Wednesday 09 April 2014
Reading travel to Etihad Stadium on Thursday for the first leg of the final of the inaugural Under-21 Premier League Cup against Manchester City.
"They are of that breed; chuck a ball down and they’ll play"
Both teams have been enjoying success at academy level with Reading's Under-18s reaching the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup and City's Under-21s contending to be top of the Barclays Under-21 Premier League, to complement their Under-12s and Under-14s winning the Premier League National tournaments.
Ahead of the first leg, members of the Reading Academy and the Under-21s spoke about the season.
For Martin Kuhl, Reading's Professional Phase Coach and the main Under-21 manager, his team's progress to the final, which included claiming the scalps of Arsenal, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Queens Park Rangers and Watford was not a surprise, even if the average age of the squad is younger than some rivals'.
"We deserve to be in the final," he said. "We've done really well since Christmas and the cup run has come hand in hand with that.
"We've got a younger squad than most teams. There are five or six players who have been playing in both the Under-18s' FA Youth Cup run and the Under-21s this season. They are of that breed; chuck a ball down and they'll play. They've brought that enthusiasm into the Under-21s and the transition between the two age groups has been really good.
"It's very, very exciting at the moment. The Under-18s are in the FA Youth Cup semi-final themselves and that's what we want, breeding a winning mentality."
For Aaron Tshibola, who is a regular for the Under-21s in midfield, the atmosphere in training ahead of the final is "buzzing" with everybody working hard.
"Everyone's just got to keep it going," the 19-year-old said. "We're in the Under-21 Premier League Cup Final and hopefully we can bring the trophy home.
"As a young player, we're all on a buzz. All we can do is keep striving and pushing. There are a few of the lads in the Under-18s, first years, who are doing very, very well. The second years who have gone on and performed in the Under-21s this season have adapted very well. And our first-year pros are playing well, too."
While the progress to the cup final is a positive development for the Reading Academy that is not the ultimate goal for Eamonn Dolan, the Academy Manager.
"In our first team most weeks now, there are normally three or four Academy graduates starting"
"Our job is to prepare players for the first team and beyond," Dolan said. "That is our test. And as much as it pleases us to be in the latter stages of both cup competitions this season – and if you had a choice, you'd choose this exact scenario – the necessity is to produce players. Our mantra is to produce brilliantly technical players who work tremendously hard. We must aim for it, that's the only way we'll get close to it.
"If you look at Reading Football Club's history of producing players, in the last five or so years in particular, there has been an amazing transformation. In our first team most weeks now, there are normally three or four Academy graduates starting, five or six in the squad. And that's been the case for the last five or six years, every week! That has come from nothing!"
For Kuhl this objective allows him to rib the increasing number of Under-21 players who go to train with Nigel Adkins the manager, and his first team.
"I keep telling them, when they go to train with the first team 'I don't want you back!'," he says. "One or two will go back and forth a bit, but the gaffer [Adkins] gives them the experience of training with the first team, the quality and the intensity they've got to be at.
"They've got to want the ball as the gaffer wants, they've got to be extremely fit as the gaffer wants, and he's proven before that if they're good enough he'll give them a chance. That can only benefit the club.
"There's been a conveyor belt here for some time and that's got to continue, that's our job. I keep telling the lads to push the first team out – I don't mean that disrespectfully, I just want them to take their places in the team. That's what football’s about. If you're a good player, the first team will embrace you."
Tshibola is one of the Under-21s to have trained with the first team, even making the bench for some Championship matches, as well as playing in a friendly against the Omani national team, and speaks glowingly of the experience alongside his senior counterparts.
"A football club is a pyramid structure, which has a lot of its strength down below"
"I was on the bench for Derby, Brighton and Leeds, all big games, and I learned a lot from them," he says. "I'm disappointed not to have made my debut yet, but with patience hopefully that will come.
"The build-up to the first team games just excites me. I can't wait for the day that I'm on the pitch. I came on at half time against Oman so I've played at Madejski Stadium with the first team. I know, to an extent, what it's like. I'm getting closer, it's just about waiting for my chance really. The players have made me feel so welcome and each give me good advice. The first-team players here are all level-headed which makes things easier for a young player like me looking to mix in."
For Dolan and his staff they are faced with many challenges, not only implementing the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan, but also preparing players to play in the Championship – "arguably the toughest league in the world" – to help Reading return to the Barclays Premier League – "probably the best league in the world". At the same time as expressing optimism at the potential of some of the youth players, he tries to temper expectations they can make the grade.
"We're optimistic in believing we've got some in this little crop that could go on to become first-team players here and, if they keep driving and learning and listening to their coaches, beyond that," Dolan says. "It's a very difficult journey and sometimes we can seem a little bit pessimistic in our guarded analysis of young players within our ranks. But we would describe ourselves as slightly pessimistic fantasists."
Dolan says that the support from Adkins, who expresses interest in the club's various youth teams, helps to make his job easier, as well as having good facilities.
"It can be a very short-term profession for managers, who can spend relatively short spells at a time at each club, so I understand why some show little interest in the youth, knowing they are probably not going to be here when those players make the breakthrough," Dolan says. "But we are at a club with a manager who is trying to build not just a team or a squad, but a football club with a promising future. We've got a manager who comes to watch the kids play on a Sunday, who talks to me about how our under-11s got on or who our under-14s are playing next."
"A young player needs good facilities, good coaching, good development, good guidance off the pitch but he also needs the opportunity to play first-team football without rejection. A football club is a pyramid structure, which has a lot of its strength down below. The foundations have to be right and push up from the bottom. It's not always glorious being the cement of the club, it goes under the radar.
"We want our best players to help us get back into the top flight. If they accelerate past our progress, so be it. But it's important that we're ambitious. The aim of the club is to become a sustainable Premier League club with the methodology of playing attractive football. I know we're well on the way to achieving that. When will it happen? We don't know, that's what makes football exciting. But you have to have faith and trust in what you are doing."
Access to the Etihad Stadium for the match is free for Manchester City seasoncard holders. For others, tickets cost £3 for adults and £1 for concessions. For more, click here