It’s a story that can be all too familiar in football. A teenage player flies through a club’s youth ranks, makes their senior debut but, for one reason or another, cannot seem to keep up their momentum and either drop back into youth football, or move elsewhere.
For Josh Barrett, he admits himself that he worried about being cast into the same storyline. Fresh from graduating from the Royals’ Academy to the first team aged 17 back in 2016, his progress stalled, and he has since been back playing U23 football for the Royals.
After mixed fortunes in loan spells with Coventry City and Aldershot Town, the young winger admitted in the first league edition of The Long Read in 2019-20 that he had been bracing himself for a departure from the club he has represented officially since his 7th birthday.
But upon the arrival of José Gomes, the script changed. Barrett was given a chance to show what he can do when our manager arrived – and he has had a resurgence, on and off the pitch.
Gomes has instilled his belief in the 21-year-old, and he was rewarded with a return to the first team fold towards the end of last season – which is an opportunity that Barrett hopes to grab with both hands.
Having trained as a first team player throughout pre-season, Barrett sat down with The Royal to take stock of his life at the moment, how the Reading boss has changed his life and the thrill of making the step up with several of his best friends alongside him…
Josh Barrett’s Reading career has been something of a whirlwind. Having been drafted into the senior setup and making his senior debut while still a Scholar in our Academy, a bright future lay in front of him.
But he continued his development in youth football, while still harbouring ambitions of breaking back into the first team – gaining valuable senior experience along the way, getting promoted from League Two with Coventry City, before a National League spell with Aldershot Town.
“It’s been a tough journey,” he said, taking a moment to reflect while on pre-season tour with the Royals in Spain. “Going out to Coventry, I really got on well with everyone there – the manager was a great guy, Adi Viveash as well, the assistant manager. All round, it’s a great club – a massive club and I was delighted to go there.
“But I had a little illness before I went there, I was in hospital and I had to get an operation, it set me back a couple of weeks where I would have been in there training. I missed a couple of games, and it was hard for me there – they were winning a lot of games on the way to getting promoted, so it was hard to get in the team, which was frustrating.
“Then at Aldershot it was the same kind of thing. I wasn’t really getting a look in here, I was preparing myself to go out on loan in the January before the gaffer came in, preparing for that to get some men’s football.
“But thankfully, the gaffer came in and things changed.”
The arrival of José Gomes was a watershed moment for Barrett, as well as several youth products who have since gone on to make their debuts under the Royals’ boss during his short tenure with the club.
He wasn’t offered an ideal amount of game time on his loan spells, particularly with Coventry – as teams gunning for promotion tend not to roll the dice on selection too often. After illness, Barrett struggled to get into the Sky Blues’ side as they were on their way back to League One – something he described as a maturing moment for him.
“That was one of the hardest things for me, but it made me grow up a lot,” he said. “Going out there every day, knowing that you’re not really in the plans or thoughts of the manager - so it was about trying to grasp it and do it for myself.
“But for me personally, I let myself go and I sacked it off. Outside of football, I wasn’t doing everything right – so I came back to Reading having to catch up on everything. I wasn’t with the first team in pre-season, which is understandable, and I was busy working my way back up last season.
“I stayed and played in the Under-23s, playing well and doing well with the team. Everyone was doing well, with the last manager none of the U23s were really getting a look-in so we were all in a big group of about 30 players training every day – and it was a strong group.
“The gaffer then came in and you then get a bit of luck, he brings you up to training, you show him that you’re good enough and he’s kept me in there ever since.”
After breaking into the team and dropping back into youth football, Barrett was all too aware of the stereotypes of players who showed talent at youth level, but never lived up to their full potential.
The 21-year-old still has his whole career ahead of him, but that didn’t stop him from thinking about the potential permutations of a life away from the Royals.
“It’s always a worry. There have been times where I thought that maybe this isn’t for me,” he admitted. “It gets really tough mentally, and you have to get through it.
“I’ve always known what I can do, I feel I’m good enough to play and be involved in the team. It’s about building that confidence back up in yourself and believing in your ability to really kick on and get yourself in the limelight, get in front of the manager and show him what you can do.
“For me, that was the main thing. I know there are certain parts of my game where I have so much to work on, the manager is helping me with that, but when I get the ball, I know I can make things happen. That’s big for the team too, bringing that into the team is a massive thing and that’s what I’ll be trying to do now.”
“He’s helped me more than any manager I’ve ever had. Just in the way he’s made me feel, he hasn’t given me one second to rest. He’s really pushed me hard, I’ve had chats with him where he’s said to me that there are things I have to do, otherwise I wasn’t going to be in his plans.
“From then, you’d be stupid not to take up those opportunities. That’s what I’ve always wanted, to know that I’ve been in the plans for somebody that’s building something. Knowing that you’re in the plans, knowing that he wants me there makes it easier for me to kick on and try to get in the team, get on the bench and try to make an impact whenever I get the chance.”
Not just on the pitch but off it too, did he feel having the manager around has changed who he is as a person?
“Yeah, I’d say so. In the sense of my whole way of living, the things I do. He wants the team to press and you’ve got to be fit and ready. I feel like there are years where I haven’t been fit, and I’ve been playing purely off when I’ve got the ball.
“Playing in the U23s isn’t always difficult and you can end up doing your own thing, but the manager has taken all that away from me. He’s said I have to be a team player, and that’s what I want to do. I’ve made sure that I’ve worked hard, kept myself fit, doing all the running that I need to be doing and hopefully when you get the chance on the ball, you can make something happen and make a difference.
“It’s my life, playing for Reading has meant everything to me. I’ve never known anything apart from Reading. When I went out on loan, I found it hard because I’d been so used to being in that environment of Reading, knowing everything that goes on, knowing all the people.
“It’s hard to go somewhere, go to a new club and see how they do things. Reading has been my second home, I’ve lived here since I was 14, I moved to the school and I can’t really explain it. It’s been a long journey, and hopefully it continues for a long time.”
Barrett is helping spearhead an exciting time for the Royals’ youth ranks, with 10 Academy graduates playing minutes for the first team in 2018-19, and Andy Rinomhota scooping the Fans’ Player of the Season award at the end of it.
After his passing three years ago, Barrett attributes the continuing success of the Academy to one man in particular.
“We had Eamonn Dolan, one of the greatest guys you’d ever meet. For what he’s done for all of the boys who are here today, everyone knew him, and they’d all say that he had a massive part to play. I guess he’s looking down on us and he might be one of the reasons these opportunities have come up.
“We want to do it for people like him, keep building on what he built, and he was always bringing Academy players through at Reading, as everybody knows. There have been so many, and I know how proud he’d be if he was still here today to see all of this. We have to keep it going for him, and we always will at Reading.
“It’s always been a thing here; it’s been going on for many years – even before I played for Reading. We just need to keep going with it, keep all the boys together and keep going.
“People used to tell me about Gylfi, and how you could be like Gylfi if you work hard. We used to go to the games when we were younger, we watched the first team a lot. It was exciting, even now to this day it’s exciting – being around the players, and now you’ve got some of your best mates with you. We’ve all been together for years, all of us.
“Just to be in that environment, we’re all happy, we’ve got such great staff, it makes it all better. You’ve got coaches and managers at Reading saying to young players that they want to get where we are, all of us and be in these situations.
“It’s exciting for the whole club; it’s always been that situation with Reading – we’re always going to have good players coming through. It’s an attractive club, everyone knows about Reading and the Academy.
“I was still an Under-18 when I made my debut, I was captain of the U18s and even with things like that, I was so excited every game. It was such a big thing for me, when we were Under-18s we were all speaking about playing in the FA Youth Cup from the first day we got back to training, for example.
“Now we’re in a situation where you can be talking about the FA Cup, going into the Play-Offs and things like that. It’s massive and exciting for us.
“It’s great to have everyone here, you’ve got all your mates beside you and it’s massive for us all to make an impact.
“It’ll be the same with the first team players, trying to show the manager what they can do.
“For us, we’re trying to be involved, whether it means we go out on loan too, it’s such a big thing and we want to try and embrace it. You’ve got great people here to talk to, and they’ll always help you.
“Everybody in the Academy wants a core of Academy players in the first team, that’s what the club has been built off. We’re lucky that we have a manager who really wants to embrace that too, he’s shown that last season with all of us young lads playing like me, Easty, Tom McIntyre, Michael Olise, Danny and Andy too, obviously.
“When you show you’re ready and that you’re a good player, there’s no reason that he’s not going to play you. It’s great, it’s so exciting for everybody and I go into training excited every day. You never know what’s going to happen, things change all the time. Whereas before, when I wasn’t enjoying things I wouldn’t really want to go to training, I’d just stay in the training room and not really socialise.
“When you’re hurting, you’re hurting – you can’t not show that. It was a big thing for me, I’ve had a girlfriend for five years and I’ve never really shown any kind of weakness when it comes to football. It’s always been a high, but I needed someone to speak to about it.
“I spoke to her, my family, my agent, they’ve really been there for me. The changes of what you experience in football are scary really, so if you don’t deal with it, then that’s how people can go the other way.
“Thankfully, I have great people around me to pick me up. Even in the first half of last season, at 20 I’m playing for the U23s and I didn’t really want to be. I wanted to be pushing on and doing other things, but then you go from such a low and somebody comes in and brings all the highs back for you is incredible.
“Now, we want to be out there on the training ground, speaking to people and trying to learn. That’s the main thing for us young lads, we want to learn off the gaffer and what he can bring to our game.
“The things he brought for me, and the confidence he built back up in me made me feel like I was starting football all over again – it felt like I had signed a new contract for another club. I’m so grateful that he ended up coming in and that I ended up staying here, there were things going on in January that made it look like I wasn’t going to stay.
“For me, I never, ever imagined leaving Reading in such a disappointing way, really. The manager coming in completely changed that around for me, and it’s put me in the best situation of my life. Every feeling I had at 17 years of age has all just come back to me since he’s been here.”