The recent signing of Josh Laurent was widely well received. Besides the appeal of what he offers on the pitch and the fact that he’s come in on a free transfer, what really went down well with a lot of fans was the fact that he came from the lower leagues.
The idea of a ‘hungry, determined player striving to make their mark at a higher level’ is certainly cliched, but it’s not without merit as a transfer strategy. After all, Reading used to get plenty of joy from signing up-and-coming players from further down the footballing pyramid and giving them a chance to impress. The 2005/06 squad was largely built on such an approach.
So what’s it been like since then? From the aftermath of that team’s relegation to the Championship until the present, where have Reading been making their signings? Is it fair to say that we’ve been neglecting the lower leagues, and if so, where instead have we shifted our attention to?
This piece is essentially a spin-off from a previous data-based article that I did on the number of signings Reading have made in years gone by. Quick recap: it showed that our transfer activity became much busier from 2014, although much of that was driven by short-term additions as longer-term planning wasn’t established.
I’ve used the same rules for this article’s data as before: all signings are non-academy arrivals who played at least once for the first team, whether they joined on loan or on permanent deals. The data is again split up by transfer window, although in some cases I’ve had to move a player to the most relevant one. For example, Billy Sharp (September 2013) is a summer signing, Zat Knight (March 2015) is a winter signing.
It’s also worth noting that the ‘location’ of these players goes by where their former club was at the time Reading signed them. For example, John O’Shea counts as a ‘lower league’ signing as Sunderland had just been relegated to League One from the Championship. I’ve also had to take a somewhat arbitrary geo-political stand here. For the purposes of this data, Russia and Turkey are in Europe and, regardless of whatever Eurovision says, Azerbaijan is not.
With that out of the way, here’s the data, not including this current window:
Probably the first thing that jumps out at you is how pink the graphic gets in the second half, starting from 2013, although it doesn’t really accelerate decisively until 2015. In broad, simple terms, it illustrates the idea that Reading Football Club up until 2012/13 was very different to the one we’ve seen in recent years.
Reading made just one signing from outside the British Isles before 2013 - bonus points if you remember Gunnar Thorvaldsson’s loan arrival from Esbjerg fB midway through the 2009/10 season. However, from 2013 there are only three transfer windows in which Reading don’t sign someone from outside the British Isles, all of which were mid-season windows.
It’s a huge shift in focus that, of course, resulted in no small part from the club’s changing ownership. There’s just the one non-UK/Ireland signing under Sir John Madejski’s stewardship, then a few in the Anton Zingarevich era, before shopping overseas really takes off under the Thais and then continues - albeit to a lesser extent - under the Dai siblings.
I’ve been wondering whether or not it’s fair to say there’s a cut-off point here, whether or not there’s one specific identifiable moment or period at which Reading’s focus decisively changes. I’d suggest not, and that it is in fact more a case of a gradual change over the period between the winter 2013 window and the winter 2015 window.
This is when Reading realise there is potentially value to be found overseas as they can acquire established players for smaller fees, or even for free. Although Daniel Carrico and Danny Williams came in for around £700,000 and £2m respectively, I’d argue that these figures would have been higher if they’d been domestic signings. Either way, they were followed up by free agents: Royston Drenthe, Anton Ferdinand, Zat Knight, Jure Travner and Yakubu.
Of course, this isn’t to say that these signings turned out to be successes. All gave pretty poor financial returns in terms of wages, except perhaps Yakubu whose winner at Derby County paid off in terms of FA Cup prize money, and only Williams made a sustained positive impression on the pitch over the course of a few years.
However, regardless of the poor return Reading got from those players, the fact that the club went after those signings in the first place is still interesting. Trying to look for value overseas in such a fashion was different to Reading’s earlier strategy, and it preceded a more extensive international approach in later years.
That approach hasn’t been consistent - Reading’s behind-the-scenes planning rarely is. It’s more a case that Reading have since the start of 2015/16 made major use of the international market on a few separate occasions and in different ways, except for a period in which they didn’t much bother.
That last section ties in pretty much directly with Ron Gourlay’s tenure as CEO. During his three transfer windows in the hot seat (summer 2017, winter 2018, summer 2018), Reading brought in just two players from overseas: Pelle Clement (surely a Brian Tevreden addition due to the Ajax link) and Saeid Ezatolahi. Reading’s approach at this time was much more domestic, predominantly focused on the Championship but also with a few delves into the Premier League and League One.
That leaves us with three summer transfer windows in which Reading did try to rebuild their squad with signings from overseas, making at least four such signings on each occasion: 2015, 2016 and 2019. I’d split those windows into two distinct parts: when Kia Joorabchian was reportedly heavily influential in 2015 and 2019, and the so-called ‘Dutch Revolution’ of 2016.
Joorabchian’s reported general influence at Reading has been long discussed, but of more specific relevance here are his international links. He’s believed to be influential in the Spanish, Portuguese and South American footballing spheres, hence for example representing Brazilian David Luiz and Portuguese Cedric Soares, both of whom moved to Arsenal in 2019/20.
This would also explain Reading’s tendency to bring in players from South America and the Iberian Peninsula in certain recent transfer windows when Joorabchian was believed to be involved. In 2015 this included Portuguese forward Orlando Sa, Spaniard Alex Fernandez, Chilean Paolo Hurtado from Pacos de Ferreira and Ola John from Benfica. Last summer Reading signed Brazilians Rafael and Werick Caetano, Argentine Lucas Boye and Portuguese players Lucas Joao and Joao Virginia.
Despite the general pattern of Iberian/South American players joining Reading, it’s hard to say for sure which of these players have links to Joorabchian. However, in late 2018, Charles Watts (then of Football.London) specifically mentioned Sa, John, Hurtado and Piazon as being among those with such links.
In addition to player recruitment, Joorabchian was thought to be behind the attempted appointment of Brazilian Alexandre Mattos as director of football earlier this year, and also of Portuguese manager Luis Castro in late 2018. Of course, that position instead went to compatriot Jose Gomes.
Reading’s more international approach in the summer windows of 2015 and 2019 would appear to be tied directly to Joorabchian’s involvement. I don’t think it amounts to an overarching ‘international strategy’ in either case though, as if we specifically wanted to bring in players from the Iberian Peninsula - it’s more that the doors reportedly opened by Joorabchian happened to lead there.
On the other hand, 2016 was very much a case of a specific strategy with an international focus. The first clear sign of this was in the appointment of Brian Tevreden as head of international football and development in January 2016, before the Dutchman became director of football a few months later, even going on a European scouting trip with Brian McDermott in early May before McDermott was ultimately replaced by Jaap Stam in mid-June.
This strategy came down from the top. Shortly before Stam’s arrival, owner Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth spoke of wanting to emulate Leicester City’s practice of scouting out low-cost, high-return talent from overseas such as Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante. This was, as Tevreden noted on our recent podcast interview with him, at least partially prompted by Reading having little money to spend.
Accordingly, Reading extensively shopped outside the British Isles for cheap signings in the 2016/17 season. Danzell Gravenberch and Joey van den Berg joined from Dutch teams, Joseph Mendes and Yakou Meite from French ones, Anssi Jaakkola from South Africa, Roy Beerens from Germany, Sandro Wieser from Switzerland (not noted on the graphic as he didn’t play a single game) and Adrian Popa from Romania.
Reading’s approach to the domestic market has changed too.
Going back to the first half of the graphic, you can see that lower-league signings were a pretty common occurrence. Reading didn’t completely build their recruitment around such players, but did make use of League One and League Two, making six additions from those divisions between summer 2009 and winter 2013: Grzegorz Rasiak, Ian Harte, Sean Morrison, Mathieu Manset, Adam Le Fondre and Hope Akpan.
Note how making signings from the lower leagues pretty much dries up as soon as Reading get into the Premier League in 2012. Granted, we did bring in Akpan from Crawley Town and Nick Blackman from Sheffield United (then a Championship side, so lower than Reading), but it felt more like an old practice that was on its way out - especially given the fact that Brian McDermott would be sacked a few months later.
Between Blackman joining from United on January 30 2013 and Laurent coming in from Shrewsbury Town on July 28 2020, Reading brought in just six players from a lower division. That statistic is somewhat misleading though: five of those had just dropped into the third tier (Ali Al-Habsi, Andrew Taylor, John O’Shea, Callum Harriott, Andy Yiadom), and only one can be reasonably described as the kind of ‘hungry up-and-comer looking for a chance in the Championship’: Marc McNulty.
For me, it amounts to Reading neglecting the value and talent that’s available in the lower divisions. I’m not saying that players in League One and League Two are inherently better than equivalent signings from overseas - wherever a signing is coming from, Reading need to scout them properly, ensure they’ll fit into the side and try not to overpay. That’s equally true of lower-league and international signings. But it is still curious that, to such a large extent, we’ve cast aside an approach that has not only worked well for us in the past but also been successful for other Championship clubs more recently.
I’d put the change in approach down to personnel. Since Zingarevich’s takeover in 2012, the decision-makers and people with influence behind the scenes at the Madejski Stadium have increasingly been from overseas, meaning more contacts outside the UK/Ireland and presumably also a general desire to give the club a more international outlook.
After all, in the last eight years, Reading have had its first owners from outside the British Isles (Russia, Thailand and China), and the same is true of managers (Jaap Stam and Jose Gomes) and technical directors (Tevreden and Gianluca Nani - even if the latter wasn’t around for long). People of new backgrounds coming into the club is bound to change Reading’s mindset and strategy.
This isn’t an inherently good or bad thing. Personally, I like Reading being a diverse, cosmopolitan club that’s willing to embrace talent and experience wherever it can be found - whether domestically or overseas.
But there’s a danger in going too far in either direction. Focusing too much on overseas talent means overlooking the lower leagues and the potential that can be found there, and the above data shows Reading have been guilty of this. But having an overly domestic outlook can be problematic too as it can mean shutting yourself off from quality players from abroad.
There’s a balance between the two, but finding and maintaining that balance can only come from having a coherent, effective strategy underpinning Reading’s recruitment. If we can develop that strategy and draw success from it, to be honest I don’t think anyone would really care where new recruits come from. Reading’s more domestic strategy was popular when it helped build the 2005/06 team, as was Tevreden’s more international approach in 2016 (at least initially) popular when it got us to a play-off final.
So what of the future?
That brings us to the very end of the graphic: winter 2020. It’s unique neither for the number of signings (two is standard for mid-season) nor the fact that there are non-European signings (Reading made more of these in winter 2015). It’s unique because, on this occasion, Reading only shopped outside Europe.
Ayub Timbe was loaned in from Beijing Renhe, Felipe Araruna came in from Brazil, and it seemed inevitable that Reading would appoint Araruna’s compatriot Alexandre Mattos as the new director of football. These three additions all tied together - Mattos’ brief was supposed to include overseeing the transfer of players between Reading and its sister clubs (not only Renhe but also KSV Roeselare in Belgium), and his contacts in Brazil were thought to have landed Araruna’s signature.
It looked very much like Reading’s future approach to recruitment was taking shape. However, external factors appeared to kill off this international approach. A combination of Covid-19 and visa problems meant Mattos never arrived, and ongoing financial constraints due to the pandemic mean we’ll likely not appoint anyone else as director of football in his place.
It makes for an intriguing ‘what if’ scenario though: how would Reading’s strategy have evolved if Covid-19 hadn’t happened and Mattos had been appointed? We’d have likely seen increasingly global recruitment, probably with more signings from Brazil, Portugal, Spain and our sister clubs in Belgium and China.
In reality, I don’t think that international approach will completely go. Although our only signing of the summer so far (Laurent) suggests a return to a more domestic strategy, his arrival is more likely to be an isolated incident than a broader shift for two reasons. Firstly, he’s a long-term target; Laurent was first linked with Reading in January before Covid arrived and Mattos’ appointment fell apart.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, there’s no reason to believe Joorabchian is no longer influential at the club - therefore meaning more signings with links to Spain, Portugal and South America are likely. Although I’ve seen no suggestion that Joorabchian was involved in any of our three 2020 signings (Araruna, Timbe, Laurent), Sam Baldock’s recent comments about “intermediaries” imply Joorabchian is still a player behind the scenes.
All of that means Reading have different outlooks on signings from different figures behind the scenes. Mark Bowen seems happy to use the lower leagues where possible, hence keeping in personal contact with Laurent between January and the summer to push the transfer over the line, and Nigel Howe may well feel similar due to previous positive experiences with domestic signings. On the other hand, the Dais will likely want Reading to make use of its sister clubs (which they of course own), and Joorabchian brings international contacts.
It’s quite the smorgasbord, and although it doesn’t make for a coherent transfer strategy, it does make for an interesting future approach to the transfer market.