Things can change quickly in football. 18 months ago, Rafael was voted Reading’s player of the season after an impressive debut campaign at the club. In May, he started for the 89th consecutive Championship game and wore the captain’s armband. He was the team’s undisputed number one.
Now, he is firmly number two and, as reported by Globo, is free to leave Berkshire in the January transfer window as Reading look to slash their wage bill.
Rafael told the Brazilian outlet: “The club is excellent, but unfortunately right now it’s having this [Financial] Fair Play problem, where we’ve already lost six points.
“[The club] has to achieve some goals with player sales, revenue and payroll reduction so that there are no more punishments, as far as we know. So really anything can happen. But I repeat, the club is great.”
It is sad to see a likeable player on his way out of the football club, but there is also a slice of empathy held back because Rafael’s slide is, at least in part, self-inflicted.
The goalkeeper only lost his place in the side because of a hand injury, apparently suffered when he punched a whiteboard in the dressing room after Reading let a two-goal lead slip late on in a 3-3 draw against Queens Park Rangers in September. Some fans had suggested that he should have been dropped for his performances anyway, but there was no indication that Veljko Paunovic was going to make a switch between the sticks.
From that moment on, Rafael’s card was marked certainly by supporters and perhaps by the manager too. He has also not been helped by the superb performances of Luke Southwood, who has extra credence for being #OneOfOurOwn and has won three successive The Tilehurst End player of the month awards.
It would be harsh to say that Rafael is a bad goalkeeper. He has an error in him, sure, but what Championship shot-stopper doesn’t? His legacy will probably be unfairly tarnished by the whiteboard incident and conceding a lot of goals at the start of this season, most of which were not his fault.
For much of his time in Berkshire, he has been one of Reading’s best performers. In his first campaign in the Championship, the Brazilian’s save percentage of 74.7% was the second highest in the division. Last season, he recorded 17 clean sheets - only Adam Federici (20 in 2011/12) has kept more for Reading in a single campaign in the last decade.
The problem for Rafael is Southwood has also proven himself to be a very good goalkeeper and his save percentage this season is 78.8%, the second highest in the division. And given the choice between a 31-year-old goalkeeper on a high wages and expiring contract and a 24-year-old academy graduate on excellent form, you know which one you’re going to invest more in.
That, ultimately, is why Reading will feel it makes sense to let Rafael go in January. He will almost certainly leave at the end of the season anyway, so if they can get a fee for him, albeit a minimal one, that would be a bonus. With a need to trim the wage bill in line with the EFL’s business plan under the terms of the points deduction, getting him off the books would be beneficial.
The only worry is that it does leave the squad short of depth between the sticks and short of experience in particular. Jokull Andresson is the current third choice but is on a season-long loan at Morecambe. It would arguably be more beneficial for his development for him to complete a season as first choice in League One than be recalled and sit on the bench in the Championship.
Coniah Boyce-Clarke is back from his loan spell at St Albans City, but it would be a lot to ask of an 18-year-old to step up if Southwood were to pick up an injury. You would be a lot more reassured if an experienced shot-stopper could be signed on a short-term contract or loan deal until the end of the season.
The life of a goalkeeper is tough, particularly if you aren’t playing games. That is what drove Rafael to Reading in the first place. Now it looks set to drive him out.