Another one rising through the ranks, Royals stopper Luke Southwood got his first Madejski Stadium minutes in a senior setup on Saturday as a substitute against Gillingham.
A staple in our Under-23 side in previous years, before getting non-League gametime in England with Bath and Eastleigh and then in Scotland’s top tier with Hamilton Academical, the Academy graduate was delighted with some first-team minutes as the Gills were beaten.
“I’ve been at the club since I was seven or eight years old,” Southwood said. “To finally put on that Reading shirt in the first team was a big moment for me – and something I want to continue doing.
“On my three loans, I’ve seen various levels of football, quality, different numbers of fans. Everything was a good challenge to stand me in good stead for hopefully a big season to come this year.
“In the last three years, I’ve been out on loan at different points. To come back and experience a pre-season – even though it’s a strange one with everything that’s going on! – but to be back here with Reading for pre-season is really good. It’s a challenge that I want to rise to.
“I had a similar experience last season last year when I first went to Hamilton and I wasn’t playing to start with. That’s a different challenge in itself because you have to keep yourself motivated and training and working hard, so that you’re ready to take that chance when it comes and so that you don’t let yourself or the team down.
“It’s something that I’ve had experience with last season, and hopefully something that I can take into this year, and take my chances if they come.”
That is precisely the challenge. A few goalkeepers in the group… only one neon-coloured shirt to be pulled on, on a matchday. And Rafael made that starting place his own in 2019-20 with some Player of the Season-meriting displays.
But it’s a supportive setup under the stewardship of goalkeeper coach James Bittner – a clique of talented players pushing each other on.
“It’s a really good group. You’ve got Bitts who’s a great guy and a great coach, and every day he gets the best out of us,” Luke continued.
“Then you’ve got Rafael, who had a great season last year and he’s great to work with. Sam Walker and Jokull Andresson too – we all bounce off each other and Bitts gets the best out of us.”
The game itself? A 2-1 win, and a clean sheet for Southwood during his half-hour display… and a useful experience for the team as a whole, including those seven fellow Academy graduates who played in outfield positions.
“The lads performed really well. In the first 30 especially they really dominated the game, we made a lot of changes and the shape wasn’t quite as structured, but then we still dug in and did really well.
“There were young players out there that did well to get on and get their minutes. I grew all the way up with Tom McIntyre who has always been there, and then a lot of the younger lads too – Imari Samuels has come up to the first team now, and Michael Olise.
“It’s really nice to see all these players who have been around me in the Academy growing up, and now coming into the first-team and doing well.”