Luke Southwood is off to League One side Cheltenham Town on loan for the season. The 24-year-old is actually out of contract next summer, so unless there are any hidden extension clauses in his current deal or he agrees a new one, which seems unlikely at this stage, we may well have seen the last of him in a Reading shirt.
An exit is certainly no surprise. Reading have brought in two goalkeepers this summer: Joe Lumley on loan from Middlesbrough and Dean Bouzanis on a free transfer from Sutton United. Seeing as they’re experienced new arrivals, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that they’re now the established top two.
And to be fair, we’ve seen encouraging signs from both already in pre-season. Lumley’s pulled off some good saves and stood out particularly due to his vocal nature, while Bouzanis kept out a penalty in the mid-week win at AFC Wimbledon.
In that context, Southwood heading off to the third tier for regular football is a decent move from his point of view. He’ll hopefully have the opportunity to play week in, week out, which he needs to be doing at this stage of his career. Hanging around as third choice certainly wouldn’t have been the right call, and heading elsewhere as second choice wouldn’t been much better.
It’s still a shame however to see Southwood depart. He looked impressive for a decent stretch of last season, often seeming like the only reliable player in the autumn when that quality was in short supply. He’d taken to first-team action very capably after winning his spot from Rafael Cabral, and for a time there were few doubts.
That began to change in December however when Southwood became more error-prone - making mistakes at home to Hull City, then Derby County, then Huddersfield Town. Those prompted Reading to bring in a replacement ‘keeper on loan - Karl Hein - and then replace Hein with Orjan Nyland when he got injured.
If you load things towards how last season ended for Southwood, it doesn’t look pretty. I’d still argue though that his earlier form proved his potential at this level, and he actually ended the campaign with the second-highest average TTE rating in the squad (6.2/10 was beaten only by Andy Yiadom’s 6.3/10). As for his individual errors, they could at least partially be put down to a relatively inexperienced ‘keeper (in the Championship at least) feeling the pressure of a particularly tough campaign.
I don’t blame management (whether last season or this summer) for signing Hein, Nyland, Lumley and Bouzanis rather than sticking with Southwood. Getting the right ‘keeper is so important in a relegation fight, and it’s understandable to go for (probably) safer options over someone with potential but also doubt over their reliability.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Reading have a number of young ‘keepers on the horizon. Jokull Andresson, Coniah Boyce-Clarke and Harvey Collins will all have ambitions of overtaking Southwood and ultimately getting into first-team contention, so the Royals’ management have to consider how they see the goalkeeping department panning out over the next two, three, four years - not just this season.
But in his own right, Southwood’s too good a ‘keeper than to just be remembered as someone who lost his place last season, and he’s better than League One. Fair play of course to Cheltenham Town who’ve got themselves a good goalie.
The question now of course is one for Southwood: can he prove he’s better than League One? I really think he can, and I hope he’ll be back at this level before long, hopefully with us.