In his debut piece for TTE, Thomas Hill looks at four free agents he thinks Reading should consider bringing in if the opportunity arises. While the Royals’ 25-man squad is currently full, removing long-term injured defender Liam Moore from the roster - as was reportedly done with Dejan Tetek to allow the signing of Cesare Casadei - would open up a spot.
In the summer of 2022, a forced squad overhaul took place under Paul Ince in his first transfer window as the Royals’ manager. Out of all players who made 20 or more total appearances last season, eight out of 15 no longer play for Reading, not including players only featuring in joyless cameos this season such as Ovie Ejaria. Under a transfer embargo and as relegation favourites, it appeared this season would only end one way.
However, in my opinion, recruitment has been respectable if not remarkable in many positions. For example, the combination of Joe Lumley and Dean Bouzanis have picked up seven league clean sheets in only 30 games, compared to just five across the whole of the 2021/22 season.
However, others have greatly suffered, such as at left-back, where a seemingly steady 6/10 option in Baba Rahman has constantly been capitulating and costing the team points as he did at Sunderland. His back up, Nesta Guinness-Walker, is more of an attacking threat but a liability in Ince’s back five.
In midfield also, Ince Jr has been exceptional, but the trio of Tyrese Fornah, Jeff Hendrick and Mamadou Loum have had positive moments and chipped in with goals but with underwhelming overall performances.
These are the two areas my I will focus on today as I explore some free agents that I think could be at least semi-realistic signings for Ince. This is considering Reading’s budget, needs and player pull. For these four players, I have looked at what other fans have suggested in terms of free signings, as well as some players from my own research.
The 32-year-old left back was released by Charlton Athletic last summer following just nine appearances for the Addicks, but previously made 48 Premier League appearances for Crystal Palace as well as 76 in the French top flight for Lille and Reims. Making the bulk of his appearances for the Eagles in the 2015/16 season under ex-Royals boss Alan Pardew, he featured in a side that reached the FA Cup final and a solid 11th-place league finish.
In the Premier League he carries a record of eight clean sheets alongside some impressive stats such as zero errors leading to goals, a 74% tackle success rate and seven big chances created. The all-round defender has 22 caps for his native Senegal, and in my opinion would be realistic in terms of wage demands, having played in League One most recently.
Souaré has previously played alongside veteran Reading centre back Scott Dann with Palace, and I’m sure would be welcomed into the growing Senegalese contingent of players in Berkshire. Perhaps most vitally, his injury record is not too bad as well! I believe he’s currently based in London too based off of his social media. Pape Souaré would by no means be a star signing, but possibly a necessary one to push us over the line.
A highly suggested one on social media from the current pool of free agents, AC’s namesake is a central midfielder known for his passing and ability to create chances. Despite scoring only two goals from 39 shots in nearly a century of Premier League matches, he creates an average of 1.35 passes leading to chances per 90 while playing in defensive midfield, an area which needs a lot of improvement.
Carroll has become a sort of failed wonder kid over the years as he has gradually dropped down the divisions, most recently making only 17 appearances for League One high-flyers Ipswich Town as they finished 11th in the 2021/22 season. It is a pretty unremarkable record for a midfielder once being compared with Luka Modric, but I believe that Ince Sr is the exact sort of manager capable of turning Championship journeymen like Carroll into hard-working, industrious box-to-box midfielders like Ince was in his prime.
At 30 years of age, I’m sure he would be keen to attempt a late career revival in the Championship, at the very least in a role that increases squad depth and offers an extra option in a Royals midfield too often hit by injuries and suspensions.
A bit of a rogue shout but 24-year-old Harry Paton, a Canadian midfielder who left Ross County of the Scottish Premiership in the summer, could be a valuable player to bolster the Reading midfield. He began his career in Fulham’s youth academy before joining the youth setup at Heart of Midlothian. He failed to make an appearance at Tynecastle Park for the Edinburgh side, but during his time there made 31 appearances on loan at Stenhousemuir, scoring an impressive eight goals, helping them gain promotion to the Scottish third tier.
This earned him a move to Ross County where he made 85 top-flight appearances across three seasons in Dingwall before Paton turned down a new deal with the club in June 2022. He did this “looking for a fresh challenge and looking elsewhere” but is yet to find his new club.
His past manager described him as always showing a great effort and always giving his all for the club, and the right-footed Canadian can also be employed as an attacking midfielder and off the right wing. As a younger player too, he has the potential to grow into the Championship and be a backup to the more experienced guys such as Thomas Ince and Jeff Hendrick. In my opinion, a player like Paton could be a risk worth taking for Paul Ince’s side.
A familiar name to Royals fans after 110 appearances across just over four years in Berkshire, Blackett is a versatile attacking left-back. He began his career at Manchester United and earned a first-team call-up following an injury crisis in defence.
Under Louis Van Gaal he appeared 11 times for the Red Devils, meaning he is experienced on the left-side of the back three that United formerly played. During his short Premier League stint he showed many signs of promise, such as his outstanding 90% tackle success rate, but was awarded a lot of bookings and his team won only three of those 11 matches. Following a few loans in the Championship, he was released by United in 2016.
He joined Reading the same summer and, after a lost play-off final but also two relegation battles, he joined Nottingham Forest for free in 2020 in search of a higher chance of promotion to the Premier League, which he never got, and instead joined FC Cincinnati in Major League Soccer for the 2021/22 season, but was released again at the end of the year after 31 appearances for the Ohio club.
However, I think a move back to Reading now is unlikely, mainly due to form and wages. Blackett would likely want a high salary after being paid a presumably high amount in the MLS, a league fabled for paying average players anything but average wages. In the current climate we definitely could not offer that, and even if we could, I don’t think it would be worth it for a player out of favour in England.