TOM HOLMES admitted he thought Jaap Stam was joking when he told him he would be making his Reading debut this week.
Maiden Erlegh student Holmes, just 17, was a shock inclusion in the starting line-up for Tuesday night’s Championship clash with Bolton Wanderers at Madejski Stadium, having never made a matchday squad before for the first team.
Still studying his A Levels at the Earley school and also a former Berkshire County youth cricketer, talented youngster Holmes has been with the Royals academy since the age of eight and has been a season ticket holder at the Mad Stad for around six years.
His rapid rise came after impressing in the club’s Under-23 side this season as well as during the recent mid-season first team trip to Spain and he was due to face Championship leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday tea-time, live on Sky Sports.
But after that game was called off due to the snow, the defender had to wait a couple more days to make his professional bow and become Reading’s 47th academy graduate to move all the way into the senior side.
“It was a great experience for me as a local lad,” Holmes told The Wokingham Paper.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and it is something I’ll never forget.
“I got the chance to go out to Spain with the first team which I was honoured to do.
“From there I just tried to impress and I must’ve done something right because I didn’t see it coming.”
He added: “I text my family straightaway when I was in the line-up for Wolves.
“My mum couldn’t believe it. She just thought I was joking.
“To be fair, I thought the gaffer was joking at first.”
While making his debut against champions-elect Wolves would have been a special occasion, the postponement meant Holmes’ first Championship opponent was a Reading legend.
Adam Le Fondre started for Bolton and did battle with Holmes all night, scoring just before half-time to cancel out Mo Barrow’s strike in the 1-1 draw.
“I had the whole day to prepare for it, which was quite tricky because you’re just wandering around at home thinking it through,” said the teenager.
“At first my legs were a bit like jelly but I got into it and held my own I thought.
“I’ve watched Adam Le Fondre play from the stands so it was something to play against him.
“At first it was a bit daunting lining up alongside him, but then you get into it and it’s just a football match really.”
A few weeks ago, the chances of Holmes being anywhere near the first team squad looked highly unlikely.
With Tommy Elphick signed to add more experience to the back-line alongside Paul McShane and Liam Moore as well as Tyler Blackett and Tiago Ilori as back-up, spots in the defence were all filled.
But with both Elphick and McShane struck down with injury, as well as the next youngster in line Axel Andresson, adding to the poor form of both Ilori and Blackett, Jaap Stam opted to trust Holmes.
And he says he deserved his chance.
“You can say it’s a big call and if it went wrong you could say ‘why do you do it?’ but now he has performed you can say it’s a brave thing to put him in there,” said Stam.
“That’s how it works in football.
“We want to educate the youth players and bring them into the first team.
“It doesn’t matter if he’s 17 or he’s 25, if the others are not performing then a younger guy who is doing well in training sessions gets the opportunity to play.”
Next up for Reading is the visit of Leeds United to Madejski Stadium on Saturday (3pm).
And Stam says Holmes could well be involved again.
“He’s doing well,” said the Reading manager.
“If players are doing well, why do you need to change them?
“With the youngsters, because they don’t play a lot of games at the intensity how they need to in the first team, sometimes you need to give them a rest or not play them too many games in a row.
“If not, there’s a big chance that they get injured as well.
“I’m not saying he’s going to be playing, but he did well against Bolton. He worked very hard, he brought his physique to the game as well but he’s a player who can play as well.
“We need to have a look how he feels and if he body has recovered for the game on Saturday.”
But until then, school comes first.
Holmes said: “I still attend Maiden Erlegh School. I wasn’t in on Wednesday but maybe later in the week.”
For photos and more reaction to Tuesday night’s draw with Bolton, pick up today’s Wokingham Paper.