As I write this, there’s no way of knowing how the next few weeks could pan out for Reading Football Club. There’s every possibility that the green light for transfers to go ahead will be lit and a reassuring message from Dai Yongge will result in us looking back on the summer of 2021 with a sigh of relief as we exclaim “remember when we nearly did a Bolton?!”
Having said that, there’s just as much chance that things could go the other way and the situation could get worse, and it’s the latter that I’m going to be considering for this article, which I know is morbidly negative, especially for me, Sam Michael, Reading FC’s second most “well known” comedian fan behind Bill Oddie (no, David Brent doesn’t count!) Anyway…
The EFL ‘punishing us’ is a scary prospect for fans - no transfers, more players leaving for less than they’re worth and maybe even the possibility of a points deduction. Add to that the usual issues with any football season like player injuries/fatigue and we could have a relegation battle on our hands, a tough one at that.
However, there ARE reasons to be cheerful this season (and the next!) in this worst-case scenario. That being our secret weapon, our legacy, the EPPP Category 1 Academy.
With more bad times than good times over the past decade, the cries of ‘give the kids a go’ from the fans are more apparent than ever. In bleak times over the past decade, the academy has given us a shining light in the form of Jordan Obita, Alex McCarthy, Omar Richards, Michael Olise, Andy Rinomhota. Danny Loader, Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre; not mentioning the many others and those who came before.
So if we find ourselves in an hour of need, is turning to the next generation the right thing to do, or is it case of “you can’t win anything with kids”?
I don’t know the answer but what I want to do is take you back to time where we had the opportunity to do just this at a time where the club where in a similar position to where they are now.
The 2013/14 season saw Reading set to push for promotion. Under manager Nigel Adkins, who took over at the tail end of a disappointing return to the Premier League, we showed much promise. We still had key players who were part of the Championship-winning campaign of 2011/12 including captain Jobi McAnuff, defenders who had shown their worth against top sides in Sean Morison and Alex Pearce, along with an impressive strike force in Adam Le Fondre, Garath McCleary and Pavel Pogrebnyak, and easily the best goalkeepers in the Championship: Adam Federici and Alex McCarthy.
Some quite frankly bizarre additions were made with the likes of Wayne Bridge and Royston Drenthe, but also in came a flurry of younger players from the academy such as Jordan Obita, Jake Taylor, Aaron Tshibola, Michael Hector and Niall Keown. The academy players didn’t see much of this season, what with the strong push to get back to the top flight of English football, however (spoiler alert) we ended the season celebrating seventh (YAY - PITCH INVASION!).
Fast forward to the summer of 2014 and the failed attempt to get back in the Premier League left us in a very difficult situation. Owner Anton Zingarevich and his Victoria Secrets model wife did a runner on June 2 and poor Sir John was left holding the Royal baby.
There’s a lot that went on that summer (too much to go into here). However, to cut a long story short, come the beginning of the 2014/15 season Nigel Adkins’ Reading looked very different. Alex McCarthy left for the fake hoops and Sean Morrison made the move to Cardiff along with Le Fondre, the latter of whom was apparently sold to cover a tax bill. Also out the door that summer were Kaspars Gorkšs, Mikele Leigertwood and club captain Jobi McAnuff – all key players in our push for promotion in 2011/12.
This felt like the end of a generation at a time when the club was in real trouble and but also the start of an exciting new one.
With hope of promotion out of sight and mind for Reading FC fans and staff alike and with financial difficulties, Nigel Adkins turned to our academy and entered contract talks with Michael Hector, Jake Taylor and 18 other youth players. This was an academy team who had reached the FA Youth Cup semi finals and won the under-21 Premier League Cup under Reading FC Legend Eamonn Dolan.
Along with the aforementioned young players, more key academy hopefuls entered the fray with first-team contracts: Tariqe Fosu (now playing in the Premier League for Brentford) Jack Stacey (at AFC Bournemouth where he played a season in the top flight), Ryan Edwards (Dundee United), Craig Tanner (Ebbsfleet Town), Aaron Kuhl (went on to play in Scotland’s top flight) Aaron Tshibola (currently at Gençlerbirliği, formally at Aston Villa and MK Dons), Sean Long (recently promoted Cheltenham Town) and Jake Cooper (Millwall).
So come the beginning of the season, the financial situation remained, as did injuries to some of our most experienced players, along with big holes left by our veterans who left the club for various reasons.
Thus, Nigel Adkins threw these young players into the deep end, and our first home game of the season against Ipswich saw Obita, Hector, Cooper, Edwards, Taylor and Stacey all make an appearance with Jake Taylor scoring the winner.
A young selection of academy players started against Newport County later that week in the League Cup, which saw a goal from Craig Tanner and later in the month a second-round victory away at Scunthorpe with another winning goal from Jake Taylor left me feeling positive about this risk Nigel Adkins had taken on our youth team.
Despite how Nigel Adkins will be remembered by Reading fans, I’ll always respect this decision he made and how he was invested in a long-term plan with our Academy. In the bizarre #BuildEvolveSucceed documentary about Reading Football Club (yeah, we got there years before Amazon and Netflix!) Adkins spoke about the 20 years it took for Barcelona to build as a club, making sure that youth teams were winning together year in year out so that they were prepared for first-team football success, and he was obviously influenced by this when he turned to our academy.
Relying on young players isn’t a magic antidote and no doubt can result in more negative results than positive ones when faced with Championship powerhouses, but the long-term affects could be beneficial.
As the season went on, this inexperienced team put in a brave effort but struggled to come back from going 2-0 down at Huddersfield and even suffered a 4-0 loss at Nottingham Forest. However, a team that started Kuhl, Hector, Taylor, Edwards and Obita defeated Middlesbrough away, impressively. So although not perfect, inconsistent even, there were signs of real potential.
Financial cracks were papered over before the summer transfer window closed and with limited funds the likes of Glenn Murray, Jamie Mackie, Oli Norwood and Anton Ferdinand were bought in, along with Academy graduate Simon Cox, who’d spent two season in the Premier League with West Brom.
The young players who had given us a glimpse of the future and worked their socks off to gain respectable results during hard times at the club were relegated to the bench and eventually moved on, either on loan or sold.
Despite an exciting cup run that took us to Wembley, the change of manager and ownership saw the Reading FC at the beginning of 2014/15 season metamorphose into a very different team come the end of it, when we finished 19th.
I’ll always look back at this season as a missed opportunity. I know “play the kids” is often a lazy solution from fans on Twitter but I genuinely feel that under Adkins we had the right man who yes, due to circumstances, had a long-term plan for this Academy-turned-senior squad. I also can’t blame the change in direction come late August; if the club suddenly has funds to buy players you wouldn’t be expected to keep your job as a manager if you didn’t use them.
However, it wasn’t just about ability. The likes of Glenn Murray and Jamie Mackie were never really ‘Reading players’ – Glenn Murray was on loan to ‘prove a point’ to his parent club and Jamie Mackie stated when returning to QPR that he didn’t feel comfortable in the “wrong hoops”… hmm. Call me a soppy old sod but give me life-long Reading fan Jake Taylor kissing his badge after scoring his first goal, any day!
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Of course we didn’t know back in 2014 that some of these young players would go on to play regular Premier League football any more than we know now if the same achievements can be matched by the likes of Tom Holmes, Dejan Tetek or even Michael Olise who’s made a move to Crystal Palace.
You can never be sure, which is why I’m not saying “just play the kids” as if it’s some sort of solution to our years of disappointment. However, I genuinely believe the latest crop of players who have come through in the past two years really are a ‘golden generation’ and need to be held on to. They could be our silver lining, if the EFL’s decisions don’t go our way.
Ultimately, if we do find ourselves unable to buy players, unable to fill a full subs bench, unable to stay in the Championship even (!), we have an army of hungry, passionate, young players – which is something a lot of clubs who may find themselves in a similar situation to us don’t have.
We may lose players, we may not be able to bring in any replacements… but this could result in us dipping into the Academy for depth and plucking out the next Shane Long, Michael Olise or Omar Richards. The future of our club and the next generation is always ‘under construction’ at Bearwood Park and that’s why, no matter what does or doesn’t happen this season, I’ll always be positive and excited by our ‘secret weapon’.