Reading Football Club is, and always has been, extremely proud of its Category One Academy. The list of graduates from our youth system are now immortalised on the approach to the Main Entrance at Madejski Stadium in the shape of our new Academy Honours Board, as officially unveiled by the club recently.
Two of our 47 graduates have been making waves in the first team in recent weeks, with Andy Rinomhota and Danny Loader forcing their way into the senior setup – both of whom making their Championship debuts this season.
Loader scored 10 times in 11 matches for our Under-23s in the early part of the campaign, making him almost impossible to ignore – with the 18-year-old coming off the bench for his first senior league appearance at Wigan in November, before starting the last three matches for the Royals.
Rinomhota, meanwhile, had progressed into the senior setup last season – starting in the Carabao Cup as he built up senior experience – but a lengthy injury absence mid-season hampered his progress. Rinomhota, 21, has fought back from his injury issues, though, and has been voted as Man of the Match by Reading supporters three times in the last six matches, all of which he has started.
The Royal was able to sit down with the pair of them to get to know our latest Academy stars a bit better, talking about the whirlwind of the last month, their journey through our youth ranks and keeping themselves grounded…
“Things have escalated quite quickly,” Andy Rinomhota smiled, after breaking through the fringes of senior football and playing a key role for the Royals in the last few weeks.
“From maybe not being around the team too much at the start of the season, to slowly easing into it, coming on a few times and all of a sudden getting a start. From there, it has just been up and up, consistent starts and it’s been good for me.”
For Loader, he has been seemingly constantly on the scoresheet for Scott Marshall’s Under-23s, and has learned the ropes of senior football by training with the first team more often and quickly taking a place in the squad for the Royals.
“I think for me, in terms of playing time it’s been a bit more urgent,” he explained. “I got my first league appearance against Wigan, then started the next game and started again last weekend. I’ve been thrown in a bit, but it’s been good.”
For Loader in particular, calls from Reading supporters online for him to be involved in the first team have been growing, with an impressive scoring record in our U23 side early in the campaign.
He didn’t allow himself to get carried away with it all, as he was all too aware of the hard work he would have to put in at Hogwood and in matches to get noticed and called up to the first team.
“I try to not look at it so much, but I’ve seen stuff,” 18-year-old Loader said. “You try to think about your own game, keep trying to work hard and make that opportunity come.
“It can become tricky to block it out, because any time you open your phone, it’s there! But it’s important to just try and focus on the football.”
Rinomhota added: “Like Danny said, you try not to get caught up in some of the things you see because it can be good and positive a lot of the time, but then you’re going to get some negative ones as well! Sometimes you get tagged in things and you automatically see them.
“But then it’s nice seeing what fans have to say, they’re happy about younger lads coming through the Academy, with what Eamonn Dolan did, they’re so proud of that and we’re grateful to him as well for everything he did for us.”
The Academy cultivates an environment in which players are encouraged to develop and gain match practice in the Premier League 2, and when they’re ready for the first team, the safety net surrounding their performances disappears – and results take precedence with Championship points on the line.
This is something which has been indoctrinated into the youth system with the Royals, and the education they receive helps gear them up towards playing senior football – at whatever level.
Rinomhota said: “From being around the first team, it’s so different from being in Under-23 games where it’s more about developing, and not so much about results. If you have a bad game, you can say you’re still learning and only still young – but as soon as you’re in the first team, your age doesn’t matter.
“You’re in that team for a reason - you’re old enough to receive criticism and it’s your responsibility to perform well, to get the results that the fans and manager want - it becomes ruthless. If you don’t do well, you don’t play. It’s not about learning or developing anymore, it’s about the results coming first.
“The positives are massively above the negatives, when you’re doing well it feels like everything is going for you. Everyone’s saying how well you’re doing, being nice and we’re just happy to have come through the Academy, giving something back to the club as they brought us through.
“Andy’s right,” Loader added. “Academy football is very different. You can make mistakes, but when you get into the first team, everyone’s looking at you, looking for something bright that you’re going to do.
“It’s all about getting results, you’ve earned your place in that team and you need to pull your weight on the pitch.”
Having earned their place in the first team, both Rinomhota and Loader have also earned their place on the club’s Academy Honours Board – which was unveiled officially prior to the Royals’ match against Stoke. It’s an achievement of which both players are clearly proud.
“It’s a credit to the Academy, credit to the coaches, Eamonn and everyone there,” Loader explained. “Credit to them, getting so many players through and pushing on. I give huge credit to Eamonn, he helped me massively when I first came in, he was always a nice person to be around, trying to help us develop and he was always a positive person to be around.
Rinomhota added: “To have 47 people come through is a massive deal for the club and it shows how good they are at developing young players, and the way they go about their football and everything in that sense.
“I came into the Academy later on, so I only knew Eamonn briefly, in comparison to some of the other lads who came through the whole way. Even in that short space of time, he spoke to me and said what he thought he could get out of me as a player, always pushing me to do well from the minute I got here.”
It hasn’t been a smooth path to the first team for either player, with Rinomhota suffering a long-term injury last season that kept him out of the majority of the campaign. He has since come back stronger, and has still managed to fight his way into first team contention this time around.
“With the timing and the way things happened last year, I’d just started to break in and it was the worst time to get an injury,” the combative midfielder said.
“It halted my progress and I hit a brick wall, then you go through the months just waiting to get back, wondering if I’d lost my place and wondering if I was going to get another chance when I came back.
“It was about getting back in the manager’s books, showing you were still hungry and wanting to play. Then a new manager came in, I hadn’t played in five months and I had to try and impress a new manager off the back of nothing – he hadn’t seen me play!
“It seemed like a long time for me, playing last year to now, getting my Championship debut – it was a long time but to be in and around it now, I’m delighted.
“Looking back, with what I went through and to still come back, find a way to get a place in the team – I’m even more hungry to keep it!”
As for Loader, he was rewarded with a cameo appearance in the Royals’ Carabao Cup tie against Millwall last season for his senior debut, but has since been grafting away and scoring goals at both U18 and U23 level – along with Tom Holmes, he represented all three teams at varying points last season.
Having impressed in a substitute appearance against Wigan Athletic, Loader revealed his immediate emotions after being told he would be awarded a start at Elland Road three days later.
“I was quite shocked to start at Leeds, but inside I was obviously really happy and excited. I told my family, I wasn’t allowed to tell my friends!
“I was really pleased to start a game, the atmosphere there was crazy, and Leeds are doing well too, so it was a hard game to start but I was just happy to be out there.
“Once the whistle goes you can somehow block everything else out around the game, anything that can distract you during it too.”
Young footballers don’t always have it easy, though. With the media and supporters hearing of success within the Academy, naturally expectations rise and young players open themselves up to a new level of scrutiny when they eventually break through into the senior setup.
With plenty of tabloid stories in years gone by of faux-outrage at young players being accused of ‘slacking off’ once they earn a new contract, or fail to focus on their football, the opposite can be said of the players in the Royals’ Academy – as the youngsters explain.
“Young players can be portrayed like that, just recently with Mourinho saying about the young players at Manchester United not being hungry enough because they’re at a club as big as Man United,” said Rinomhota. “I think that then gives a perception out there to all fans that think maybe young players, once they sign their contract, that’s it.
“It’s not like that for us, that’s just the beginning for us. A contract for us is knowing the length of it, knowing we’ve got a future in football, to be happy to be playing for a club – getting as far as we can and playing at as high a level as we can.
“With the way the club’s run, they help to keep you grounded. When you’re a scholar, they have jobs for you to do, they have you here late – doing odd jobs, sorting out the gym, doing things for first team players that maybe your mate might be training with!
“It just keeps you grounded and lets you know there’s a long way to go, with a lot of work to be put in still. It’s just the beginning, we want to play at as high a level as we can, we can’t be happy and content with playing a few games now and thinking we’re done! We want to push on and keep going as far as we can.”
Loader continued: “I think young players can be misrepresented a bit, but ultimately when you get you get your contract, it’s down to the player. Whether he wants to better himself, play at the top, it’s down to him.
“The Academy coaches have helped me, in Under-16s I had Michael Wallace as a coach and I think that was one of my best seasons. I developed not only as a player and matured as a person too, he helped my game quite a lot.
“It’s just the start. It’s up to us to better ourselves, looking to play at the top and that’s what you have to aim for.”
That level of determination is now being put into Loader and Rinomhota hoping to continue to play senior football, by helping to make an impact in the first team.
As they detailed, it’s one thing to earn a place as a footballer, it’s another thing to keep your place in the team. Liam Kelly has done this for the Royals for two years and is now approaching his 100th senior appearance, after graduating from our youth ranks.
There's a big squad to choose from at Hogwood, including several players who are yet to recover from injuries, so the competition is going to be very strong for the remainder of the season.
“Some of the players here have a lot of experience, they have a lot of qualities themselves and they’re fighting to get back in the team,” Rinomhota explained.
“Obviously, we want to keep our places, it’s all good competition to have because you need everyone wanting to play, wanting to win. The games come thick and fast so sometimes you have to switch the team up, but whoever’s put in is ready to play and wanting to give a good account of themselves.
“There’s still so much more we can do for ourselves and the club, trying to move up the table and out of the position we’re in at the moment, there’s a lot to do.”
Loader elaborated: “It’s always healthy competition to have. If we’re in the team ahead of someone, it’s our job to stop them getting back in the team – and it’s also their job to try and get their place back. It’s always competitive and it’s up to us to hold our own.
“Up to this point there has been so much hard work and dedication that’s gone into it, you can’t afford to drop a level or anything like that, we have to work even harder now. We have to stay dedicated and hungry.”
The Long Read is a continuing series of feature long-form interviews running at various points throughout the season, found first in our matchday programme, The Royal! Pick up your copy on a Madejski Stadium matchday for just £3.