He’s magic, you know…
Tiago Ilori is fast becoming an increasingly important fixture amongst a Royals squad he joined back in January 2017, having made the move from Premier League giants, Liverpool.
After playing a part in around two-thirds of the Royals’ matches last term, as well as a vital role in the squad’s run to the play-offs the season before, Ilori has been one of the standout performers in the team at centre-back so far this campaign.
He has had an eclectic playing career so far, growing up in England and Portugal and coming through the ranks at Sporting Lisbon - the team he supports to this day - to loan spells in Spain and France. The defender, who has played for Portugal at every level of youth international football, has now found his feet as a Royal and is showing the level of performance his talent merits on a consistent basis in the blue and white hoops – playing for the 50th time as a Reading player against Norwich City last Wednesday night!
Ilori sat down with The Royal for a thoroughly interesting in-depth interview about a football-obsessed upbringing, mixing with Olympians, learning his craft at Anfield and across Europe - and reaching the 50-appearance milestone at a club for the first time in his career to date…
Ilori’s personality bears similarities to his playing style – composed, unflappable and confident in himself. But he carries a smile with him that is rarely seen on the pitch, though, as it’s all business once the whistle goes on a Saturday afternoon.
A family man, the 25-year-old believes a strong unit at home was the backbone of his upbringing in London and Lisbon. Another constant, though, is football. The defender says he has been playing for as long as he can remember, quite often challenging himself against people older than him!
“It was great growing up, I’ve always had a really tight family," he said. "Me and my brothers, my parents, cousins, we’re all really close. Friends of the family too, my dad’s best friend, his kid, to this day we all get along and we’re just like family. In London I was young so I don’t remember everything, but what I remember is just being happy. I was playing football, we didn’t have consistent games or anything at that age, but I was training two or three times a week, a lot of the time when I wasn’t training I was in the park with my dad, my brother and my mates!
“I remember my dad looking for a club for me but we couldn’t really find much. I started off with playing some older guys, the age group of my friends at the time was a year or two older. I was probably about 6 but I played when they let me! My dad would go where my brother was training because he’s four years older than me, then basically whenever they let me participate I would!”
Eventually though, Ilori found a club – Sporting Lisbon. Already living in Portugal by this time, this was the start of a long spell with the Leões, coming all the way through their Academy to make his first-team debut while still a teenager! The club would certainly have had the backing of the Portuguese half of his family…
“My family there are pretty much 99% Sporting fans,” he smiled. “My grandad is just a complete fanatic, he can’t see anything red because Benfica are their rivals! Anything red, he throws it out. It was easy to become a Sporting fan because I was there for nine years.
“I remember everything about the day of my debut - it was unexpected as well. I was actually with the national team, with the Under-18s. There was an injury, I had already been training consistently with the first team, but I don’t even think I had ever been in the squad yet.
“They rang me up saying that someone was picking me up from Porto and the next day I was going to play for the first team! No-one in my age group or anyone in the whole Academy had done it yet in our generation, so it was a big thing and it hadn’t happened for a while. Even though it happens a lot at Sporting, we went through a phase where there were a lot of new players coming in but they all came from outside of Portugal.
"It was a huge deal for me to play, I was very nervous. It was a home game and the first team around me helped me out a lot to be fair. I had been training with them for a long time but I wasn’t completely integrated in the team, so I didn’t really know them. My Portuguese wasn’t even great at the time! I knew enough but I had a bit of a lack of confidence.
“It started and I got a yellow card in the first two minutes of the game…that didn’t really help at all! It was my fault as we went 1-0 down. The ball came and I just missed it and they scored - but we won 3-1 in the end and, looking back, I had a decent game… especially in the second half.
“After the mistake, I just thought ‘it’s done now’ and the pressure was kind of off. I’ve messed up, it’s done, so from there I think it was really positive. I played a game in the Europa League against Lazio a few weeks later, we won 2-1. That was a big game for me, probably one of my favourite games I’ve ever played! After those two games, I don’t know what was going on inside the club but unfortunately for me, the coach got sacked. When the new coach came in, all the players who had been training with the first team went back to their age groups.
“Eventually I ended up going back to train with the first team again and I was on the bench a couple of times but then the coach got sacked again! I think we had three or four coaches that season! Then the next season, the club had more stability and then I started playing more consistently.
"Being in the first team was completely different [to the Academy]. The environment I was in, I felt like I was at home. All my team-mates were my best friends and we lived together. All of a sudden going into the first team – it was great but it was very different.
“I played 12-13 games in a row and then that’s when I first heard about Liverpool’s interest. I was negotiating a new contract with Sporting at the time – I had the equivalent of a youth team contract at the time, they were trying to adjust that. The club had some financial problems as well and we couldn’t come to an agreement at the time. There was a change of president at the club as well, so he had his ideas about how to get things done - there was a lot going on at the time. Then there was some interest from abroad and Liverpool showed more interest than anyone else.
“I broke my hand so I didn’t have a pre-season at Sporting, then I seem to have been punished for not signing a deal. Being young and stupid really, I reacted. I was willing to sign the deal, but then I was thinking if they were treating me like this then I wanted to leave.
“Looking back now, I think it would have done me good staying another season. It was easy playing there, I was comfortable, they knew me and they knew what I was about. I was a young 19-year-old in the sense that, football-wise, I hadn’t played many games at a professional level. And from there to playing for Liverpool was a big step.
"It’s not that I couldn’t do it, but looking back now, maybe after another full season in Portugal and I would have gone into the next season with some confidence from the campaign before. Hopefully I’d have been able to get 20-30 games in at least, then that would have been different for me.”
While he was able to look back with a sense of hindsight on his Liverpool career, Tiago was in an environment in his first season at the club where the team were challenging for the title in the 2013-14 campaign.
The only down side to that, though, was that he found first team chances hard to come by as Brendan Rodgers relied on a relatively settled squad, throughout a season that saw the Reds play their way to second place in the Premier League – with experienced international centre-backs at his disposal in Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Touré.
Ilori admits that it took a while for the reality of playing for one of the biggest clubs in England to sink in, while he was still only 20 years old.
“It was an unbelievable experience for me, the feeling I had when I signed for Liverpool,” he said. “I only really understood what was happening months afterwards really, walking into training and looking at the players who were there at the time – Suarez, Coutinho was young but he was already unbelievable, Gerrard obviously, Sturridge was on fire as well.
“It was definitely tough. I was in the squad at the beginning and I felt that the coach [Brendan Rodgers] really liked me. It just didn’t happen, it didn’t work – my fault, obviously, because I’m the one who had to prove that I needed to play.
“In my head I was looking too short-term - I didn’t realise the work I’d have to put in. So when someone would tell me that within the next two years I would be starting for Liverpool, I was thinking, why can’t I be in there in the next two months?
“I should have gone there and had a plan. Obviously if I got the chance to play straight away I would, but over the next couple of years I would develop to a point physically and mentally, then be integrated within the club to be able to play and compete in every game. It was probably just an age thing, I’m looking back trying to find a reason but I don’t know why!”
With four countries and two new languages to get his head around all in the name of football, Ilori said he managed to adjust to the cultural and footballing differences for the clubs he played with abroad – but only with the right mental application.
“It can be tough,” he admitted. “It’s all about your mindset at the time. When I went to Granada in Spain I was feeling great, the language is similar to Portuguese, but I couldn’t speak two words of Spanish. If someone spoke to me in Spanish I wouldn’t understand anything they were saying! Portuguese isn’t my first language either, so it took a while for me to pick it up.
"I was only there for half a season, but my mind was in the right place. I was completely focussed on playing in such a competitive league against some of the best teams in the world and I wanted to prove myself to come back to Liverpool and fight for a place.”
In the summer of 2015, though, Ilori was on international duty with Portugal’s Under-21s at the European Championships. He started as they overcame Gareth Southgate’s England side in the group stages – an England team that contained the likes of Jack Butland in goal, Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard, Nathaniel Chalobah… and a certain Liam Moore at the back!
“I had international duty with the Under-21s and it went really well - we got to the final but lost to Sweden on penalties. Personally and collectively it had been a good tournament - then I got back to Liverpool and, unexpectedly, went on loan again to Bordeaux.
"I should have snapped out of it, but my head wasn’t right at the time. Bordeaux is a great club, a great place to live as well and the club is a really nice place to be. They really looked after me and wanted me to succeed, but my head wasn’t in the right place really.
“I had a few injuries as well during that season, all muscle injuries. I still managed to get 15 or 16 games in, I wanted to play more than double that but considering the injuries and other stuff that was going on, it was enough.
"But at the time it was tough because I had a plan in that I wanted to be at Liverpool to play, I didn’t want to give that up. I wasn’t going to leave until I had my chance, but consistently getting those setbacks was really tough.”
That summer, the Royals’ defender took in one of the most unique experiences a footballer can have – playing at the Olympics in Brazil in 2016! With a multitude of sports from which to choose and watch, Ilori was able to catch a glimpse into one of the greatest sporting events in the world, all the while playing for his country.
“When I went to the Olympics, it was just different!” He smiled. “There are lots of things going on, it’s not just focussed on the football. We stayed for four or five days in the Olympic Village, you get to see all sorts of different athletes there – some of the best in the world.
"We saw some of the tennis players, like Nadal - there were a lot of very famous people around. And there were a lot of very successful athletes within their own sporting worlds– to be there, they had to be! It was a great experience.”
With the experience of playing all around Europe, playing for Portugal at youth level and having a series of minor setbacks through injury, the centre-back explains he draws from every part of his footballing career to date to help him on and off the pitch for the Royals.
After a sterling start to this season in the heart of defence, Ilori says his experience is allowing him to express himself and play to his full potential – turning out for the 50th time in a Reading shirt against Norwich last week.
“Especially now, my experience is helping me. I’ve now got a grasp of it and I’m managing to use it to help me push forward and become the player I know I can be. When I left Liverpool, it was tough. I had been there a while, I didn’t really get a chance and it didn’t happen the way I wanted it to.
“I’m comfortable here at Reading, I want to help the team as much as I can and show what I can do.
"Professionally, I haven’t had 50 appearances for any club yet so that feels great. When you feel that everyone’s enjoying your performances, when they’re confident in you, it helps.
"Without the competition, none of us would be where we are. We need to keep pushing ourselves, it makes it 100% easier to push yourselves when you’ve got someone knocking on the door. In every position we’ve got a lot of competition and I think that’s what’s going to help us a lot this season. We’ve got a big squad, players who really want to play and fine margins between the players.
Another milestone came away at Preston for Ilori, as he bundled in from close range to score his first Reading goal – something which he admits that even took him by surprise!
“I wasn’t sure how to celebrate but the team helped me out with that one! It’s been a long time since I scored a goal, sometimes it’s about belief – believing it’s going to fall in the right place. Once you get one, I’m not saying I’ll score in every game, but it makes it easier to get the next one because you get that belief back that you can do it. It’s the same with consistency – the more you play, the better you get basically. You get more confidence, you’re doing things week in, week out and you can watch your games and improve on them.”
The Long Read is a set of feature-length interviews with the Royals squad that appear in our matchday programme, The Royal, this season. To read these exclusive interviews first and see plenty of extra content ahead of a home game, pick up your copy from Madejski Stadium on a home matchday for just £3!