Around this time last year, Andy Rinomhota broke through our Academy ranks and cemented his place in our first team. It had been a long time coming for our central midfielder, having made his senior debut for the club back in August 2017, and then having to wait another 15 months to earn an appearance in the league.
Fast-forward to May 2019, however, and not only was Rinomhota one of the first names on the teamsheet by then, a string of impressive performances beyond his 22 years earned him the acclaim of Reading fans everywhere and, as a result, the club’s prestigious Player of the Season award – becoming the fifth Academy graduate to win the accolade.
Typically, though, the ever-relaxed and grounded player seems to have taken it all in his stride without being fazed. Through all the highs of the last 12 months, his demeanour has remained the same – not letting his mind run away with his successes, and continuing to produce week in, week out for the Royals.
He hasn’t forgotten his roots, either. Having been recruited to our youth setup after impressing for Non-League AFC Portchester, Rinomhota says he still keeps in contact with those at the club and emphasised the importance of his grassroots footballing background in helping him become the player and person he is today.
After a whirlwind of a year, Andy took stock as he sat down for an especially reflective edition of The Long Read, while looking ahead to what the future might hold…
The last year has been a real coming of age for Rinomhota. From the start of last season, his status with the Royals went all the way through from Academy hopeful, to senior staple. He showed himself time and again to be a driving force at the base of the Reading midfield, while possessing the defensive nous to be able to break up attacking threats.
It would be easy to assume that his life has changed completely in that time, but the man himself says anything but - as he’s still living with his Academy host family for now…
“Outside football, things haven’t changed much,” he smiled. “I’m still living with Easty [Ryan East’s family], I’ve bought a house but it’s just in the final steps of going through. I’d hoped to be in by the end of October, but that didn’t happen and now they’re saying hopefully midway through November.
“That is a big step for me. I’ve wanted to do it for a while, and I was at Easty’s for longer than I was anticipating. With football, you never know where you’re going to be, so that was going to be ‘safer’ rather than renting or buying. But now I’m more cemented in the team and here for the long-term, so it’s a good investment and more security.
“It means you’re committing your future even more, the club’s buying into you and you’re settling down at the club, so it’s a smoother transition.
“Inside football, from that point last year things started to pick up. I managed to continue getting game time all the way up to the end of the season – I had a little injury in there, but thankfully it wasn’t too much of a setback, and I managed to get back in the team. I finished the season and we managed to stay up, so that was good.”
Now that Rinomhota has earned his stripes as a senior footballer, he took time out to reflect on how he got to where he is now – and it wasn’t always the easiest ride. From getting a taste of senior football, he quickly found himself back in the Under-23s, but he recounted one moment in particular that could have been the catalyst for his success…
“I’ve always wanted to be at this point, and I still want to go further on. But when I was around the first team, I was always wanting to be in it getting game time, so when it came, I was happy and I wanted to make sure I kept the place, and not get put back into the U23s – without little setbacks like that, I wanted to stay where I was.
“There were times where I wasn’t in the squad at the start, I played U23s games, but you have to keep your head down and almost try and force the manager to pick you in the end. It’s not always easy, because in the last couple of seasons we’ve not always been in the best position, so it’s harder for a manager to take a risk with a young Academy graduate.
“I think you have to wait for the right time and hope. I was first around it with Jaap, making my debut in the Cup but I never made my debut in the league. I got my Championship debut under Paul Clement, but even then I came on, that was on the Saturday, we had a game the next Saturday but I played for the U23s in midweek – so it was two days after I played, I went back to play in the U23s, so I didn’t know where I stood. But it was only one or two games later when I started, so it was up and down.
“I had been playing right-back in training, and then in the international break when people were away, we did an in-house friendly of 11v11, I was on the team which wasn’t the ‘starting’ team, per say, it was more U23s and fringe players. We did really well, I played well in that and I think, from there, the manager found it harder to not play me or at least give me an opportunity to show myself. Thankfully, from there, it seemed to take off.”
And take off, it did. With 28 appearances under his belt before the end of the season, Rinomhota became one of the Royals’ standout performers as they successfully staved off relegation to League One. In doing so, he became Reading’s Player of the Season, to his own surprise, if not for anyone else’s.
“I would never have imagined it going like that,” he recounted. “I thought that, if I was going to break into the team, I’d maybe have a few games here and there, then the following season try and build on my games and try and have more of a breakthrough season from there. But the way it happened; I couldn’t have hoped for much more.
“Then coming in this season, I was given the number 8, which was another big step for me – I was happy with that. At the start of the season, I could have started a bit better but now I’m picking back up again, hopefully we can get some momentum with games now.
“Where I had some good games last season, I set the standard for myself and if I wasn’t reaching that, people would ask questions. Then if you’re given the number 8 shirt, the expectations are even higher to come through and perform.”
Despite his rise through the ranks to become a professional footballer, Rinomhota is keen to acknowledge those who helped him on his way in the game, at former club, AFC Portchester, from whom he joined the Royals Academy back in 2015.
“I still keep in contact with the chairman and the manager from the time when I was playing,” he said. “There are a few other people around that I still talk to, and when I go back home to visit my family, I still see them occasionally.
“When I first joined here, I was playing in the U23s and we never had games on Saturdays, so I would go back and watch their games but with Reading playing on Saturdays, it’s harder to do that! I haven’t watched many games for a while, but I keep up to date and still keep in contact with the chairman, he’s always supportive of me and I always ask how they’re getting on.
“I think it gives you a different look and perspective when you start in Non-League, like when we played Millwall in the second half especially, they went longer and it’s more about picking up second balls. Where I came from – that’s pretty much Non-League to a T, so it’s not new to me – which is a good aspect. Whereas if you come through an Academy, it’s more about technical build-up out from the back, so sometimes you may not get that side of things.
“So, to come from Non-League with Portchester, it gives you that different side of it – but on the other side of it, you can miss out by not having that technical upbringing as well. There’s a pathway, so the League isn’t off-limits. You’re not having to think, if you’re still in Non-League from 18-20, that you’re not going to make it – Jamie Vardy did it even later than most people, and he’s at the top of his game now.”
There has been change in the Royals’ ranks recently, with Mark Bowen taking the reins in the dugout – which Rinomhota says has proven to be a catalyst for the squad’s recent success.
“With the new manager coming in, there’s always a lift around the training ground and the intensity in training goes up,” he elaborated. “As a team, we’re a bit more organised – everyone knows their jobs, their roles, and we play in a different way.
“The gaffer talks a lot about percentage football, doing what’s right in the right areas and, from there, showing our quality and playing how we want to play. Everyone’s bought into that, and it’s been working for us on the pitch. We’ve had good results recently, so hopefully we can continue to push on with that for the rest of the season.”
Alongside Rinomhota in the Reading midfield have been the mercurial talents of John Swift and Ovie Ejaria, both of whom having started the season on fine form.
“They’re incredible talents, both of them,” Rinomhota declared. “Ovie’s scored more goals and Swifty scored a few at the start of the season as well, but everyone knows the quality they possess. Even the strikers make more runs knowing that they’re going to be found by those two, so it’s good having them in the team. It makes my job a lot easier!”
With the squad’s upturn in form seeing the Royals take 10 points from a possible 12 under Bowen, Rinomhota has urged the squad to keep their feet on the ground and take each game as it comes, and beat the teams in front of them in each game.
“The main thing is to not get carried away. Earlier in the season when we had a few good results against Huddersfield, West Brom and Cardiff, people started talking and maybe got a bit ahead of themselves. From where we’ve been in the last couple of seasons, we knew it was going to be difficult to go from that to try and hit the Play-Offs.
“Now, we’ve got a lot of talent in the squad and everyone knows we should be higher than where we are now, so everyone is pushing to try and get as high up the table as we can.
"But rather than aiming for anything in particular, we’re going to take it game by game, that’s the main thing on our minds. Game by game, step by step, we’ll get moving up the table.”