It’s safe to say this hasn’t been the season we were hoping for from Harlee Dean. Reading’s sixth summer signing, a free transfer following his departure from Birmingham City, arrived with the expectation of being the veteran key cog in the Royals’ defence. What the 32-year-old lacked in pace and technical ability, he would surely make up for in experience and resilience - traits that should complement his younger teammates.
Instead, those younger teammates have been the ones to shine. Tyler Bindon (19) and Nelson Abbey (20) have both far outstripped Dean so far, with Tom Holmes (23) enjoying a resurgence either side of his January sorta-exit to Luton Town and rookie Zane Monlouis (20) signed as cover on loan from Arsenal.
Dean’s been restricted to just 15 appearances across four competitions, with only one of those coming after November: a 45-minute, ill-fated outing at Eastleigh in early December. A lack of game time isn’t unwarranted though: he’s yet to get higher than a 6/10 in our Player Ratings for any league game, and his overall average is one of the worst in the squad.
As things stand, even with Abbey and Tom McIntyre both departing in January, the pecking order doesn’t read kindly for Dean. Holmes (when fit) is surely top of the pile, then Bindon, followed by Amadou Mbengue and Monlouis. You could perhaps throw Jeriel Dorsett and Clinton Mola in there too but both are needed more at left-back; ditto Andy Yiadom at right-back.
And yet... the twists and turns of a league season can conjure up chances for redemption, small opportunities to turn fortunes round. One such opportunity is Tuesday’s trip to Stevenage.
For a start, Reading’s centre-back department is currently in a state of flux. Holmes’ injury has opened up a spot next to Bindon, with Mbengue filling that role on Saturday at Oxford United but doing so unconvincingly. With Monlouis not involved at the Kassam at all - and probably not ready to be thrown in at the deep end just yet anyway - Ruben Selles has a decision to make.
It’s a decision made harder by the specific nature of the challenge awaiting at the Lamex. Steve Evans’ side are the most direct team in League One, as this chart from The Analyst demonstrates (look at the top left corner).
Stevenage are comparable to just one team stylistically: Cheltenham Town. Somewhat forebodingly, this is a side that Reading desperately struggled to contain when the sides met in late December. The Robins penned the Royals back really effectively in the first half, laying on a barrage of crosses and long balls that weren’t convincingly repelled. Reading should have been a few goals down, and would have been if it weren’t for David Button’s shot-stopping.
Even more forebodingly though, Reading’s key outfielder in repelling the assault - Tom Holmes - is unlikely to be available for the game at Stevenage. His composure and aerial ability were vital at Cheltenham and need to somehow be replicated at Stevenage.
Step forward then, Harlee Dean. If there’s one thing he does well on the pitch - better than anyone else in fact - it’s winning headers.
So yep, he should start at Stevenage on Tuesday night.
I’m not saying he’s likely to start. Dean was deservedly excluded after the 3-2 loss at Shrewsbury Town, his most recent league outing, and it’s no surprise he’s made it into just one more league matchday squad since, sitting on the bench for the 3-2 win against Exeter City on New Year’s Day.
For the sake of building some consistency I suspect Selles will opt for Mbengue again, although there’s an outside chance of Monlouis being thrown in. Both are big risks though: Mbengue is erratic at the best of times and generally not suited to dealing with an aerial bombardment, while Monlouis is more physically imposing than Mbengue but has as much League One experience as I do.
Starting Dean would also be a risk, certainly. For one thing he’s not great technically, unable to progress the ball out from the back through passing or dribbling as well as Reading’s other centre-backs. This can however hopefully be mitigated by having Andy Yiadom at right-back next to him, as well as Lewis Wing (and maybe also Charlie Savage) just ahead.
It would also, to put it plainly, rely on him being a lot less bad than he’s previously been in a Reading shirt. There’s precedent for a turnaround though: the lowest-ranked player in the squad, Clinton Mola, has bounced back from earlier displays by putting in some encouraging performances in recent weeks.
Why not Dean too?