STEVE Clarke has stolen the headlines in the past couple of weeks as the man to guide the Scotland men’s national team to their first major tournament in more than 20 years.

But wind back the clock to 2015, and the now national hero north of the border was handing a first professional start to a talented youngster at the opposite end of the UK.

Jack Stacey joined the Reading academy aged just eight years old, and after a somewhat rocky path through the youth ranks, made his first-team bow for the Royals on the opening day of the 2014-15 campaign.

Boss Nigel Adkins introduced him as a late substitute against Ipswich Town, but Stacey had to wait another seven months before his next appearance.

Clarke had since taken over from Adkins midway through that season and with the team stuck in mid-table of the Championship come March, the Scot opted to rest almost his entire first team for a Championship trip to Watford, with an FA Cup quarter-final replay against Bradford City scheduled just two days later.

Instead a host of academy graduates and fringe players took to the field, including 18-year-old Stacey. The inexperience of the team showed, with the promotion-chasing Hornets romping to a 4-1 victory.

But Stacey clearly did something to catch the eye of Clarke at Vicarage Road, with the young winger going on to feature off the bench three more times, before starting on the final day of the season away at Derby County.

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On the same day Cherries were winning 3-0 at Charlton to clinch the Championship title and secure their path out of the division, the Royals won by the same score at Pride Park in what Stacey hoped would be the game to kick-start his career in the second tier.

However, with less than 30 minutes on the clock, disaster struck as Stacey was forced off with a broken ankle. He would never go on to represent the Reading first team again.

Now, after loan spells at Barnet, Carlisle United and Exeter City, as well as two years at Luton Town, Stacey will, for the first time, have the chance to come up against the club where it all began if selected for Cherries on Saturday.

Looking back at his career at Reading, Stacey told the Daily Echo: “I think that time was tough because as a young player you would impress one manager, Nigel Adkins was there and I just sort of broke in under him, and then because you haven’t really got that background of games under your belt, once a new one comes in, you’re then starting again from scratch.

“I felt like I’d built up under Steve Clarke. He was giving me chances and then I broke my ankle in the last game of the season, missed the next pre-season and never really recovered to get back into the manager’s plans from there.

“There’s quite a few to be fair from my age group that are at other Championship clubs, but we didn’t quite get the chance at Reading.

“It will be nice to go up against them, but they’ve had a lot of almost transition periods over the last few years since I left, so it’s a very different club from the one I left.”

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Reading are now onto their eighth permanent manager since Stacey made his debut for the club under Adkins in 2014. The likes of Jaap Stam, Paul Clement and Jose Gomes have all come and gone, with Serb Veljko Paunovic now at the helm of the table-topping Royals.

That time also included a brief interim spell in charge for Martin Kuhl, the man who was Stacey’s boss at under-21 level with the Royals.

Speaking to the Echo last year, Kuhl explained Stacey’s struggles during his academy days, going from a “skinny little number 10” to becoming “really tall with big feet”, which eventually saw him switch positions to right-back.

“I think people look at professional players or players that end up playing in the Championship or Premier League and think that it’s a smooth ride the whole time,” said Stacey.

“But when I was 13 or 14, I wasn’t quite as big as I am now, I was very skinny and I was struggling to get into the team. I didn’t play for a few years in the academy sides. And then as I had a bit of a growth spurt, I started playing on the right and right-back.

“I had to really earn everything I had because I was never the most talented. Once I started playing right-wing I got a bit taller, I did a lot of work in the gym to try and combat my physique and from there I ended up being a bit more successful.

“I think being versatile can be a help and it can be a hindrance at times as well. If I was training with the first team I was almost filling in at three or four different positions, which meant when they were picking players to go with the first team, they didn’t quite know where I fit into the plans.

“I think it’s only since leaving Reading I’ve really established right-back as my position. Now I can fully focus on that. I think that’s helped me to get to where I am now.”

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During his time under Kuhl in the academy, Stacey enjoyed success, notably netting the winning goal to defeat Manchester City in the 2014 Premier League Cup final. That year the Royals also reached the FA Youth Cup semis, eventually losing to a Fulham side including Patrick Roberts and Moussa Dembele.

Asked if he feels his lack of opportunity with the Reading first team was down to timing, Stacey said: “My age group at Reading, we did well there but unfortunately not many of us actually got the chance to play for the first team. But a lot of them have gone on to have good careers elsewhere.

“I think the timing and I think obviously Eamonn Dolan was such a massive figure from the academy and he almost filled the gap between the academy and the first team.

“He would regularly speak with the managers and obviously since he sadly passed away, there wasn’t that communication. Then alongside that there was a lot of new managers coming in and every manager has their own ideas.

“Jaap Stam came in and he almost chose completely different players that had been with the first team. He didn’t choose me, he didn’t choose a few others and that allowed me to go out on loan and have the career I have, but unfortunately not at Reading.

“It’s not just me, there were a few of us that probably think it would’ve been nice to break into the Reading first team. But I think if you look at how it’s turned out for myself, it’s probably the best thing that did happen to me.”

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After being given a few days off last week during the international break, time which Stacey used to finish an assignment for his Open University degree in business and economics, focus is now fully back on the pitch.

Victory on Saturday would take Cherries above Reading and top of the table, for a few hours at least, with the behind-closed-doors game set to be screened live on Sky Sports.

“The first two (fixtures) I looked out for were Luton, obviously because I was there, and Reading because I spent over 10 years of my life there in the academy, so that was definitely one I was looking for and I’ve still got friends there as well,” explained Stacey.

“One of my best friends, (Reading’s) Andy Rinomhota, me and him have been back and forth (messaging), so it will good to play against him.

“I think I probably could’ve filled the Madejski Stadium with people from around that area and family and friends! It’s a shame, but they will be tuning in and hopefully they can come to Madejski for the return leg.”