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Should Reading Scrap The Academy For A B Team?

It’s a model that is becoming increasingly popular in English football, but would it benefit the Royals? 

Manchester United v Reading: Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Royals midfielder Mamadou Loum, although being on loan from Porto, built his career on the back of 68 appearances across four years for SC Braga B in the Portuguese second tier. A move to Porto followed, but he was never able to properly break into the first teams of any top-tier or Primeira Liga team and was subsequently shipped off on loan to Alaves, and now Reading. In fact, many top Portuguese teams have B teams, such as Benfica, Porto, Maritimo and Chaves.

Players being given a first chance in a B team is rather a - quite literally - foreign concept to English football, and logistically, if we did it the same way they did in Portugal, the leagues would be a mess. I can’t quite imagine Arsenal or Manchester City “B “ away on a Tuesday night in the Championship, obviously because of the much larger fan interest in England, but also an incredibly high quality of football where a Premier League’s B team would be simply unable to compete as high as the second or third tier.

However, it is a model being gradually introduced into our game, with one of the most notable examples being Brentford, who, upon the closure of their academy in 2016, formed their own B team. The Bees’ owner, Matthew Benham, opted for this style due to its superior “simplicity and attractiveness” over an academy setup. It was recognised that, as a Championship club (at the time), it was pointless scouting young talent in lower-league clubs because they are easily outspent by the Premier League. Brentford B instead signed players who’d been out of favour or released from academies, and also looked to non-league.

Brentford v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship - Playoff - Final - Wembley Stadium
Brentford owner Matthew Benham
Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

The big advantage for Brentford was that it physically gave them more of an experience of first-team football, thus making the transition to the “A” team smoother. The environment created is also much more like that of a first team, so the requirements of top-level football are clearer.

However, the big problem is that they do not play in a league. They play only friendly matches against academy, under-21, under-23 and senior teams, as well as participating in county cups, invitationals and the like.

In my opinion, this could give a lack of direction to the players with nothing really to play towards in terms of silverware or titles. I also think an integration into the senior league system would be very problematic. What level would they play at, what stadiums would they play at, would they have any fans, where would away fans go?

I suppose the only logical answer to these would be much like what Premier League women’s teams do, which is generally a groundshare with a local lower-league club such as how Reading did with Wycombe Wanderers, and play bigger fixtures at the men’s stadiums. But all these create larger problems such as the pitches getting damaged, and would there be sufficient fan interest to make it worthwhile financially?

But the big question is: does it work?

Between its establishment in 2016 and 2022, 25 Brentford B players made a first-team appearance. Obviously the majority of these now play elsewhere, but it demonstrates a clear pathway from youth football to a first team. This transition has proved problematic for many young players, such as Jadon Sancho who became a superstar in the more youth-orientated Borussia Dortmund after struggling for a breakthrough at Manchester City.

When you compare this to Reading’s youth setup, the effect of the Brentford B team is clear, with 75 academy graduates having made a first-team appearance for the Royals since 1999. The numbers don’t lie, but when you consider the quality output of Reading’s academy, I would say Brentford’s is worse.

Brentford’s graduate with the most appearances is Marcus Forss, who featured 54 times before his £3.3 million move to Middlesborough in 2022. However, in the same period since 2016, Reading have produced Premier League- and European-standard players such as Omar Richards, Danny Loader, Alex McCarthy and of course Michael Olise, who left for a now bargain fee of £8 million. We also have many Championship-standard graduates such as Tom McIntyre, Tom Holmes, Andy Rinomhota and Tariqe Fosu, among many others now playing in the EFL.

Reading v Blackpool - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

That’s not to say Brentford haven’t done incredible business in the past. These players - such as Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma and Neal Maupay - who have been bought for a pittance and sold for fortunes can’t be ignored, but they are not products of the Brentford B team. They are rather high-potential, low-risk pickups from smaller clubs. The only big success story of Brentford B so far is Welsh centre-half Chris Mepham.

I mentioned earlier about Brentford B poaching released and non-league players for their team, but that’s not to say the traditional academy setup can’t do that too. Femi Azeez was signed by Reading after playing for Wealdstone and Northwood, and Rinomhota was scouted from Wessex Football League side AFC Portchester. Similarly, Richards was signed after his release from Fulham and Olise from Manchester City.

Is a B team right for Reading?

The short answer is no. Not now anyway. I think with the ship still being steadied across the club, as well as the financial state, it would be very unwise to undertake such a drastic change in the whole structure of Reading Football Club. Add that to not being able to promote anyone to the first-team squad due to the 25-man limit, and a B team sounds even worse.

However, in a few years, I think it could be effective. Competitions such as the EFL Trophy (now named the incredible Papa John’s Trophy) give Premier League under-21 sides to compete with professional League One and Two clubs, but the Championship misses out.

If, God forbid, this teams ever musters up the ambition to dare push for a place higher than mid-table - hell, even a promotion place - then we’ll have to compete with Premier League teams on all levels, including our academy setup.

Some may say ‘why fix something if it ain’t broken?’ - which our academy certainly isn’t. But with Brentford’s unprecedented rise from EFL fodder to pushing for Europe, it must be a system worth looking at.

I suppose these things mostly hinge on Mr Dai and whether he is willing to replicate Matthew Benham’s money-ball approach. Perhaps their success is more to do with their industrious signings than their B team, but the either way the Bees have been incredibly successful in recent years.

Personally, I could never get rid of the chance for local lads to work their way up to play for their boyhood club one day as an academy allows. What do you think - would a Reading B team be a good choice, or should we stick with an academy?