The signing of Sam Walker in 2018 was puzzling – one of several bizarre decisions that Ron Gourlay made in his tenure as CEO of the club.
At the time, we already had Vito Mannone and Anssi Jaakkola competing for a starting spot. Although both existing keepers had their faults, they were not the biggest problem that the squad had in 2018. Our defence had been ripped apart in the 2017/18 season – and Mo Barrow was one of few players who carried the Royals to safety in that campaign.
After a summer of high spending in the summer window of the previous year, we needed to be fiscally responsible. How much did Walker cost us? Nothing, he joined as a free agent. However, we were already building up a sizeable wage bill and signing a third goalkeeper was the least of our worries.
You might be shouting at your device right now, asking: what about the 2012/13 season when we were forced to play Stuart Taylor in goal in a few Premier League games? And do you remember that young academy keeper Jon Henly, who we had to put on the bench because both Adam Federici and Alex McCarthy were injured?
I hear you, but that was in extraordinary circumstances. Some would say it is good to have three senior goalkeepers competing for a starting spot – but this is simply just a wish list at this moment in time with our current financial situation.
This summer, we may need to sell a few players to balance the books. There is no doubt that offers will come in for a few of our players.
Despite this, there are doubts over whether what the club will do with Walker in the next transfer window. Luke Southwood is now 22 – when are we going to give him a chance?
One thing is for certain: Rafael has established himself as our first choice in between the sticks. Ever since the departure of Ali Al-Habsi, we have needed a goalkeeper that can win us games. Essentially, that is exactly what the Oman stopper did, especially in the 2016/17 season. While we all had high hopes of signing Emiliano Martinez on a permanent deal after impressing under Jose Gomes, Rafael has been one of the signings of last summer.
Our current league position may not show this, but the Brazilian has shown why he is arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the second tier. Unless a lucrative comes in for the 29 year old, he will be one of the first names on the team sheet next season as well.
Meanwhile, Sam Walker has come under fire for some of his performances since he has been at the Madejski Stadium. His performance against Chelsea in last year’s pre-season match was a game where his ability was placed under scrutiny by supporters on social media. Some people were questioning whether he was good enough to even be an understudy in the Championship.
All it takes is one long-term injury to Rafael and Sam Walker will suddenly play a major part in the first team. His role in the Cardiff City FA Cup replay match in the penalty shootout has been one of few highlights that Walker can currently take from his time at the Madejski Stadium. Will that now give him the confidence to go on and perform superbly in a Reading shirt? That remains to be seen.
This is before you even consider the likes of Luke Southwood, Coniah Boyce-Clarke (who I thought was very short; turns out he’s 6’3) and Jokull Andresson.
Southwood has been out on loan many times and as a former youth international for England, it would be a real shame to see the 22 year old leave the club without a senior appearance to his name. However, he could be one of many departures this summer, especially if he is craving first-team football.
The emergence of Boyce-Clarke could have also placed the final nail in the coffin for Southwood’s Reading career. With both Mannone and Southwood on loan, the teenager was effectively our joint third-choice goalkeeper with Andresson up until the coronavirus forced league action to stop. At what stage do we promote Boyce-Clarke from being an U23 player to a professional? It will be crucial to loan him out at the right time. Joao Virginia is a reminder of that.
As someone who admires the academy, having Southwood and Boyce-Clarke as the backups for Rafael would be my dream. However, there needs to be a bit of realism. Walker has not played enough football to attract several offers from elsewhere and I can see him leaving on a free when his contract expires in 2021.
Unless Walker is sold or Boyce-Clarke is loaned out, this could be the end of the road for Southwood in Berkshire. Several top clubs were interested in Boyce-Clarke before he put pen to paper on a new deal in Berkshire and he will want to be as close to the first team as possible, having resisted the interest of Premier League teams. Despite Southwood being a fellow academy graduate, he would be yet another obstacle for Boyce-Clarke as they both strive to make an impact on the senior squad.
After all of this, I have barely had chance to mention poor Andresson, who is currently behind some talented players in the pecking order. Even though Mannone’s contract expires this summer, the Icelander will still be just as far away from the first team. However, he will have time to grow as an 18 year old and taking part in last summer’s pre-season will have been a valuable experience for him. He may go out on loan again to develop further.
What do I predict will happen this summer in the goalkeeping department? I honestly think Bowen will opt for Walker over Southwood and the latter may well be sold, with Boyce-Clarke acting as third choice.
It would be a major shame for Southwood – especially as a goalkeeper with so much promise in his early years at the club. He has also impressed out on loan, both in England and in Scotland.
However, he has yet to make a professional appearance in England – and that may just sway Bowen’s decision. While considering all these different factors, the manager has a tough decision to make in this department when the transfer window opens.