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The ‘What Could Have Been’ Generation Of Reading’s Academy

In 2014, Reading academy sides reached the FA Youth Cup semi finals and won the under-21 Premier League Cup, so why didn’t that success carry over into the first team?

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Reading Photocall 2014/15 - Madejski Stadium

It’s not been a bad 12 months for alumni of Reading’s academy. Jack Stacey earned a move to the Premier League with Bournemouth, Tariqe Fosu joined Championship promotion-chasing side Brentford, Sami Friðjónsson won the Norwegian Cup before moving to the German Bundesliga with SC Paderborn, Dom Hyam has won promotion to the Championship with Coventry City and Rob Dickie could soon follow suit at Oxford United.

Six years ago, those five players helped the Royals’ under-18s reach the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup, where they agonisingly lost in the dying seconds to Fulham. Stacey, Fosu and Friðjónsson were also part of the under-21 squad that won the inaugural Premier League Cup, by beating Patrick Vieira’s Manchester City in the final.

Those sides contained numerous other players that made the club’s future look very bright: Aaron Kuhl, Craig Tanner, Liam Kelly and Jake Cooper to name just a few. It was an extremely exciting time for the club’s academy, especially as it had also secured Category One status for the first time in July 2013.

“The team we had was so special,” Friðjónsson told The Tilehurst End. “I believe it was one of the best in the country at the time. We all connected as mates. The banter was great, and that made us play better. We were like a family, and that helped a lot.”

“We were such a close-knit group, and we all still keep in contact now,” Tanner said in a TTE exclusive interview earlier this year. “I think that closeness showed and we had the right balance of good spirit off the field and when to take things seriously on it. We had a nasty streak too that brought us all together.”

A source close to the squad told The Tilehurst End: “That side reminded me of the 106 team in that sometimes they were greater than the sum of their parts which can only be a reflection of the coaches’ and managers’ hard work and input.”

However, it is now somewhat bittersweet to be left celebrating what those players have achieved away from Reading, rather than any first-team success in the blue and white hoops.

The club has prided itself on its academy for many years, and rightly so. A particularly golden period was in the late 2000s, when Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu all broke into the first team. Sigurdsson would go on to earn Reading a club record fee when he was sold to Hoffenheim in 2010, while the other four played key roles in earning the club promotion to the Premier League in 2012, with Pearce winning player of the season.

“It would have been nice to have a team along the same lines as Jem, Pearcey, Gylfi, Hal and Churchy,” Tanner says. “That generation is spoken about a lot, and I did feel that we could have had something very similar as well.”

The foundations for the next Reading side to be built on academy players appeared to be being put in place in the first few months of the 2014/15 season. Nigel Adkins handed debuts to Ryan Edwards (20), Tanner (19), Cooper (19), Stacey (18), Kuhl (18), Aaron Tshibola (19) and Sean Long (19), while other academy graduates Jordan Obita (20), Jake Taylor (22) and Michael Hector (22) featured heavily. For the 1-0 away win at Middlesbrough in August, 13 of the 18-man squad had come through the youth system.

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Reading Photocall 2014/15 - Madejski Stadium
Nigel Adkins handed nine academy players their first team debut in the space of eight months

Adkins was always a huge admirer of the academy during his time as manager and watched as many matches at all age groups as he could. He even gave a team talk to the under-14 side before their Nike Trophy final at Wembley. However his reliance on youth in that period was perhaps more a necessity than anything else as the club faced both an injury crisis and problems in the transfer market as the ownership situation remained unresolved.

By the end of that campaign, Adkins had been replaced by Steve Clarke, who sent Tshibola, Tanner and Taylor out on loan and brought in ageing free agents Yakubu (32) and Zat Knight (34). He did though give out three more debuts - to Niall Keown (19), Andrija Novakovich (18) and Fosu (19) - meaning 2014/15 included more academy players making their first-team bows (11) than any other season in the club’s history. With 57 graduates to date, it is a remarkable statistic that nearly one fifth made their debut in that one year, and was indicative of how talented that group of players were.

The following season, many academy players went out on loan - the next logical step in their development. Many discuss how valuable the opportunities are as they are given a taste of what ‘real’ football is about, where results actually matter and people’s livelihoods are on the line. It is far more beneficial than continuing to play under-23 football. No fewer than ten members of the class of 2014 were sent out to gain first-team experience, from as close as Basingstoke Town to as far away as Icelandic side Fylkir, and from as low down the pyramid as the National League South to as high as the Scottish Premiership.

There were multiple successes too. Rob Dickie won the National League title with Cheltenham Town, Craig Tanner got to the League Two play-off final with Plymouth Argyle and Tariqe Fosu helped Accrington Stanley to the League Two play-off semi-finals, winning the April player of the month award for the division in the process.

A new era dawned at the football club in 2016, as technical director Brian Tevreden and manager Jaap Stam spearheaded ‘The Dutch Revolution’. Both Stam and Tevreden’s coaching backgrounds were in the Ajax academy, where the latter won silverware with the club’s C team, whilst the former spent two years as manager of Jong Ajax.

In an in-depth interview with GetReading’s Charles Watts in July 2016, Tevreden continually spoke glowingly about Reading’s academy and admitted he was keen to bring Stam in as manager because “I wanted a coach who could work with youngsters”. Mid-way through the 2016/17 season, Tevreden would announce his long-term plan to replicate Ajax’s model of having a first-team squad was that made up of 60% academy players.

In theory, this was the perfect set-up for the academy class of 2014, now in their early 20s, to flourish and become the core of the team. But in reality, Stam and Tevreden set about phasing out those players. The majority of those who were yet to make their debut - Pierce Sweeney, Conor Shaughnessy, Noor Husin, Nana Owusu and Friðjónsson were released - while those who had - Cooper, Dickie, Long, Tanner, Kuhl, Stacey and Fosu - were loaned out.

The recruitment wasn’t particularly geared towards giving academy players chances either, as the team was bulked out by 11 summer signings. While the likes of Liam Moore and John Swift quickly became regulars, infamous pair Danzell Gravenberch and Sandro Wieser became merely squad filler, taking up spots that surely could have been given to academy players.

This was contrary to what Tevreden had told Watts in pre-season: “I have to look after the academy. I don’t want to bring a player in who is old, who will block another youngster. It would have made no sense [to sign trialist Gaston Campi]. He would have been blocking the pathway for good youngsters. Rob Dickie, Dominic Hyam, Zak Jules. We have [Jake] Coops as well who has been playing in the first-team.”

Dickie and Hyam didn’t even make a matchday squad, Jules was named on the bench in the EFL Cup fixture against Plymouth and Cooper made three substitute appearances in the Championship. All four were loaned out.

The only academy debut that Stam handed out that season was to Liam Kelly, who admittedly would go on to become one of the stars of the campaign. The only other academy graduates to start a league game all season were Jordan Obita and Dominic Samuel.

“When Brian and Jaap came in, perhaps the supposed arrogance of an ex-Manchester United player and inexperienced coach didn’t want to be told which players to focus on bringing through,” says the source. “From the beginning he wanted to do things his way and wouldn’t be dictated to, which is understandable as he would ultimately be taking responsibility for results on the pitch. As a modern manager you don’t get long to show results, so he bought in players he knew he could trust.”

Sheffield Wednesday v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Hillsborough
Jaap Stam had helped bring through Ajax’s latest crop of youngsters before he joined Reading
Photo by Simon Cooper/PA Images via Getty Images

As well as the presence of Stam and Tevreden, it was perhaps more so the absence of two other individuals - Nick Hammond and Eamonn Dolan - that hampered many academy players’ chances of making the first team. Hammond had departed Berkshire to become West Bromwich Albion’s new technical director in April 2016, while academy manager Dolan sadly lost his battle with cancer in June.

“I was coming to the end of my contract and I knew I had to play first-team football,” says Friðjónsson of the summer of 2016. “Eamonn had passed away and Nick Hammond had left the club, and they were the people who had brought me to Reading. Of course I was disappointed to never make my debut for the club. I trained a lot with the first team, but it wasn’t to be.”

Tanner’s comments are along similar lines: “Sadly Eamonn had passed away by that point, and I think if you look at that period, a lot of our age group was pushed to the side. Brian Tevreden came in and maybe wanted to create his own legacy, that’s the way we saw it.”

The impact of Dolan in particular cannot be understated. Anyone lucky enough to have known him or be coached by him cannot speak highly enough of his impact. He was a father figure, a confidant and a rock, and without his influence, Reading’s academy would not have produced anywhere near the same number of professionals. The class of 2014 were particularly close to Dolan, given his key role in the Premier League Cup win. Without him, many players struggled to make their presence felt in the first team.

“I do believe that if Eamonn had still been around I might have got another contract at Reading and things would have been different,” says Tanner. “I think that was the case for a few other lads as well. He would always fight your corner no matter what, and he was the one always pushing you to the first team. He made sure all the coaches knew everything about you. His passing affected everyone, but it definitely took a toll on people’s careers as well.”

“My experience with him wasn’t so much the football side,” Rob Dickie told The Tilehurst End. “I don’t think I was ever really coached by him. But he taught me respect, discipline and hard work.”

Friðjónsson adds: “It’s all about hard work and dedication. I think Eamonn Dolan had a big part in that. All of us in that youth team probably have the same mentality because of him. He told us to never give up, and that’s what we all have in common.”

“Eamonn was a leader and a presence around Hogwood, and always had time for a word for either a wayward player or a disillusioned parent,” the source says. “The philosophy seemed to be that if players thought they had made it, then Reading were happy to let them go and concentrate on players with skill, intelligence and hard work. If players were doing well they would be told the hard work has only just begun and Eamonn made sure they knew that.”

More sales and end-of-contract exits came in the summer of 2017, meaning of both the under-18 FA Youth Cup side and the under-21 Premier League Cup side, only four players remained at the club just three years after their season of success at youth level: Lewis Ward, Tennai Watson, Rob Dickie and Liam Kelly.

Ward, Dickie and Kelly have also since headed for the exit, leaving Watson, now 23, as the sole representative. But his future at the club looks bleak, and he hasn’t featured for the first team since the 7-1 defeat to Norwich City in April 2017. In total from the class of 2014, only Cooper (39) and Kelly (75) made more than 10 first-team starts for Reading, while the rest had 21 between them. For a youth squad so highly rated, their time at the club rather petered out and we’re left with a sense of disappointment of what might have been.

Arsenal v Reading - EFL Cup Fourth Round
Tennai Watson, 23, is the only member of the academy squad of 2014 who is still at the club
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

Tanner’s suggestion that Tevreden wanted “to create his own legacy” certainly seems to have some merit. A new group of Royals youngsters were making a name for themselves, with an under-23 side reaching the final of the 2017 Premier League Cup, featuring Watson and captained by Dickie. The team sheet for the showpiece against Swansea read as follows:

George Legg, Tennai Watson, Omar Richards, Gabriel Osho (Axel Andresson 84), Rob Dickie, Ryan East, Tyler Frost (Sam Smith 86), Andy Rinomhota, Josh Barrett (Jake Sheppard 74), Yakou Meite, Andrija Novakovich

With a 16-year-old Danny Loader also making waves in the academy, and scoring a hat-trick in a first-team pre-season game against QPR, the baton had well and truly been passed on.

Stam and Tevreden would both leave Reading in 2018, but their vision of bringing through the next generation of Royals talent has not gone unrealised. Of the under-23s side that reached the 2017 Premier League Cup final, six have since made their first-team debuts in addition to the four that already had. Rinomhota (23) won the club’s player of the season award in 2018/19 and reached senior 50 appearances in December, a landmark which Richards (22) would join him at the following month.

According to sports investment company Tifosy, 27.6% of Reading’s 2019/20 squad came through the club’s academy - the fourth highest in the top four leagues behind Manchester United, perennial talent developers Crewe Alexandra and Chelsea. This includes the aforementioned Rinomhota and Richards, as well as fan-turned-player Tom McIntyre (21) and exciting teenager Michael Olise (18).

That statistic is something to be proud of, and the production line has certainly not stopped in the last few years, yet it remains hard not to think what the team would look like with more of the class of 2014 in it. No grudges are held by that group of players, but there is undeniably a sense of ‘what if?’.

The source says: “When you consider that Hyam, Dickie, Fosu, Kelly, Watson, Shaughnessy and Stacey could all hopefully be playing at least Championship football next season, the level of talent that was nurtured at that time is clear.

“It is a shame that such a great bunch of boys never had the chance to regularly play for the club that made them what they were, and that’s without mentioning the obvious financial benefits of using homegrown talent. The fact that many were discarded makes you think why don’t the club just ‘do a Brentford’ and not have an academy at all.”

“If you look at that under-21 squad and who is still in the Football League it’s a remarkable number,” says Tanner. “I think a few of us were definitely unlucky not to get further in our Reading careers.”

“You look at what that team has gone on to achieve,” adds Friðjónsson. “We’ve all done really well. Reading made a mistake, that’s for sure!”