With a more compact fixture list in 2020/21 due to the late finish last season, inevitably, there were going to be more injuries to some of our key players.
It’s a problem we seem to have had for a few seasons now even without Covid disruption, but despite our mixed form at the midpoint of the campaign and these injuries, two players in particular have stepped up to the plate this season and done a fantastic job so far.
Tom McIntyre and Tom Holmes, take a bow.
Neither of them probably expected to be playing a lot of Championship football this season with Andy Yiadom, Liam Moore, Michael Morrison and Omar Richards as the obvious starting backline. The deployment of Felipe Araruna at right back and Lewis Gibson’s arrival must have also been a source of concern for the duo – and there were even whispers about McIntyre going out on loan last summer.
At 22-years-old (although he was 21 at the time), this news would have been a massive blow to the Scottish youth international, who did very well alongside Morrison in the latter stages of 2019/20.
But after Liam Moore’s injury late on away at Coventry City, McIntyre did finally get his first real chance of the campaign at home to Preston North End. This was a game he would want to forget though, conceding three second half goals and was at fault for the away side’s second. To make things even worse, he was dropped for Lewis Gibson in the following game and this could have been detrimental to his confidence.
Ever since his backheel assist at QPR though, the academy graduate hasn’t looked back and was brought in to start at left back on Boxing Day against Luton Town. With Omar Richards’ absence, he had big shoes to fill and even though he already showed his versatility earlier on in the season, who knows how he would get on at full back?
Well, he made a dream start against the Hatters when he volleyed home Sone Aluko’s corner and put in a solid defensive display as the Royals secured all three points. In the following game, he was part of a backline that kept a clean sheet at the Liberty Stadium and actually proved to be Reading’s biggest attacking threat on the night.
A good end to 2020 turn into a great start to 2021 when he was moved to centre back alongside Michael Morrison and continued to impress in captain Moore’s place until his return. But since then, he put in a respectable shift at Wycombe and even did well in defensive midfield against Sheffield Wednesday. It was a classy performance from Reading’s number five. And to be honest, it looked like he’d been playing there for years. This performance summed up his season so far and he continued in a similar vein against Nottingham Forest, putting in a respectable showing against a decent side.
All in all, he has been versatile, reliable, dependable and unshakeable.
We all knew he would go on to be a great asset to the club just from seeing how he performed last season – but the guy has taken his game to another level this season. Let’s get him tied down to a new contract as soon as possible!
For me, Holmes has been just as, if not more impressive than McIntyre this season because he wasn’t given a chance under Mark Bowen like McIntyre was.
His senior debut actually came in March 2018 under Jaap Stam. I remember it well.
The Royals were struggling big time after such an impressive campaign in the previous season and it just seemed as though the Dutch manager had pretty much had enough of his other defenders. Tyler Blackett, Joey van den Berg and Tiago Ilori were all on the bench for that game but despite his inexperience, making his first Championship start six days before his 18th birthday, he put in a reasonably decent performance in a 1-1 draw against Bolton Wanderers.
After his shock debut, we didn’t see Holmes much for the next two and a half years and was shipped out on loan to sister club KSV Roeselare last season. I have to admit I didn’t watch Holmes play in Belgium – but from what we have seen of him last season – this loan could have been a turning point for the 20-year-old who has proved to be one of the best young defenders in the Championship this season.
Another event that could have been vital for his Reading career is the departure of another academy graduate in Gabriel Osho.
Osho had put in several decent displays, like McIntyre did, at the end of last season. Under Mark Bowen, he started at right back and for those performances alone, many people (including me) wanted him to get a new contract. From what was reported, he was offered a new deal but rejected that to try and get more first team football.
With Andy Yiadom and Felipe Araruna both sustaining injuries in the first few games of this season, Osho would have been in line to start again at full back under Veljko Paunovic. But with his departure, Tom Holmes was the man to come in against Watford. Defensively, he has been outstanding in an unnatural position. Yes, he has misplaced a few passes and had a poor game against Coventry City at the Mad Stad – but he did a decent job in place of Yiadom and Araruna.
Attacking-wise, he did provide the assist for George Puscas’ goal against the Hornets but as a central defender, it’s obvious he had his limitations going forward. That’s not a bad reflection on Holmes because, let’s be honest, what else were we realistically expecting playing a centre back out wide?
In the last three games, Holmes has reverted back to his natural position and has been reasonably solid yet again whilst Morrison recovers from his injury. I back him to maintain his performance levels for the remainder of the campaign as we chase a place in the playoffs.
And without the likes of McIntyre and Holmes, we probably would not be in this position in the first place. Whilst squad depth has been an issue in other areas of the pitch, we have remained watertight at the back because of how reliable both academy graduates have been.
Without them, would we still be chasing promotion at this stage of this season? They have certainly been vital assets.