One of Reading’s most successful academy products during a largely inauspicious period in the club’s history has stood out against all odds. No wonder why one of European football’s biggest clubs look on the verge of signing the England youth international.
Omar Richards has come a long way in little over three years. In the 59th minute of the 2017/18 Championship curtain-raiser, Richards came on as a second-half substitute after Tiago Ilori’s red card left Jaap Stam’s side shorthanded in a 2-0 away defeat at Queen’s Park Rangers. Certainly, Richards entered a baptism of fire on his senior debut for the club - through no fault of his own.
In many ways, it is remarkable that Richards - only 19 when making his debut in 2017 - has followed such a meteoric trajectory in his development due to the chaotic circumstances at the club. During a tumultuous four and a half seasons in Berkshire, Richards has played under five different managers and in a side that had languished in the bottom half of the Championship table until Veljko Paunović’s arrival in late August. But, amidst all of the chaos, Richards has managed to blossom into one of the most coveted talents in the EFL and now, Europe.
The quality of Richards was not immediately apparent given the performances of the team and the tendency for defenders to receive few plaudits, especially in a side that has struggled in recent times. Not only was he thrown into the deep end by Stam on his debut, but Richards also experienced a frustrating time under the club’s next manager, Paul Clement, after being sparingly used as third choice behind both Tyler Blackett and Jordan Obita.
Nevertheless, his growing importance under both José Gomes and Mark Bowen - the club’s next two head coaches - was the chief reason why he supplanted and outlasted both Obita and Blackett at the club, both of whom left at the end of the 2019/20 campaign. Obita was a long-serving and venerated product of the Reading academy - himself tipped for greatness at the club before a raft of unfortunate injuries saddled his time in Berkshire. However, Richards has arguably since proven to be the most talented full back yielded from the club’s fertile youth system.
Traditionally, full-backs have been be under-appreciated, and often scoffed at. However, the burgeoning importance of barrelling, all-action full-backs has become a feature of the modern game, coinciding nicely with the emergence of Richards. In the current footballing world largely bereft of talented left-backs compared to the other side of the pitch - just look at England’s endless options at right-back - it makes sense why Bayern are sniffing around the precocious England under-21 international, whose metrics promise real potential.
Partly by virtue of being the only recognised senior left back in the squad, Richards has become an indispensable component of Reading’s back line. Before limping off with an injury against QPR in mid-December, Richards had played in every league game for the Royals as they surged to a play-off berth in the first half of the season. In fact, Paunović’s side have failed to keep a clean sheet in any game of this campaign that the 22 year-old has not featured in, underlining his importance further.
What’s more, Richards has completed 51 of 60 attempted tackles - a success rate of 85% that is only bettered by Manchester United right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the top two tiers of English football this season. This, as well as Richards’ penchant to progressively carry the ball down the left-flank, is one of his many attributes piquing the interest of the reigning European champions.
While his fellow prodigious teammate Michael Olise has dominated recent headlines and been the main subject of transfer speculation after his string of scintillating performances in a more advanced role, it is Richards who is finally taking centre stage after news broke that the biggest club in German football are on the verge of signing him on a free, once his deal expires in the summer.
In a season filled with rejuvenated hope at the Madejski Stadium, the fact that the club could be losing one of its most valuable and promising assets for nothing is an indictment of how the club is run at boardroom level. It is scandalous how Richards has reportedly not yet been offered an extended deal, but you cannot begrudge the player for wanting to move onto pastures new if one of the most prestigious sides in Europe comes knocking.
Overall, Richards’ stint at the club has overlapped with a change of ownership and incessant hiring and firing of managers in the dugout, culminating in very little success on the field. However, it is a testament to his own ability that his development has not been stunted in this unpredictable chapter of the club’s recent history. If he does leave the club in the summer, then the Reading faithful can effusively wish him the best of luck for the future.