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The Patient Rise Of Tom Holmes

Holmes’ new three-year deal capped off a steady ascendancy from 17-year-old debutant to first-team regular.

Tom Holmes’ fortunes have changed a lot in the four years since he made his first-team debut.

The idea of Reading’s 47th academy graduate establishing himself as a first-team regular had at various points felt much closer to a slim possibility than a sure bet. His rise through the ranks ultimately proved to be a slow process; rather than rapidly climbing the ladder, he actually had to move down it at one stage before he could ascend. Now though, he’s a key man in the squad and his new three-year deal looks to be a significant component in the Royals’ summer business. That’s testament to Holmes’ resolve and patience.

His introduction to senior football came all the way back in March 2018 as Reading ground out a 1-1 draw against Bolton Wanderers in Jaap Stam’s penultimate home game. Being abruptly thrown into the starting XI certainly constituted a surprise debut, and in truth, it said more about the Royals’ defensive options at the time.

Coming off the back of conceding three goals in consecutive matches (3-3 at home to Derby County, 3-1 at home to Sheffield United), senior options Tyler Blackett and Tiago Ilori were benched for Bolton’s visit. Stam was so unimpressed with the pair that he’d actually lined up Holmes to start in the prior match - away to league leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers - only for the game to be postponed. Perhaps that was for the best: Reading would go on to lose the rearranged fixture 3-0.

Holmes did fine against the Trotters, not looking too out of place and managing the full 90 minutes. It was an encouraging if imperfect debut - perfectly acceptable from a 17-year-old thrown in at the deep end.

While Stam clearly had some trust in the youngster, hence starting him in the first place, Holmes would be restricted to a further seven involvements with the first team in 2017/18 - all as an unused substitute. Perhaps mid-table ignominy would have facilitated further game time, but in reality, Stam and successor Paul Clement needed all the experience they could get for a scrappy relegation fight.

The following campaign brought just the one bench appearance in the Championship (a 4-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion) as Holmes’ development was at first restricted by injury. However, his fortune would improve in the back half of the season. Not only was he a regular for the under-23s from January - including playing against Bayern Munich in the Premier League International Cup - but he was also given his second professional contract in February 2019, lasting until 2022.

At that point Holmes needed to kick on. First-team opportunities were limited at Reading in 2019/20 after the arrival of Michael Morrison and Matt Miazga, while fellow academy defenders Andre Burley, Teddy Howe, Gabriel Osho and Tom McIntyre were also in contention, playing three, five, eight and 14 times in that campaign respectively.

Arsenal U23 v Reading U23 - Premier League International Cup
Holmes in action against Arsenal in November 2017
Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

A loan exit was in order - something recognised both by Holmes himself and Reading’s sporting director at the time, one Mark Bowen. The Welshman told Berkshire Live in late August:

“We’ve targeted some young players to go out on loan, but we have to try and do that carefully. We can’t just send them out on loan if they’re not going to play games. We have to target the right clubs we want to put them in to. They have to play.

“I look at the likes of Tom Holmes and Gabriel Osho - we’re trying to get them out on loan to clubs.”

While Osho would have to wait until December for a short-term loan switch to Yeovil Town, albeit later returning and starting four times at right back in behind-closed-doors matches, Holmes got his loan move just over a week after Bowen’s comments. In his case it was a season-long deal with Reading’s then-sister club KSV Roeselare, a side in the Belgian second tier, which Holmes explained to English Players Abroad in March 2020:

“It got to the end of August after an injury-ridden pre-season and I’d come to the conclusion with the club that first-team football was what I needed this year to progress from the under-23s that I had two full seasons in prior. KSV managed to watch me in an under-23 game and got in touch with Reading and let them know that they needed a centre back and liked the look of me.

“For me it was quite a simple decision. I did a bit of research, spoke with the KSV manager at the time as well as a few people I know well at Reading and watched a couple of their last games and came to the decision that this would be a good challenge for me, one that would test me but also one that I knew I was ready for and that excited me.”

Although his time with KSV Roeselare was affected by injury, he still finished with 11 appearances. That worked out to a total of 940 senior-level minutes, around the figure managed that season by McIntyre at Reading (1,096) and Osho for Yeovil Town and Reading (1,006). It was however far above the minutes of various other players at a similar age to Holmes: Akin Odimayo (90), Andre Burley (374), Ramarni Medford-Smith (353) and Teddy Howe (426) - although Howe then made a mid-season permanent switch to Blackpool.

It’s hard not to conclude that Holmes’ 2019/20 stay at KSV was a significant stage in his development. Loan spells certainly aren’t a guarantee of success - just ask Andrija Novakovich who scored 22 in 38 for SC Telstar then 10 in 31 for Fortuna Sittard, leading to calls for him to be given a chance in the first team, only for Reading to promptly sell him to Frosinone Calcio.

But they do provide experience that under-23 football simply cannot. There’s no better way to learn how to cope with a wily, awkward and battle-hardened opponent than to go up against them week in, week out. Would the Tom Holmes of March 2018 have been able to comfortably slot into Reading’s back four as was required in September 2020? Surely not.

SOCCER 1B D18 LOKEREN VS ROESELARE
Holmes in action for KSV against Sporting Lokeren in December 2019
Photo by VIRGINIE LEFOUR/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

In an alternate reality, Holmes never played at right back in 2020/21. Bowen’s pre-season adoption of a possession-based back three system lent itself well to the skill set of Holmes. A technically adept and mobile central defender, playing on the right of that trio would have been an ideal fit.

In the end though, Bowen’s exit and the arrival of Veljko Paunovic - who very much preferred a back four - shut down that particular avenue of development. Instead though, opportunity knocked at right back in September after long-term injuries to first Andy Yiadom and then Felipe Araruna.

Holmes came in for the final half an hour at Cardiff City and never looked back. Bar missing five games due to a hamstring injury in October and November, as well as being an unused substitute against Middlesbrough in February, he played in every match for the rest of the season. He’d end up playing a total of 40 times (2,827 minutes) in all competitions - the epitome of a break-out season.

It certainly wasn’t all plain sailing though. While Holmes admirably filled in at right back, adjusting more effectively than many others would have done, he still wasn’t an all-round natural fit - particularly in build-up and offensive play. Although Holmes is comfortable with the ball at his feet, he lacks the acceleration or take-on ability to add dynamism out wide in the way that more attacking full backs are able to.

Still, it’s to Holmes’ credit that he kept Paunovic’s faith for so much of that season, even in the face of competition from Tomas Esteves (30 appearances, 1,317 minutes) and eventually the returning Yiadom (21 appearances, 1,624 minutes). Pauno had plenty of chances to drop Holmes and did not do so.

Yiadom returning to fitness and reestablishing himself as an ever-present at right back in the season just gone meant opportunities were more common in the centre. Although Holmes would again be a regular (34 appearances, 2,571 minutes), he - like almost everyone else in the squad - was far from his best.

A quick look at our player ratings demonstrates the point: Holmes went from an average score of 6.1/10 in 2020/21 to 5.6/10 in 2021/22. However, a bit of context is required. Reading were of course collectively much worse in 2021/22 than 2020/21, and Holmes’ ratings drop-off is in line with that of the entire squad: 6.0/10 to 5.6/10.

Tactically, the lack of protection for the back four only made Holmes’ job harder. The double-pivot pairing of Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent was mostly absent, with the former often injured and the latter moved around the midfield as required. Neither deep-lying playmaker Danny Drinkwater nor forward-minded Tom Dele-Bashiru could perform an equivalent shielding role.

Furthermore, another positional change for Holmes didn’t help. Having previously only played as a right centre back or right back (in line with his stronger foot), in the second half of the campaign we saw Holmes moved to the left side of the pairing. Getting used to another role will have led to that bit more uncertainty and I hope this tactical alteration will be reversed next season.

So where are we now?

Although Holmes certainly isn’t the finished product (which defender is the finished product at 22?), he’s demonstrated his current ability and longer-term potential. And with Morrison released, Holmes is now the clear choice to be Reading’s regular right-sided centre back.

I’m looking forward to seeing him develop in that spot in particular. Besides having important defensive qualities of aerial presence and mobility, Holmes can also be an asset in build-up play - he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and has a nice range of passing too. With Holmes at the back, Reading are able to progress the ball upfield with that bit more precision than with, say, Morrison.

Besides giving Holmes regular game time in this position to hone his craft, it’s also crucial to find the right partner. Reading need to identify someone to consistently play as the left-sided centre half - ideally an experienced defender in that partnership who can provide leadership and organisation. Tom McIntyre and Jeriel Dorsett fit the bill tactically but aren’t senior enough, while Liam Moore will surely be moved on.

Reading v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

There’s an obvious candidate here: Scott Dann. The 35-year-old performed well last season with an average TTE rating of 6.3/10 - that’s the joint-highest in the squad alongside Andy Yiadom. However, all but one of his 18 appearances came in the first half of the campaign, with injury taking its toll later on. It’s clear therefore that Reading can’t rely on Dann playing week in week out and must find an established alternative to potentially partner Holmes. Finding someone like that on Reading’s budget won’t be easy, but it could well be a key part of our summer business.

Looking beyond the 2022/23 season, you can certainly see Holmes become a longer-term asset for Reading. Securing his services for an entire three years provides the security for him to develop over multiple seasons if the Royals are able to keep hold of him, or extra financial leverage if he’s sold.

Hopefully though it’s the former that’ll come to pass. Given how much turmoil Reading have gone through in recent years - not least in terms of an ever-changing team - it would be refreshing to build up some consistency and familiarity. The Royals have lacked those qualities in the last decade or so, would do well to restore them, and can go some way in doing so by developing Holmes.