Reading fell one step short of Wembley in the FA Cup and a visit in the play-off final is still no more than an outside bet, yet for one member of the Royals’ squad there was glory at the home of football over the weekend.
Whilst still to make any real inroads in the first team setup at the Madejski Stadium, Michail Antonio has been enjoying a profitable loan spell further south with Southampton. Having impressed former Reading boss Alan Pardew by scoring in a reserve team game against his current club he was invited to join the Saints on a month’s loan. Pardew saw enough in the young winger to extend the loan until January and, subsequently, the end of the season. Antonio will be out of contract with the Royals when his loan at St Mary’s comes to an – end leaving his future in Berkshire far from certain, but he will have done his chances of earning a new deal no harm with his star showing in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final on Sunday. He hit Southampton’s last goal in their 4-1 win over Carlisle and had a hand in the other three goals as well. His contributions demonstrated a variety of abilities, with a cross handled for a penalty for the first, his long throw leading to the second, and his shot parried out for the third. Add in some neat control on his knee before lashing home with his left foot from outside the penalty area and it was a quality all round performance from Antonio.
It was a double celebration for the boy from Earlsfield. As well as winning the first professional medal of his fledgling career, Antonio celebrated his 20th birthday. With another 20-year-old, Gylfi Sigurdsson, proving his parent club’s leading light this season, Michail will be conscious that he is at an age where it is make or break for young talents at this level. A relatively late discovery, Antonio was snapped up by Reading in 2008 from non-league Tooting and Mitcham as an 18-year-old having plundered a hatful of goals for the Terrors. He found himself loaned back to his old club soon after where further goals followed before making his first Football League appearance in a loan spell with Cheltenham Town. To date he has managed just two substitute appearances for the Royals, his debut off the bench coming in the Carling Cup defeat to Barnsley this season. His time at Southampton means he will not make any further appearances for Reading before his current contract is up but he will hope his time under Pardew’s tutelage will earn him another chance at the Mad Stad. The biggest concern for a player who made his name as a goalscorer is his failure to get off the mark in league football thus far, but he has had more luck in front of goal in cup games for the Saints.
Non-league football has proved fruitful grounds for professional clubs over the years, from the likes of England internationals Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand and Stuart Pearce to more recent success stories like the ex-Grays Athletic pair of Michael Kightly and Freddy Eastwood. The January transfer window saw Manchester United purchase Chris Smalling from Fulham, a player the Cottagers had signed just 18 months earlier for a token fee of £10,000 from lowly Maidstone United. The Red Devils have agreed to pay more than 1000 times that amount, showing the profitability of finding rough diamonds from the non-league circuit. Whilst it would be wrong to put Antonio on a par with the likes of Smalling right now, it is surely worth Brian McDermott and Nick Hammond’s while to offer him a new deal. It would be better to lose him to another league club in a year or two for a decent fee than see him go for nothing. Even if Antonio only ever reaches a level where he commands a fraction of the fee that Smalling was valued at, then it will have proved a good piece of business for the club. With a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy winner’s medal to his credit, Antonio has taken the first steps towards making a name for himself. Whether that name will be made at Madejski Stadium remains to be seen.
With a contemporary of Antonio, Mitchell Bryant, making his own headlines recently by scoring all six of Basingstoke’s goals at Weymouth, it has been a good time for Reading’s young prospects out on loan. Even if these players fail to join the likes of Sigurdsson as stars in the Royals’ first team, it is encouraging for them to find there is life in football for them after Reading. Bryant for one has already had to cope with life after Manchester United, where he was once a trainee, and if they prove good enough for Reading, then everyone is a winner.