Academy boss on Arsenal, Atlético and a bright futureAll Royals fans will be focusing on the FA Cup semi-final this weekend, but for Academy manager Eamonn Dolan - there's more than one game to worry about. In a week that has already seen Reading youngsters defeat Atlético Madrid and Arsenal at various levels, the club will face the Gunners again on Monday as the under 14s battle it out for the Nike Trophy under Wembely's arch. We caught up with Eamonn to see exactly what it takes to keep the club's thriving Youth department ticking over...
This weekend is a wonderful occasion for the club, but we won’t just be treating it as a big day out will we?
Anyone that knows the manager will know that he is going to make sure that it's not treated like that. We are going there to try and win. It's a good occasion for the club of course, but I know what the gaffer really wants is to get to an FA Cup final. That’s the stature of where he’s had his career. A semi-final for Reading is nice but a semi-final for Steve Clarke is failure. He’s been involved in five FA Cup finals, he’s talked about that all the way along – I think he’s really driven the team and hopefully we can do the same on Saturday.
Will you be a proud man seeing a number of your Academy products walking out at Wembley?
Not really, because once they get into the first team they’re gone and we’re looking at the next ones. What Steve asked me just before Christmas was to become part of the first team staff for a couple of weeks, which will now be until the end of the season. I give him and Kevin a tiny bit of support where I can and when you’re doing that, all the players are equal. I see it at clubs sometimes where Academy people back Academy players. But I work for Reading, all the players are equal to me. I’ll take great pride in seeing all the players out there and take great played if we win.
It's remarkable that Reading Football Club will be back at Wembley, against Arsenal, just two days later in the Nike Trophy
I think it’s quite remarkable. Sometimes I have to remind people that ten years ago there was no production line here. It wasn’t as if it dried up, at Reading there was never a production line of young players. Now we have that. In Youth Development you have the FA Youth Cup, the Nike Cup, the Premier Youth League and the U21 Cup. These are very, very prestigious competitions. The Nike Cup has been taking place for a number of years and for Reading to even take part in it is a tremendous achievement, but for us to win it last year and do it by beating Chelsea at Wembley was astonishing.
The challenge this year was to go and defend it, but it’s not like at senior level - it’s another year’s age group with completely different players. I am so proud for us to get back to Wembley. We have incredible staff, those that work full time such as Lee Herron, Martin Dean, Ryan Williams and Chis Sweetman and all our part time staff. It’s only in the last couple of years that national age group titles have been put on and we’ve won several. We’re up there with Man City and Chelsea in winning national age group titles. That shouldn’t be happening, but it is happening. It’s great news for our club.
Just how difficult is it to balance the Academy from top to bottom, eight year olds to 18-year olds?
We have an incredible guy who runs the foundation level by the name of Lewis Goater, he's an incredible guy with wonderful staff. The work they do is going to make, if they do it right, tens of millions of pounds. There has to be a bit of patience though. People compare us to Southampton but you can't do that, they’ve been producing England players for 40 years and for 40 years they’ve been investing heavily. We are now, for Reading, investing heavily, but everyone else is investing more and have been for many years. It’s a bit like getting promoted to the Premier League. Bournemouth will spend more if they go up, but it will still be a great achievement if they survive when you compare their budget to everyone else's. It’s very cut throat, a huge, huge challenge we’ve had to face but as long as we make the right decisions with our Academy, it could be a springboard for something really, really special.
How difficult is it for players to make that final step to the first team?
We played in the FA Youth Cup semi-final against Fulham last year and in the first half of the first leg we hit what I call football perfection. We were in total control of the game, as much possession as we wanted and we penetrated at will. We were able to outwork and out fight the opposition but also out technique was great. At that moment we hit that. But, those players have moved on and it has been a really interesting season for them all. We've seen huge challenges and it's been tough, but time is a great judge in football. Look at someone like Michael Hector; I spoke to him the other day about when we sent him out on loan to Bracknell Town and all the different ways we tried to help him. But the key for a player is he has to embrace it and work hard. Players are successful because they make themselves successful. For a young player now with Steve Clarke, he knows what it takes. He’s very clear. If they give that to him then they’ll be successful. If they don’t, they won’t. I don’t think any of us would have anticipated this season being as difficult as it’s been. Hopefully Saturday will give everyone a good boost.
The good news seems to keep coming for the Academy, with the u21s beating Arsenal at the Emirates and another group u14 group beating Atlético Madrid!
I drove into the Emirates the other day, you see their underground car park and you remember we’ve got a long way to go. They were serious and they wanted to beat us on the night. But on the night we beat them. Anyone associated with the club would be very pleased with that.
The weekend before that, though, was incredible. After winning another national title at St George's Park, beating Chelsea, we played in Portugal against Champions from across the continent. We performed very creditably again and finished in third place, losing 2-1 to Benfica the overall winners and being the only team to score against them. But, to finish third, Reading Football Club beat Atlético Madrid 4-1. I reflected on that last weekend and just thought 'wow'. In Spain of course there is Real Madrid, Barcelona...but if you know about Youth Development you know Atlético have one of the best youth departments in history. They were upset that we beat them, because they had never heard of us. That's how competitive they are. It was a very proud day for me.
What does the future hold for our Academy?
I'm proud to be the Academy manager of Reading and I’ve never been more ambitious to make this Academy even better. Us, as a staff, we know exactly how to do that. If we do it properly as a club, the future won’t just be bright, it’s going to be amazing.