There is nothing I like more than seeing academy players, who have spent several years at the club, being given the opportunity to shine in front of our supporters.
Financial constraints and a possible change in strategy means that seeing more of these players is a major possibility in the next campaign – as we look to balance the books and recover from heavy spending over the past few seasons.
The 2011/12 season saw a few of our academy graduates lead us to the Championship title: Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan and Hal Robson-Kanu are just a few of those who featured heavily. Goalkeeper Adam Federici also joined Reading at a reasonably young age from Italian side Torres and Simon Church scored numerous goals during that campaign.
Although many academy players go on to assert themselves as first team players, others fail to succeed. Some may not be good enough – others could be ones that got away. Although we have made wise decisions with those who are not good enough for the Championship, I feel like we missed out on developing players who clearly had the potential to go on and become important players at the club.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. However, Tariq Fosu and Jack Stacey clearly both had the talent to earn themselves a place in the first team squad. Some people would argue that they did not play enough first team football at the Madejski Stadium to warrant staying at the club. It is also important to recognise that we did not see how they performed on the training ground.
Despite this, the rise of Michail Antonio, Rob Dickie, Fosu and Stacey should inspire us to give our existing academy graduates the chance to shine on the big stage.
This starts with the goalkeeping department. As I said in my previous article, the signing of Sam Walker was bizarre. The former Colchester United stopper still has a year left on his deal at the Madejski Stadium – and it is unlikely that any offers will come in for him when the next transfer window opens. He is currently higher in the pecking order above the likes of Luke Southwood and Coniah Boyce-Clarke, both of which will want to make an impact on the first team.
Even though the latter is still a teenager, he will want to experience Championship football quickly after reportedly attracting interest from Manchester United and Arsenal. After signing a new contract in the midst of this interest, his sights will be fully focused on that number one jersey. If Southwood leaves this summer, he will have an even clearer path to the first team.
Either way, it would be good to see an academy graduate on the bench to challenge Rafael. Training with the senior squad at Championship level would be a valuable experience for both – even for Southwood who has not played at a senior level professionally before in England. His time in Scotland with Hamilton will be a great asset to his CV.
Moving on to the defence, we could have two academy graduates battling it out for a spot at left back next season, depending on whether Jordan Obita signs a new deal. Both Obita and Omar Richards have played numerous times at a senior level, and with Tyler Blackett seemingly on his way out of the club, the two could be in fierce competition.
Could we possibly fit them in the same starting lineup? Probably not – there is a case for saying neither of them excel in an advanced position on the wing. At an academy level, Obita was brilliant in a more advanced position. However, ever since Nigel Adkins deployed him as a left back, he has rarely left that position. His long-term injury may have also made an impact on his mobility.
Even though he looked fairly good on his return, his two year absence could have had more of an impact than we first thought. It is also hard to believe that Ramarni Medford-Smith is already 21 years old – is it his time to break through?
On the other side of the defence, the presence of both Andy Yiadom and Chris Gunter all but secured Teddy Howe’s exit to Blackpool in January. On social media, there were mixed opinions on the CEO’s son when he played for the Royals. However, Gunter is out of contract this summer and he is likely to leave the club unless Yiadom makes a surprising exit. Could this be an opportunity for Tennai Watson to provide competition to the first choice right back?
Although Watson played very well under Jaap Stam in the 2016/17 season, especially against Arsenal away in the Carabao Cup, he has barely played in the second tier since. His time at AFC Wimbeldon will have been a valuable experience for the 23-year-old. However, it is now or never for Watson who needs first team football at his age.
This could end up being a reasonably simple area for Mark Bowen to deal with, especially if Gunter is released in the summer. The likes of Felipe Araruna and Andy Rinomhota can also fill in at right back in an emergency – making this position perhaps one of Mark Bowen’s last priorities in the transfer market.
One position that will not be as simple to deal with is central defence. Even Liam Moore’s future is not certain – especially when it comes to balancing the books. Matt Miazga’s loan also expires at the end of the season, leaving Michael Morrison and Tom McIntyre as our two other first team centre backs. If both Liam Moore AND Matt Miazga leave this summer, I have no doubt that a signing will be made to bolster this area. However, McIntyre could make his case to be one of the first names on Reading’s team sheet.
The 21-year-old has impressed many over the past year and has a bright future, although fellow academy graduate Gabriel Osho faces a more uncertain future at the Madejski Stadium. His contract runs out this summer – and to be released after spending a chunk of his Reading career as U23s captain would be a blow for Osho.
Does he deserve another contract? If the remaining games of this season are played, this could be the ideal opportunity for Mark Bowen to give him a chance to impress to be able to make the best decision.
Keep an eye out for teenager Jeriel Dorsett as well – he made his debut at Blackpool in the FA Cup earlier on in 2020, although Tom Holmes, Andre Burley and Akin Odimayo could all be in front of him in the pecking order at this moment in time.
The key thing to take out of this so far is that some academy graduates are not as young as we think they are anymore. We need a good mix of experience and youth – getting this balance will be a huge task for Mark Bowen.
Stay tuned for part two.