gabriel Osho’s contract expires at the end of the campaign and there are no obvious signs to suggest he will stay at the Madejski Stadium beyond this summer. Another player who could be set to leave in less than two months is Tyler Blackett, which is a major blow for the Royals.
Although Jordan Obita (oh look, another player whose contract is set to expire) and Omar Richards are more than capable of competing for the left-back spot in the second tier, Blackett’s versatility currently gives Mark Bowen the option to play him at centre back.
We have often seen Blackett play on the left side of a three in defence, something that often came in handy when we wanted to switch up our formation. What happens if Miazga goes in the summer and we want to revert to five at the back?
There’s no doubt that McIntyre can comfortably fit in on the left side of a back three to replace Blackett, but will we have a solid centre back option on the bench? These are all questions that need to be answered.
Without Blackett and Osho, Bowen has McIntyre, Tom Holmes, Andre Burley, Akin Odimayo and Jeriel Dorsett as his next options in central defence behind Moore and Morrison. A very promising set of players, but most are very inexperienced at senior level. Despite their promise, is it really a wise decision to rely on those who have yet to establish themselves as solid Championship players yet?
After falling short of expectations in the past couple of seasons, the club knows that they need to continue building and climbing up the league table. This starts from the goalkeeper and the defence. If you can make it difficult for the opposition to score against you, it can instil confidence in the rest of the team, but this can only be achieved when you have both quality and depth in the heart of defence.
Without Blackett, the inexperience at the back may start to show - and this could cost the Royals. The club may therefore decide to take no chances and bring in a replacement for Miazga, especially when you consider the circumstances in which McIntyre made his Championship debut - an injury crisis. Another one could mean the likes of Burley and Odimayo being unexpectedly involved again.
We cannot afford to stay in a lowly Championship position - so having reliable, experienced players at the back will only help our cause. Blackett’s departure could all but ensure that a replacement for Miazga will be signed as a result of this fear - although this would be a blow for McIntyre who wants to push for a place in the starting lineup.
A summer farewell for the captain?
After joining in 2016 from Leicester City and making an immediate impact, Liam Moore has been an ever-present figure in Reading’s starting lineup.
When he handed in a transfer request in July 2018 amid Premier League interest from Brighton, it was looking like Moore’s time at the Madejski Stadium was up. However, after the move fell through, the central defender signed a new five-year contract and became captain last summer following Paul McShane’s departure. The 27 year-old now seems content in Berkshire, but the next transfer window could change everything.
The former Leicester City defender will have come to Reading expecting to be a part of a side challenging for promotion every year, especially after reaching the playoff final in his first season back in 2016/17.
Instead, the Royals have been fighting relegation and failing to find any sort of consistency in the past couple of years. This is a blow for Moore, who played a decent chunk of football in Leicester’s promotion campaign in 2013/14 – and he will have had high hopes of playing in the Premier League by now.
Is his career now going backwards at the Madejski Stadium?
At 27, the next window might be one of Moore’s last chances to make a major impact in the top flight. And if an offer does come in for him, it may be too good to turn down. The question you might be asking is: how could this adversely affect Tom McIntyre, surely it would help to push him up the pecking order?
Liam Moore’s departure would be a major event at the club as current captain, whether you rate him highly or not. Because of that, Mark Bowen may decide to try and bring in two centre backs to replace him. When you consider that Michael Morrison is now 32, this would make even more sense.
As well as this, no one will want to come to the Madejski Stadium to be a fourth choice Championship defender behind Morrison, McIntyre and another new signing. This could be detrimental for McIntyre – who needs to play first-team football. He turns 22 this year.
Despite there not being a certainty that offers will come in for Liam Moore when the season ends, who knows what could happen. Reading faced a similar situation in the pre-season of 2011/12.
After former captain Matt Mills left in 2011, both Kaspars Gorkss and Bongani Khumalo joined to fill the gap created by his departure, and Zurab Khizanishvili also left the club when his loan expired after the playoff final against Swansea City. That formula seemed to work well under Brian McDermott (although Khumalo was very underwhelming) – could it work again next season?
Personally, I hope that McIntyre gets the chance to prove himself. If not, I think he needs to go out on loan. Either way, he needs to play first team football. The 21-year-old has shown a lot of promise and his caps at youth international level for Scotland reinforce that.
Not only is he a promising young player, he is also a Reading fan and a great role model to those who want to break through and graduate from the academy.
His battle with injuries are both an inspiration and perhaps a cause for concern, especially when we need depth and reliability in defence. Whatever happens, we need to build a solid defence ahead of next season so we can climb up the league table.
This could mean that it might not yet be McIntyre’s time to become a starting player every week. However, if the young Scot can keep fit and fulfil his potential, he could be a future captain at the Madejski Stadium.