The Reading FC Academy is in rude health at the moment. Since the start of last season, eight players from our youth ranks have made their debuts in the Reading first team, with plenty more to come. Our Under-23s are right at the sharp end of their league table, and still competing on four fronts this season.
With our recent Academy representatives grabbing headlines for their performances in the blue and white hoops, Omar Richards was the first of them to make their breakthrough. He made his senior debut on the opening day of last season, away at Queens Park Rangers, and has been the Academy’s most ‘capped’ player in the first team since, with 26 senior appearances to his name – despite having his fair share of injury problems in the meantime.
Richards, who’s still yet to celebrate his 21st birthday, has made a name in senior football for himself as a tough-tackling, tenacious, skilful full-back who exudes confidence on the ball. The man himself, though, cuts quite a different figure to what Royals supporters see on the pitch. Our chat reveals a side to Omar that will always compliment others before himself - carrying a mature head on young shoulders, modesty almost bordering on bashfulness and emphasising the importance of family in his life, all the while enjoying the thrilling journey that life has served him so far.
Reading’s #27 sat down exclusively with The Royal to discuss the vital role his mother played in his childhood while growing up in a single-parent household, his journey through our Academy and becoming a first team regular…
Despite graduating from our youth system at the start of last season, Omar Richards wasn’t always a Reading Academy player. He started out at Fulham as a youngster, but Eamonn Dolan was able to spot his talents as Richards looked to earn a scholarship – joining the Royals as a 16-year-old after his release from Craven Cottage.
After making his way into football at a young age, he says one person in particular in his life helped him become who he is today…
“Growing up, my mum made a lot of things happen for me,” he said. “With football, she’d be taking me up and down to training and to matches all over the country. I’m very fortunate for that.
“I grew up with my mum, single parent, I didn’t see too much of my dad. I’m fortunate for her making a lot of things work for me.
“I’m not really sure how I got into football originally, but I started to play Sunday league with my local team. I didn’t really know if I was any good at it, but I just played for fun then they signed me up down there.
“I played there for a couple of years but then that team ended up folding, so I moved on to another local team where I went on to get scouted for Charlton, Chelsea and Fulham. I got trials at Fulham, then I got signed there, I was about 10.
“I remember getting released by Fulham at 16, and I didn’t know where football was going for me at that time.
“When I came over to Reading and got signed, that was a big moment in my career – just to keep going and keep sticking with my dream.
"Eamonn put belief in me, after getting released I lost quite a bit of confidence and he was able to restore that, and he helped me get where I am today.
“I owe a lot of it to my mum. If it wasn’t for her taking me to all these training sessions from such a young age, I’m not sure I would have been so driven and stayed on with football, so a lot of it is down to her. Even now, she comes to the games when she can.”
Having grown up as the second of three boys in the household, Richards remembers a happy upbringing in Lewisham, that helped form the person he has become.
“Sometimes as a middle child you get picked on, but it was okay – my brothers are cool. Of course, there were some arguments, just the usual stuff!" He smiled.
“It was competitive too, especially with my younger brother. He played at Fulham at the same time I did so it was competitive at that time, trying to be better than each other. We used to spend hours outside the house annoying the neighbours, playing football and trying to take each other on. He’s done something to his back so he’s not playing at the moment, but hopefully he can get back to it.”
We know Omar now as an attack-minded left-back, but that wasn’t always the case when he was growing up. It turns out it took a tactical decision from a Royals Academy coach that prompted a change of position – one that turned out to be a fruitful one!
“Before I was more of an attacking player, I used to be a number 10 or a winger – I liked the way David Silva used to play, I always looked at that,” Richards revealed.
“I was a first-year scholar and the scholars didn’t have a left-back, David Dodds put me there for one game and it kind of worked – so I’ve been there ever since!
“I try to still attack the way I play, I’d always been able to defend fairly well but I think the position fits the way I play.”
Moving to the Royals Academy meant moving away from home for the first time for the full-back, with the support of plenty of people around the Academy helping him to settle in the area.
“I had a host family – that was quite an interesting change for me,” Omar elaborated. “I lived in a digs in Woodley, it was different living with a different family, living with a dog – I don’t really like dogs very much...
“I remember when my agent first took me to the digs, the dogs came running out the door, I just dropped my bags and ran back to the car!
“With a different culture, different foods, it was interesting. I was there for about year and I’ve lived at about five different houses – it’s all about growing up, learning different things with different people, so it was a good experience.”
All the while Richards was living in a new environment, he was steadily making his way through the ranks and becoming an increasingly trusted member of our youth teams. Having been a stalwart for our Under-23s and improving, he was soon knocking on the door of the first team.
He was rewarded in the summer of 2017 with a place on the club’s pre-season tour of Holland, getting himself in and around the first team environment for the first time. He impressed to the extent that he was included in the matchday squad for the opening-day game against QPR at Loftus Road – eventually coming on for his senior debut in the second half.
“That pre-season tour in Holland was really good, it allowed me to gel with people in the team, make friends and get to know how people played – that was good for me,” Richards recalled.
“When you’re young, you want to be at a club where you know there’s a chance you can break through. Reading was always looking like they were putting young players through, that’s part of the reason why I wanted to be a part of the Reading system.
“You can see over the years, it’s increasing – the amount of players who are making their debuts and going on to do good stuff.
“QPR was a good day for me and my family – it was a tough game to be involved in. We went a man down, we were losing and to come on in that moment was tough, but on a personal level just to be making my senior debut was an amazing feeling.
“My mum and brothers were there, she was buzzing – I don’t think she slept that night. With the atmosphere at Loftus Road, it was crazy. When you’re warming up, everything’s so close to you and you can really feel the atmosphere.”
It’s a big jump to make for a young player, going from playing in development matches in front of a few dozen spectators, to having a full Championship stadium watching on in a match with high stakes every week.
Having been around the senior squad for a comparatively short period of time, Richards found he had to grow up quickly as a player in order to fit in – with experienced professionals going about their business day to day at Hogwood.
“I feel like you have to be a bit more mature, even though I was young coming into the team,” he recounted of his first weeks of senior training. “You just have to act a bit more maturely in the way you play as well – because you’re with adults at the end of the day.
“It means a lot more now, there’s points, there’s pressure. When you’re in the Under-23s it’s different, you have to take that into account.
“Players who I was around helped me a lot, I didn’t feel like it was too much of a big jump. Sometimes you can earn respect from players if you’re doing well as well, so I think all of that tied in and I was fine.
“For the whole of last season in general, I learned so much under the gaffer and that was my first experience of men’s football – I didn’t go on loan or anything.
“I’ve been trying to learn about my body this season, I’ve had a few injuries but I’m trying to get on top of things like that so I can play in as many games as I can and help the team out. There’s nothing worse than being injured and seeing people training when you can’t participate. I’m doing everything to try and make sure I don’t get injured and stay fit.”
Having now made that jump into senior football, Richards chose his favourite game so far – perhaps an unsurprising selection as it involved his first time scoring in a Reading shirt!
“It would be Nottingham Forest away, scoring my first goal and the goal-line block as well,” he smiled. “With the way that game went, the atmosphere, the way we played, it was a really good game – my family were there.
“I found myself in and around the box, the ball fell to me and it was just instinct to hit it hard and, when it went in, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know how to celebrate, I pretty much just ran around and it was a really proud moment for me and my family.
“That was when I felt like I’d made a statement and I felt like I wasn’t just covering for someone anymore.
"As a young boy I always dreamed about playing first team football, playing in front of loads of people and every time I’ve walked out on the pitch, I can’t believe I’m actually doing something like this.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do and I’m able to do it, so I just thank God for every moment I get and every chance and opportunity.”
The Long Read is a series of feature-length interviews with the current Reading squad, found first in our matchday programme, The Royal.
To see these interviews first, and get ahead of the game with your essential pre-match reading, pick up your copy on a Madejski Stadium matchday for just £3.