Harry Cardwell is no Reading local. He was born in Beverley, East Yorkshire, qualifies for Scotland through two grandparents from Midlothian, started out in Hull City’s academy and didn’t join the Royals’ youth set-up until the age of 16. And yet, despite never playing for Reading’s first team during his four years at the Madejski Stadium, the praise he liberally bestows on the club, and the affection with which he speaks about it, would make you think he was a Berkshire native.
“The way that the academy is run, there’s no better place to be for a young player coming through,” he tells The Tilehurst End. “The way that they coach and the way that they do things is very professional. There’s a clear pathway into the first team, and that shows by the number of players who have graduated from the academy. Honestly, it’s the best in country for opportunity in my opinion.”
It’s a testament to the work of all those who have made Reading’s academy what it is - Eamonn Dolan, Nicky Hammond, David Dodds and more - that it is held in such high regard, even by someone who did not quite make it as a graduate into the senior side.
Cardwell, who like so many former Reading academy players speaks particularly highly of the “instrumental” Dolan, readily admits that he simply wasn’t able to make the step up like others from that academy era.
“I can’t sit here and say I struggled due to a lack of opportunities, because Reading is the best place to be if you want to get through the academy and play in the first team. I don’t have any excuses, I just maybe wasn’t good enough at the time to get into the first team or push to the next step.
“The closest I came to making my debut was probably when the first team played Watford away [just before the FA Cup quarter-final with Bradford City in 2015] and a lot of the academy lads were training with the first team. It was between me and Andrija Novakovich and Andrija was picked and ended up making his debut as a substitute in that game.”
On Saturday, Cardwell will line up for National League North side Chorley as they aim to cause an upset in the FA Cup third round against Derby County of the Championship. But it is not the first historic cup run that the striker has been a part of.
In 2013/14, his first season at Reading, a fresh-faced Cardwell was one of the stars of the under-18 team that made it all the way to the FA Youth Cup semi-final. The club had never got that far before, and have only made one quarter-final appearance since then.
“It was always such a big deal to us,” Cardwell says of the FA Youth Cup. “We would do so much prep weeks in advance in order to get ready for the games. It really had a first-team feel to it. A lot of the time in academy football, you’re doing a lot of development stuff, learning your trade and improving as a player. But when it came to the Youth Cup, it was all about that one game, and preparing for that one game in order to get the result and get through to the next round. It was probably a highlight of the season for most of the lads.”
Cardwell set the wheels in motion seven years ago when he netted the opening goal of Reading’s 3-1 win over Leeds United in the third round. For the 17-year-old, hitting the back of the net was the best way to settle in at the club.
“No matter where you go, no matter how much of a nice person you are, or how well you get on with players off the pitch, they want you to perform on the pitch and help the team get results. That’s the best way to earn the respect of your teammates. I hit the ground running when I joined and scored a few goals and that helped me massively.
“I used to play against Leeds a lot when I was coming through the ranks at Hull, so I actually knew a few of their players, which made it extra special for me to get the first goal. I had all my family there so it was really nice feeling for me.”
The young Royals defeated Crewe Alexandra on penalties in the next round before a convincing 3-0 win over Accrington Stanley, in which Cardwell scored the third. It set up a quarter-final with Liverpool that would prove to be breathtaking.
The striker opened the scoring against the Reds with a sensational solo goal that sent Michael Hector on commentary absolutely wild. Picking the ball up on the halfway line, he raced down the right-hand side, chopped inside and bamboozled the defenders before firing underneath the goalkeeper.
Cardwell got his second after the break to give David Dodds’ side a commanding lead, but Liverpool halved the deficit before grabbing an equaliser in the third minute of stoppage time. The Reds then looked to have stolen it in extra time as they went 4-2 up, but Reading mounted of a comeback of their own to make it 4-4 in the dying seconds. In the end, the Royals progressed from a dramatic tie on penalties.
“It was a crazy game,” Cardwell recalls. “We had led the game for so long and thought we would be able to see it out and get through to the next round. But they scored in something silly like the 94th minute.
“The momentum switched and they had more of the ball in extra time and scored again. But to nick the equaliser and then go through on penalties - it made it that little bit more dramatic and there was no better way to do it.
“To come through against a side like Liverpool - that gives you the belief that you can beat anybody. We felt that we were good enough to go on and win the competition.”
The semi-final against Fulham, played over two legs, was another thrilling affair but ultimately one that ended in disappointment. Reading led 2-0 at half time in the first leg at the Madejski Stadium before it finished 2-2, and were then 2-1 up in the second leg at Craven Cottage.
However, Fulham boasted the supreme talent of Moussa Dembele, now of Lyon, who turned the game around and completed his hat-trick with a 90th-minute goal to make it 3-2 and dump Reading out in the most agonising way possible.
“It was really tough considering we had put so much into the whole run in every game,” Cardwell says. “We worked so hard on our game plan and how we were going to execute it, and I feel like we did do that, it’s just one of those things that can happen when you play against good players.
“Moussa Dembele was a very, very good player and he always scored against us. It’s an awful way to go out, conceding in the last minute, but we were proud of the run we went on. I cherish those memories very, very fondly.”
Cardwell signed his first professional contract at the Madejski Stadium that summer and later in the year made his debut for Scotland’s under-21s. However, a first-team breakthrough unfortunately never came, and after loan spells at Woking, Braintree Town and Brighton and Hove Albion’s under-23s, he left the club in 2017. In Cardwell’s words, “it fizzled out”.
He was picked up Grimsby Town and made his Football League debut in August, coming on as a substitute to win a late penalty and help the Mariners win 3-1 against Chesterfield. After getting a run in the team under Michael Jolley, Cardwell fell down the pecking order at Blundell Park and was loaned out to Chorley in the National League last January.
He made the perfect start with the Magpies, scoring 25 minutes into his debut against Aldershot Town - a game in which another former Reading academy star, Craig Tanner, also netted in. But in a cruel twist of fate, Cardwell ruptured his hamstring tendon just four minutes later, ending his loan spell there and then, ruling him out for the season.
Grimsby would let Cardwell go in the summer and he found himself in the difficult position of trying to find a club in the middle of a pandemic. However, his star cameo earlier in the year had stuck in the mind of the Chorley staff, who had been relegated to the National League North on a points-per-game basis after the season was curtailed.
“When Grimsby told me they weren’t going to keep me on, I was really struggling,” he recalls. “I was injured, and had barely played in the last eight months. I didn’t know what my next step was going to be. But the Chorley manager Jamie Vermiglio was very good with me. He spoke to me and said, ‘if there’s an opportunity for you to come here we’d really like to discuss that’.
“I enjoyed my very short experience at the club in January, I could see that it was a good club with good people. That’s the reason why I ended up coming back here. It was a nice fresh start for me to get over my injury and focus on football.”
Chorley’s first competitive game of the new season came in the second qualifying round of the FA Cup against Gateshead, making the return to action even more important. Just like he had done for Reading against Leeds seven years previously, Cardwell kickstarted the cup run with a goal.
“Even through preseason, I struggled getting back to fitness because I did a lot of the rehab by myself as everything was shut down during the pandemic. So it got to a point where it was a bit of a rush to get ready for the Gateshead game. I made it, and to score as well made it even better. It made all the hard work that I had put in off the pitch worth it.”
Chorley won the tie 2-1 before beating York City 1-0 in the third qualifying round. Due to there being an odd number of teams in the FA Cup this season (because of Macclesfield Town’s liquidation), the Magpies were then the beneficiaries of a bye to the first round proper, where Football League clubs enter the competition.
They were drawn out of the hat to play away at Wigan Athletic, the 2013 winners and a team just nine miles south of Chorley. It couldn’t have been much bigger.
“It was a massive draw for us. They’re obviously won the cup a few years ago and for Chorley it is sort of a derby as it’s just down the road. The game was just crazy.”
That’s one way of putting it. Wigan led by two goals at half time and were looking comfortable, but the non-league side came out firing after the break and were level by the half-hour mark, with Cardwell scoring the equaliser. The eventual winning goal came a minute into extra time.
“When you go 2-0 down you start thinking it could be four or five, but we managed to get a foothold back in the game and then they got a man sent off [for a challenge on Cardwell] just before half time.
“That changed the game and it was just all us then. It was a bit of a waiting game, we knew that we were controlling the match and we just had to finish our chances and stay composed and disciplined at the back.
“When I got the equaliser around the 60th minute, we knew we that we had more than enough time to win it in normal time. Although that didn’t happen, we took our chance in extra time and then held on. It was a great win.”
Into the second round for just the third time in their history, Chorley were not done there. Drawn away to Peterborough United, who at the time were second in League One, they once again trailed in the game - after just two minutes - but came back to win 2-1. Cardwell wasn’t on the score sheet on this occasion, but couldn’t have come much closer, hitting the post and having a penalty saved.
Cardwell said of the belief in the Chorley team: “It’s all about never being too disappointed when you go a goal down, and that was drilled into us at Reading as well. If you keep your composure, there’s always a way back into the game and we proved that on both occasions.”
The win meant the Magpies will now play in the third round for the first time in their 138-year history. As a sixth-tier side, they are one of just four non-league teams still involved and the second-lowest-ranked club left in the competition. After two away games, they were drawn at home to face Championship strugglers Derby County.
“It’s massive,” Cardwell says of this weekend’s game. “Obviously, it’s history for the club and it’s amazing that we’ve got the fixture at home. It’s just such a shame that there’s going to be no fans to create an atmosphere, which can make it intimidating for these higher-league opposition. But it’s still a huge a game that we feel we can win and I’m really looking forward to it.”
A twist was added to the tie earlier this week when Derby announced that all of their first-team players and staff would miss the game due to a coronavirus outbreak which has forced their training ground to close. As a result, the Rams’ team on Saturday will be made up of under-18 and under-23 players. This arguably makes the game more winnable for Chorley, but Cardwell says he would have had no fears about playing the senior side.
“When you get a big draw at home against a Championship side, you want to face their best players. When the draw happened, Rooney was still sort of player-manager and we all hoped that he would be playing. But it doesn’t matter who we face, we’re still going to prepare the same way and we’ll be ready for whatever is thrown at us.”
It will be a fascinating game for sure, but can Chorley make headlines again and make it into the fourth round?
“I don’t see why not,” says Cardwell. “We’ve already beaten two very good League One teams, so we have proven we can go up against higher-league opposition and hold our own. We’ve done it in a way where we’ve not just nicked a result here or there or scored a last-minute winner, we’ve played good football.
“You see it every couple of years that a non-league team gets through to the latter stages. Lincoln got to the quarter-finals a couple years ago, and they beat Burnley, who were in the Premier League. So there’s no reason why we can’t welcome a Championship club to Victory Park and turn them over.”
Chorley vs Derby County kicks-off at 12:15pm on Saturday and is live on BT Sport 1.