He’s one of our own…
From seeing the Royals get promoted to the Premier League away at Leicester in 2006, to desperately asking his dad to invade the pitch in some of the club’s best moments, Tom McIntyre and his family have been there throughout it all – as supporters of the club they love.
But when the centre-back was named as a starter at Rotherham United in December, the dream of a lifetime came to fruition. Having come all the way through the Royals’ youth ranks – starting in our Academy when he was six years old – he became the 48th player to get through the Academy and play in our first team.
The McIntyre clan were out in numbers on a bitterly cold day in Yorkshire, to support the Royals and one of their own. He played a composed debut alongside Tyler Blackett at the heart of defence, playing on for the full 90 minutes despite having a clash of heads early on that left him with an injury that later required surgery – which is currently keeping him sidelined from further action.
His path to senior football hasn’t exactly been a smooth one, however. After a back injury kept him out for over a year, he returned to action before a potentially career-threatening knee injury put him out of action for another calendar year.
It would have been easy for him to give up on his dream, but the 20-year-old wants to grasp his opportunity to play for the club he has supported since childhood.
McIntyre sat down with The Royal to discuss his progress through the Academy, overcoming considerable adversity and exactly how it feels to be a fan in the shirt…
Tom McIntyre’s love of Reading FC seemingly started from the moment he could understand what football was. He still has his Season Ticket, he’s been a mascot for the club and joined our Academy before he was even old enough to sign!
“I was about six and I remember going to train up at the Dome, there were hundreds of boys there because they take a lot in. I didn’t realise that they weren’t meant to take them on until Under-7s, having my trial. So I came and I was playing a year up for two years, then it came to Under-8s and then I could get signed!
A young Tom as a Royals mascot, walking out with Ivar Ingimarsson before a game against Burnley!
“I was over the moon because every few months, you’d get a letter through the post saying whether or not you’d be kept on for the next six months or not. It was a bit stressful for my mum and dad because they were trying to think of ways to prepare me for them to say they didn’t want me to come back anymore. I really wanted to play for Reading because I supported them, then I got a letter after 18 months saying I’d been signed to the full programme.”
He steadily made his way up the age groups as a young player in our Academy, and eventually the time came for McIntyre to take part in a first team training session – and it came far sooner than he had expected, in very important circumstances surrounding the club at the time…
“I remember I was an Under-16 the first time it happened, it was the day before the Bradford quarter-final. I was doing well with the younger boys, it was with Steve Clarke and I went up to train with them for the first time. It was unreal, I never thought I would be doing that at that age – I was a young fan, watching every week, loving them and when I told my dad, we couldn’t believe I would be training with them.
“I felt like I had my own little part to play, I played in midfield against Danny Williams and I couldn’t believe what was going on. The pace of it was so different to what I’d ever experienced, any time they gave me some sort of compliment I was beside myself with happiness – these players telling me I was doing well.”
All the while he was making his way through the youth ranks, the McIntyre family were following the Royals home and away. Suffice to say the youngster has seen a rollercoaster of fortunes in his support of the club, but he reminisced about his favourite matches as a Reading fan so far.
“I tried to go to as many away games as I could, I went to all the big ones, like Leicester. I went up with my dad, my cousin, uncle and grandad because that was the biggest game Reading had ever played in. We all drove up early, after Rotherham that was probably the second-best day of my life! That was incredible, seeing Reading get to the Premier League. My dad was gutted because he missed the goal!
Tom, aged 7, is interviewed on BBC South after Reading secure promotion to the Premier League!
“Since I was four, my dad, grandad and I have all had Season Tickets in the Upper West – and over the years, more and more members of my family have got them. There are eight or nine of us now, I actually still have my Season Ticket up there.
“Reading means everything to us. Our lives revolve around Reading Football Club, because of the fact I play for them and we come every week. It’s a huge part of our lives, that’s why it felt so special to make my debut.
“All my family members who could make it were there, a few friends too. My mum was in bits though, she couldn’t stop crying before the game because she couldn’t believe what was happening!”
In becoming the latest player to make the step up to senior football from our Academy, McIntyre has followed in the footsteps of the 47 who came before him, and fellow centre-half Gabriel Osho, has since made his senior debut. Having been in the thick of the action as a young player, he’s seen and used the example set by plenty of players to pull on the blue and white hoops and driven himself forward as a result. But he said he used more than one player as his inspiration in coming through.
“It’s really been everyone that I’ve seen make it, even last year when I saw Tom Holmes making his debut. Even though he’s a year younger than me, I wanted to be out there doing what he was doing. I used to love Jem Karacan, he used to have great spirit and work so hard – any fan would take a lot from seeing someone play like that.
“Gylfi as well, he was just unbelievable with the way he could strike a ball – you’d have him odds-on to score most games. They were two big ones I used to enjoy watching. Jordan Obita too, he won Player of the Year in his first season. I looked up to all of them.
“The coaches would use them as examples, David Dodds would always refer to players he’s worked with, what they used to be like at our age and tell us to aspire to work hard and be like them in every training session.
“Academy players have grown up at the club, they know the values of the club. It was always special for them and for me as a fan because it always felt like it meant more to them, it so much to all the players but there’s that added love for the club because they’d come through.”
McIntyre could well have been in the senior fold sooner than he has been, in part due to a succession of injuries that kept him out of action for around two years.
First came a back problem, then a knee issue that prevented his progress. With the talent and perseverance he has shown, however, he has still managed to get involved with the first team setup this season and make his debut.
He recalls how the injury problems started, just after signing his first professional terms and playing, as he had for plenty of his Academy career, above his age group.
“I’d just signed my scholarship at 16, I was doing really well, playing with the U21s at the time, playing all their pre-season games and I can remember feeling a twinge in my back,” he said. “I mentioned it to the physios, but I didn’t really think anything of it.
“We were playing Maidenhead United one Saturday, I think that was my first men’s game, I kicked a ball out of play then I felt a horrible pain in my back.
“I played on but I was in awful pain, then I got a scan and they found I had a stress fracture in my back. I was out for a year with that, they said it would be three to six months at the time.
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Yesterday I had an operation to insert 2 metal plates into the front of my head as during my debut I had a nasty head clash- but was able to play on. A scan later showed I had fractured the front of my skull. The operation was successful and I should be back in 5 weeks time ⚽ #readingfc
“I tried to come back after three months but then it broke down, then tried again on eight months and broke down again, so it eventually took a year before I was back playing regularly.”
Long-term injuries are both a physical and mental battle that test people to their limits – especially professional sportspeople. Being in an environment where players are at their peak physically and pushing themselves on the pitch can take its toll on those unable to participate.
McIntyre has had more than his fair share of injury issues so far in his fledgling career, and he looked back at what was undoubtedly a very difficult period – offering his own retrospective look at how it affected him.
“You’ve just got to try and stay as positive as you can, although that’s very hard because you don’t have your main love, which is the football,” he elaborated.
“You’ve got to look at everything else in your life and other things you can gain satisfaction from, through that year I didn’t enjoy watching football because I couldn’t play myself and it was a reminder that I couldn’t.
“I used to come and watch the games here, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did in other years. It’s really hard to be in the gym, watching them all train and with the injury I had I couldn’t really do a lot, it affects your whole body, so I couldn’t even keep fit properly.
“I wouldn’t have given up football, but in my head I was wondering why I was carrying on. I was so low at some points, there were times when I couldn’t stop getting upset because I thought I was never going to get better at one point.
“It was the same with my parents, that’s why Rotherham meant so much to them – because they had so many sleepless nights worrying about me and what would happen, it seemed like I was never going to come back.
“I was back playing for three months, I’d always felt a little pain in my knee since I was 13 but there would be some sessions when it would be really sore. I mentioned it to the physios but they couldn’t find anything that brought it on, it was just a random pain. Then it got really bad when I was a second-year scholar, they got me scanned and I had a damaged bone in my femur, just under my knee.
“They explained it to me like it was an apple, that once it gets bruised it might look okay on top but then it goes down to the core and affects the whole apple. I had to have an operation with that, I couldn’t believe it. I’d just come back from an injury and I thought my bad luck was out of the way.
“At first they said I might not be able to play football again, that it could be a career-threatening injury. But I was lucky, Reading got me to see one of the top knee specialists in the world. I’d been reading loads of stuff online about it and a lot of places said it could end careers, but I walked in and he said he was a specialist for a reason, and he would get me back playing. From that, I became fully focussed on getting back and I knew there was an end to it all.
“There was a definite goal for me to reach and with it being my knee, I knew there was stuff I could do in the gym and keep fit another way. I know it was a long time, but I probably found it easier than my back.
“It affects your whole life, it brings you so low that you learn a lot about yourself. It’s a life-changing experience, I put things into perspective now. My hunger to be back playing grew because of the pain you go through.
“Originally when I did my knee, I couldn’t get out of bed for the first two weeks. I was in excruciating pain and my parents even had to help me go to the toilet, so they saw me at my lowest but I feel like it brought me closer to them again, because they had to help me a lot at that point.”
McIntyre was the first player to graduate from the Academy this season – and the second in Ged Roddy’s tenure as Academy manager, before Osho's senior bow against Middlesbrough a week later.
Having had time to implement his own ideas on our youth setup, McIntyre praised the Academy boss and how he has managed to continue the progress of our Category One setup.
“Obviously, what Eamonn did for the Academy is brilliant and he set the foundations for it all, and Ged has carried it on and kept the core values going. They’re doing a lot of stuff with the younger age groups and their families, making them feel more part of the club and I think that’s great.
“Ged’s a really nice guy, approachable and easy to talk to. That’s a great quality as an Academy manager, we’re all still young and you go through a lot, he’s so easy to talk to and he always gives great advice, he’s been great with me and he’s been top drawer since he’s come in.
“I walked in past the Honours Board this morning, it’s a great touch which all the fans can see. The fans might forget a few who came through, but having them up there on that board is a constant reminder of how important the Academy is to the club.”
Now that his name will be appearing on the Honours Board, McIntyre has had the fire lit within him to push even harder for a first team place – refuting suggestions that players breaking through would slack off and think they’ve made it after one senior appearance.
“I’ve had a taste of what it’s like, often you hear people about players say that it’s gone to his head and he’s stopped working hard, but I’ve just felt it’s the complete opposite to that,” he explained. “I’ve had that taste and it was everything that I dreamed of, and I want to feel that every week.
“In no way has it gone to my head or anything like that, I feel so much more motivated now. The amount it means to me is maybe a little bit more because I’ve supported the club for so long, so having a little part to play is massive for me.
"Even things like people speculating the side before the Rotherham game and my name being mentioned, that was amazing because I would always look at everything on Twitter and in the papers, I always wanted to be included in it.
“Garath McCleary said to me the night before Rotherham that it was brilliant to be involved, but the hard work is staying in the side.
“People won’t remember you for just one game, they’ll remember you for being reliable week in, week out and that’s what I want to be doing.”
The Long Read is a series of feature-length interviews that have been emerging first in our matchday programme, The Royal! Pick up your copy on any Madejski Stadium matchday for just £3.