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Youth And The Future Of Reading’s Squad Building

As Reading head into another summer rebuild, Sim examines the extent to which the club could - and should - base its squad around the academy.

Leeds United v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Elland Road Photo by Anthony Devlin/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Olly’s recent piece about Reading academy’s ‘Class of 2014’ got me thinking. In that article, he refers to Brian Tevreden’s unrealised long-term ambition of emulating Ajax by remoulding the Royals’ first-team squad so that 60% of it would be made up of academy graduates.

It was an ambitious goal and, in the end, Tevreden didn’t come close to achieving it. In his first of two full seasons as director of football, 2016/17, only 16% of the players Reading put on the pitch in at least one game had come through the academy. Although that figure grew to 27% in 2017/18, that was still far short of where he wanted the club to be.

In Tevreden’s defence, it was a long-term project, one that was probably to be achieved across half a decade or so - not the two years he got. In reality, that was more like one. In 2016/17, he was supported by two like-minded figures in manager Jaap Stam (another proponent of Ajax’s youth philosophy after previously coaching in their academy) and chief executive Nigel Howe, but the club’s outlook shifted significantly after that campaign for a few reasons.

Firstly, an unlikely playoff charge suggested promotion in 2017/18 was much likelier than previously thought, giving the club a short-term focus that probably made long-term youth development less of a priority. Then, the Dais’ takeover injected transfer funds unavailable under the previous Thai consortium, meaning less of a need to bring youth through.

Lastly, and probably most decisively, Ron Gourlay’s subsequent arrival meant Reading now had a CEO who didn’t see eye to eye with Tevreden’s vision for the club. Gourlay’s decision to replace Stam in March 2018 with Paul Clement, who had given no academy debuts during his spells at Derby County and Swansea City, showed that youth progression had - at best - become far less of a priority.

Reading v Swansea City - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images

So was that the death of a vision for Reading’s squad to be, for the most part at least, made up of academy graduates? The 2018/19 season would suggest so, with only 25% of that campaign’s players having come through the academy - just shy of the previous year. However, that was due in large part to the sheer size of the squad; 40 players appeared for Reading in all competitions in 2018/19 - way above the 30 in 2016/17.

If young players were to get a proper chance in the first team, squad numbers had to be cut back drastically by returning CEO Nigel Howe and incoming manager Jose Gomes. That process started in January 2019 and continued into the summer, with a number of players released, sold or loaned out. Although that was primarily for financial and morale purposes, a leaner squad meant a clearer pathway for the academy.

Appointing managers (temporary or permanent) who were ready to give youth a chance helped too. After caretaker boss Scott Marshall handed debuts to Gabriel Osho and Tom McIntyre, Gomes gave out another four in his time at the club, before Mark Bowen added another four this season. Of the 57 players to graduate from Reading’s academy, none came through under Paul Clement, but 10 have done so since he departed in late 2018.

Put that all together and Reading’s academy is involved in the first-team squad to a level we’ve not been at before. From 25% in 2018/19, we’re now at 39% for 2019/20. Given that, in 2019, Reading had its joint-second-busiest summer window in the last 12 years for signings, that’s quite something. Despite numerous external additions to the squad, the Royals have been able to increase the academy’s involvement.

So what of the future? Coming back to Tevreden’s ambition, two questions jump out for me:

  • Can Reading realistically get to a stage where 50-60% of the squad is made up of academy graduates?
  • If the club can, is that actually a desirable ambition?

To answer the first one, really you need to look at how Reading have got to 39%. So far this season, the Royals have used a total of 38 players in all competitions, of whom 15 have come through the academy:

Andy Rinomhota, Jordan Obita, Tom McIntyre, Omar Richards, Danny Loader, Michael Olise, Teddy Howe, Andrija Novakovich, Gabriel Osho, Akin Odimayo, Ramarni Medford-Smith, Josh Barrett, Andre Burley, Ben House and Jeriel Dorsett.

However, only five of those players have made that much of an impact on the first team: Rinomhota, Obita, McIntyre, Richards and Olise. Although a further four have also featured in the league at some point (Novakovich, Loader, Osho and Barrett), six have only had game time in the cup (Howe, Odimayo, Medford-Smith, Burley, House and Dorsett).

That isn’t to say their appearances are insignificant. Reading will always need a big squad to manage the rigours of a busy campaign on three fronts; relying on a small group for 50 or so fixtures isn’t a good idea. Having players available to come in and be a fresh pair of legs here and there, even if it’s just in cup competitions or a few Championship matches, is valuable.

In previous years, those fringe players would have been external signings, but as I highlighted above, Reading have done a great job of replacing them with academy graduates. Doing that brings the wage bill down, makes fans happy and shows those further down the academy that they’ve got a genuine chance of breaking into the first team.

Even though a large number of the academy graduates who’ve featured this season have now moved on (Novakovich, Loader, Howe, Odimayo, Medford-Smith, Barrett, Burley and House), there’s a new set ready to step up in their absence. In 2020/21, we could well see Luke Southwood, Thierry Nevers, Ryan East, Jordan Holsgrove and Connor Lawless, among others.

So how do you push beyond 40% and perhaps to 50%?

When so many academy players have been involved, the more pressing issue is to how to reduce the number of non-academy players. Looking at those who’ve made less of an impact this season, there are eight non-academy graduates who’ve featured in the Championship for Reading this season but racked up fewer than 800 league minutes:

Charlie Adam, Lucas Boye, Garath McCleary, Joao Virginia, Felipe Araruna, Modou Barrow, Ayub Timbe and Sone Aluko.

If you were to simply take them all out of consideration, 39% would leap to 50% exactly. These are players who haven’t really made a particularly big impact on the first team this season, and their roles as back up (for the most part at least) could theoretically be taken by youth players.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Reading - Carabao Cup - Third Round - Molineux Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

That leads me to my second question. If Reading theoretically had enough academy graduates ready to make the jump up into the first-team picture, would pushing for the squad to be 50-60% made up of those graduates be a good idea?

At this stage in time at least, I’d say no. If you want to push the number of academy graduates past 50%, you’d need to phase out players who have made a big impact in the first team. Five non-academy players have racked up between 1,000 and 2,000 league minutes this season: Matt Miazga, Chris Gunter, Tyler Blackett, Lucas Joao and Sam Baldock.

Those five are all experienced, established players at this level, and have been key parts of the first team for at least one period of the campaign. When you start taking them out of the picture to make room for inexperienced younger players, there’s a tangible impact on the squad’s overall quality. After all, you’d no longer have arguably the club’s best centre back, left back and centre forward, a very capable deputy right back and a hard-working striker with experience of winning promotion to the Premier League.

Perhaps you can replace them with academy players, but that takes time. We’re not just talking about bringing youngsters through to make up the numbers - they’d have to be of real first-team quality, and getting to that point requires experience built up over the course of at least a few years.

As it stands, probably the only academy graduates in the first-team squad in that category are Obita, Rinomhota and Richards, who’ve all got at least 60 appearances for Reading under their belt. Others such as McIntyre, Olise and Osho have the potential to follow in their footsteps, but realistically need at least one full season of regular first-team action to properly establish themselves.

If Reading can make that happen, in addition to providing younger players with regular game time - whether out on loan or at the Madejski Stadium - there’s a real chance that we could see a squad in the coming years that is not only heavily made up of academy talent, but one that’s also strong enough to compete at a high level.

Of course, we’ve been here before though. I could well have said something similar to that above point in 2014 or 2016, but in both cases, a change in strategy not long down the line meant the pathway for younger talent into the first team vanished.

However, if Reading can avoid beefing the squad out with shorter-term players signed from elsewhere, retain personnel behind the scenes who’ll value the importance of youth development (like Nigel Howe), and consistently appoint managers willing to give those players a chance, we could well see the academy become an even stronger resource for the first team.