The academy is something that Reading have been able to take immense pride in over the years. That’s largely down to the late great Eamonn Dolan who oversaw the growth of the club and helped the development of many that came through the academy, whether that be people such as Jem Karacan, Alex Pearce or Simon Church.
The list could go on and on; it was the hallmark of the Madejski era. We developed young players for free and when they were ready for the first team we blooded them and gave them a chance. This has started to become underutilised in recent years, but is something the club have stressed they want to get back to.
Head of football operations Mark Bowen said in his open letter recently that things needed to change: “That strategy has to filter into our academy. Even if means attracting young promising players which other clubs will then want to buy for large sums of money.” This shows progress and a realisation that that is how you remain financially sustainable in the Championship.
The sacking of Paul Ince showed that the club believed not only results were not good enough in the short term, but also that Paul Ince had the reluctance to use younger players. With the appointment of under-21s manager Noel Hunt, who stepped up to first-team duties, young players will get more of a chance not only this season but also beyond.
Abrefa is someone that has been given opportunities in fits and spurts so far in his short first-team career, making eight appearances overall - the majority coming as a substitute. But when he has had opportunities this season, he has taken them and expressed what he is all about. One start was a game in the FA Cup against Watford when he scored his spectacular shot-cross that was his first professional goal.
He has seemed to also get better physically and looks a lot stronger than he was at times previously, has outgrown the under-21s and needs to be playing first-team football so that he can develop himself further. I can hear people now saying ‘loan him out and get him first-team football’ and that’s something I agreed with.
But his quick, agile thinking means we should make sure that we use him as the cover in the back four. This is because of his ability to play various positions: right-back in a back four, centre-back in a back four, but also you could switch to a back three and arguably play him as the right of the three centre-backs.
This is because he is quick, agile and good technically, and would make up for the lack of pace and movement of the middle centre-back in the three. The decision to loan him or not will come down to whether we keep Amadou Mbengue, who is currently doing the role of filling in at several positions.
Ehibhatiomhan is started to become one of the youth players that has come and proved he has outgrown playing under-21s football and needs to be stepped up a level towards the first team. Due to injuries this season he has certainly got more game time than expected, but has then has taken his shot and has impressed in very little minutes that he has played.
He has scored two goals in his professional career so far in seven appearances, mostly coming on for the ‘junk minutes’, so couldn’t really make an effect in the majority of his games. But most recently he managed to get a late goal against Preston North End with a header from a long throw. After that game, he was rewarded with his first start by the new first-team interim manager Noel Hunt.
If I had to nail down what type of player Ehibhatiomhan is compared to our current striker options, I would go with Lucas Joao. That might sound a bit out there and just to make it clear I am not saying he is as good as Joao because he’s not currently, but he does similar things on the pitch to Joao. He has the ability when you look at him specifically in the under-23s where he can create space for himself and makes certain movements that will give him the extra bit of space to get a shot away.
When it comes to things he does on the pitch that are better than Joao, I believe he has a better work rate, and if you can improve his knowledge of where to be and his decision-making, I think you can mould him into a very good striker. The way to do this is to make sure that he gets more games starting and is given more time to make an impact on the game. I would keep him around to learn about the strikers we have, such as Joao and Andy Carroll. The decision on whether to loan him out depends on what we do with Jahmari Clarke.
Who should Reading loan out next season?
It’s simple: Scott needs game time. We have heard great things about him, but he has not played anywhere near enough matches to further develop as a footballer. I think going out to a League Two club would do him the world of good; it will give him different experiences playing men’s football. You might think this is pretty obvious, but it will give him that game time that he needs and he can learn more traditional direct, physical football, and the rough and tumble that you get in the lower leagues of the English game.
If I had to best describe the style of Scott, I would say he is very explosive and has the ability to carry the ball and produce a screamer from distance. He was on the bench for the game against Blackpool on the first game of the season and has not had a chance since.
Boyce-Clarke is another player that has shown high potential in the academy and Reading have done well to keep him, given that several top clubs such as Manchester United have been interested in him during his time at the club. But he has now gotten to a level where he needs to go out, prove himself and get experience in the Football League. When you look at his loan history to date, he has mainly been loaned out to non-league clubs such as St Albans and Welling United where he made limited appearances in both spells.
He has also had a decorated international career at youth level playing for England up to the under-18s, when he made the switch to declare for Jamaica, where he played his first game for the senior side in the last international break.
Personally, you do not get as far as he has without having good technical goalkeeping skills such as a good ability to play and good footwork on his goal line. However, I believe that his height could well hold him back. At 1.83m (6ft) he could be impacted when coming for crosses or getting to the shots that are right in the left and right corners, and that is something I want him to be tested on when on loan against big powerful strikers.
Given that I’m suggesting that we keep Ehibhatiomhan, I would make sure that Clarke gets another loan. This is after his previous loan at Forest Green Rovers was cut short due to an injury. He needs another full season at League One level, whether that’s with us or with another club.
Clarke is very good at making little movements that allow him to create space for not only himself but also others. This is demonstrated in his two goals that he got in the 2-1 win against Birmingham City last season - this movement is integral for a striker.
It is just injuries that Clarke seems to struggle with, never really having a season where he has not got an injury. So that is why I would send him on loan, where he is guaranteed to start almost all games when fit. I think you can get a better read on where his level is at and if he will develop into someone that can be used in a regular Championship team in the future.
I believe that all young players could do with a loan spell at some point in their careers, but I think some are more ready than others to play a rotation role to start off with and then potentially force themselves into the team next season. The future is the academy and something that Reading could certainly use to regain that connection with the fanbase.
Will all players that are mentioned make it at Reading? I’m pretty confident that there are players that can make it to a good level and help the club progress to the next stage in the club’s mission to get back to better times.