The mark of any football academy’s success doesn’t end with the club. An equally important barometer is how the players who come through the ranks fare when they fly the nest!
At Reading, 2017/18 marked another good season for our youth system. As well as another six players graduating from the younger age-groups at Hogwood to represent the first team, there were also many players getting stuck into competitive campaigns at other clubs.
In the first of our two-parter, here’s a reminder of what some of our graduates did last season in the top three tiers of English football…
Midfield maestro Gylfi Sigurdsson continues to be one of the brightest stars to have been produced at Reading. Joining Everton last summer as a club-record transfer from Swansea – where he had been named as the club’s Player of the Year for the previous two seasons – the Icelander promptly marked his first start for the Toffees with a 50-yard belter against Hajduk Split in the Europa League! It was the first of six goals in all competitions for the former Royal, who left the club in 2010… and his season isn’t quite done yet. Off the back of an 8th-placed finish in the Premier League with Everton, he’ll be linking up with current Reading man Jón Daði Böðvarsson at the World Cup in Russia this summer!
Finishing a spot below in English football’s top tier this year was Leicester City and Ben Hamer; the former Royals stopper, now in his fourth season at the King Power Stadium, made nine competitive first-team appearances. That included a run in the Carabao Cup and a 2-0 win against Liverpool, which was finally ended in a penalty shoot-out against Man City. Hamer played four Premier League fixtures at the tail-end of the campaign, stepping up when Kasper Schmeichel sustained an injury.
It was a more fraught campaign for Shane Long and Alex McCarthy at Southampton; ultimately the Saints retained their place at the top table, finishing three points and one place clear of the drop-zone. Goalkeeper McCarthy muscled Fraser Forster out from between the sticks mid-season and played 23 games – a clean-sheet against Manchester United was his first appearance, and the first of seven shut-outs. Striker Long made 35 appearances in the same season, and both were named in the starting XI at Wembley as they were denied a place in the FA Cup final by Chelsea.
But Hal Robson-Kanu and West Bromwich Albion did ultimately drop down to the Championship after a tough season for the Baggies. The attacker was sent off in West Brom’s second game of the season – soon after he had scored what proved to be the winner – but it was one of just two goals in total across the campaign. He made a total of 24 appearances, and couldn’t prevent the Midlands club from finishing bottom of the table.
Sky Bet Championship
The season was extended for one former Royal – Alex Pearce was part of the Derby side which had a tilt at a play-off campaign. The centre-half only made one Championship appearance before Christmas – a 4-2 defeat at the Royals’ hands at Pride Park – but played seven times in April including scoring against Bolton. He was omitted for the play-off games against Fulham, however, as the London side advanced to Wembley. Fellow centre-half Jake Cooper just missed out on the play-offs with Millwall; he made 42 appearances in his first full season with the Lions since leaving Madejski Stadium, and even contributed four goals, but the Londoners finished three points shy of the play-offs.
At the other end of the table, two of our Academy graduates helped teams to survive the drop. Hull City had been in the quagmire for some time – briefly dropping into the drop-zone with defeat to Preston in February – but a decent end to the season for Chelsea loanee defender Michael Hector and the Tigers ensured that they would finish in 18th, clear of the drop with games to spare. It was tighter for midfield man Jem Karacan and Bolton Wanderers; their campaign went right to the wire, and a turnaround in the final five minutes of their whole season resulted in a 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest and another season in the second tier.
Sky Bet League 1
Centre-forward Dominic Samuel played his part in getting Rovers back up to the Championship at first time of asking. The former Royals man, who turned 24 this season, notched eight goals across the campaign to help Blackburn to a total of 96 points, second only to Wigan and enough to take the Lancashire club to automatic promotion. Meanwhile Tariqe Fosu had an eye-catching first season at Charlton, netting nine times, but the end was a disappointment as they were edged out by a 2-0 aggregate score by Shrewsbury in the play-off semi-final.
For striker Simon Church, missing out on the play-offs with a 7th-place finish with Plymouth Argyle was only a small narrative of his story; unfortunately his career came to an early end at the age of 29 this summer as a hip injury forced a retirement. He had represented Scunthorpe earlier in the season, again in League 1. Simon Cox, meanwhile, registered double-figures for consecutive seasons for Southend… two strikes against Oldham took him to ten for the season as the Shrimpers finished 10th.
And lastly, two of our Academy graduates were representing Oxford United at the end of the campaign – Rob Dickie and James Henry. Defender Dickie begun the season on loan with Lincoln in League 2, but impressive displays saw the U’s willing to take him to the Kassam on a permanent deal – he would play 15 times from February onwards, scoring once. That Dickie goal came in a 2-1 win over Peterborough – Henry grabbed the other, one of 11 for midfielder in a fine goalscoring campaign. That was his first season at Oxford after leaving Bolton last year.