This year marks the 25th anniversary of Reading’s academy, an incredible achievement by a lot of incredible people.  

Sadly, a great and proud institution and an important part of the Reading framework for both the club and the community is at risk of losing its Category One status, the highest status awarded, thanks to the lunacy of Dai Yongge’s ownership.  If that happens it’ll be yet another kick in the teeth that only ever seems to punish the people that have the club’s best interests at heart.

The late, great Eamonn Dolan quite rightly receives a lot of plaudits for his brilliant work with the academy, but when I first arrived in Berkshire in 2003, it was a young Brendan Rodgers who headed up the academy and was responsible for bringing in players such as Simon Church, Jem Karacan, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Hal Robson-Kanu, Simon Cox, Alex Pearce and Ben Hamer, amongst many others.

When Brendan left for Chelsea, Eamonn took over and pushed the academy to new heights, and it has been that way ever since with Gilkesy and Noel Hunt taking on the job and propelling operations ever onward and upward.

The point is, we’ve always had a wealth of talent in the area thanks to our unique position as being the largest town by size and population in the country, as well as talented scouts and coaches that provide the continued recruitment and coaching of those players.

At my own academy, very rarely do we coach a talented player that isn’t affiliated to Reading’s academy in some way.  Despite all of the challenges the club has faced and continues to face, Reading very rarely misses the talent under their nose.  And that is testament to those people working at the club who have forged relationships with local community clubs and managers to ensure the talent continues to flow.

I was talking to my former Reading team-mate, fellow coach and friend James Harper about the unique position Reading finds itself in with regards to the catchment area and the talent on its doorstep.  Harps made a very good observation around the fact that one of the hardest moments for academy players to navigate is the transition into the first team.  Lots of kids get to that point at many other clubs, but few survive the harshness of a first team dressing room.  But at Reading they thrive in that environment pretty much from day one.

And that is because the first team dressing room has always had an absolute faith in the academy and trusts that every kid coming through has not just had a good football education, but has also been grounded in the reality of football, their feet firmly on the floor from the moment they walk in the building.  It is a process and a club mindset shared by everybody involved along the line that has ensured the smoothest transition possible for players climbing the age groups towards the first team dressing room door.

This transition is made smoother still by academy graduates like Tom Holmes, and before him Jem, Gylfi, Alex, Hal and Churchy, who go onto become established first-team players and share a local understanding of football, as well as a common bond, with the next generation of talent coming through the dressing room door.

Since 1999, 80 players have graduated from the Reading FC academy into the first team. That’s an average of more than three a year. From the likes of Alex Haddow, Darius Henderson, Nathan Tyson and Jamie Ashdown in the early days to the latest graduate, goalkeeper Tom Norcott – who made his debut in the 5-0 win against Swindon – Reading’s academy has consistently produced first-team players, including Michael Olise, Jordan Obita, Alex McCarthy, Omar Richards, Andy Rinomhota, Luke Southwood, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan and Caylan Vickers.

Believe me, I’ve been in dressing rooms where even the most talented kid has next to no chance of playing for the club because of the selfishness and hostility shown towards them by the senior players.  That’s something that we’ve never had to worry about at Reading, and it’s a huge, almost unquantifiable, advantage for young players making the step up to the first team.

One of the biggest mistakes in football is parents chasing an impossible dream for their kids.  That ‘dream’ in this instance is almost always Chelsea.  So let me be clear, your child has infinitely more chance of making it through Reading’s system than he or she does at Chelsea.  And even if your child makes one appearance for Chelsea’s first team, there is a 99.7% chance that they will have fallen out of professional football completely within two years of that debut.

Now, look at Reading’s squad and see if you can spot the difference.  I‘ve lost count of the amount of parents who say something to me like ‘yeah he’s at Reading but Chelsea really want to take him.’  And my advice is always the same: Stay at Reading!