Eamonn Dolan: Exeter & Reading bid for play-off glory in memory of ex-coach

Eamonn Dolan
Eamonn Dolan was caretaker manager of Reading for a game in 2013

The two remaining EFL play-off finals at Wembley on Sunday and Monday will have a common denominator, as the memory of a man who helped drive their respective academies is honoured.

Eamonn Dolan had several roles at Exeter City during a 13-year association with the club, including manager, before moving to Reading to direct their academy.

The 48-year-old died in June 2016 following a battle with cancer. Since his passing, Reading have renamed a stand at their Madejski Stadium after him while Exeter held a memorial match featuring several of his former team-mates and colleagues.

Dolan has been credited with helping shape youth development at both the Grecians and the Royals. His legacy will be on show at Wembley as his former sides face Blackpool and Huddersfield in the League Two and Championship play-off finals respectively.

BBC Sport spoke to those who worked in football with the Irishman at both clubs, and features some of the notable academy graduates who will hope to play a match-winning role at Wembley to find out what made Dolan's influence so significant.

Semi-final drama sets up Wembley symmetry

The Wembley double-header in Dolan's memory was made possible in dramatic fashion as Exeter left it late to win their League Two play-off semi-final second leg against Carlisle.

Fittingly, it was a Reading loanee he coached as a youngster who netted the Grecians' 95th-minute winner in a 6-5 aggregate win.

Jack Stacey celebrates Exeter's play-off semi-final victory against Carlisle
Jack Stacey featured for Reading Under-21s in this season's EFL Trophy before joining Exeter on loan

Jack Stacey, a 21-year-old midfielder, chose the perfect moment to net the first goal of his loan spell, while fellow Reading academy graduate Jake Taylor lined up alongside him, and defender Pierce Sweeney started the first leg at Brunton Park.

Meanwhile, two more of Dolan's proteges in blue and white hoops helped secure Reading's passage to the Championship play-off final with a tense victory against Fulham.

Jordan Obita scored the Royals' first-leg goal while midfielder Liam Kelly has been among a number of players to thrive during Jaap Stam's first season in charge.

Jordan Obita scores for Reading against Fulham in the play-off semi-final
Jordan Obita was mentored through Reading's academy by Eamonn Dolan

Should Obita shake off an ankle injury that ruled him out of Reading's second leg, five of Dolan's most recent academy graduates could play a part in sealing promotion for their respective employers.

"Eamonn will be loving it - don't worry, he'll be watching," Exeter chairman Julian Tagg told BBC Sport. "It's poignant in so many ways.

"I think it was really fitting that Jack scored the winning goal for us."

It was Dolan's managerial appointment in 2003 that persuaded Tottenham's all-time leading appearance-maker Steve Perryman to become director of football at Exeter - a role he still holds today.

"Amazingly he's had a touch on a lot of players that are doing so well for Exeter and of course a lot of what's happening at Reading, and how successful they've been," Perryman said.

"I'm sure he'll be looking down on both teams and wishing us all the best - we'd like to pay tribute to him and dedicate a big part of the success so far to him."

Jem Karacan tweet post Exeter's play-off win
Former Reading academy graduate Jem Karacan, now at Bolton, posted his thoughts on social media after Exeter's play-off semi-final win

Dolan's 'poke it' approach paid dividends

Dolan's successor at Reading as academy manager, Lee Herron, has seen the legacy of his work move on.

The club's under-21 side were among 16 category one academies to take part in this season's EFL Trophy, with Stacey scoring in his sole appearance.

The production line refined under Dolan's stewardship appears to be in rude health.

Eamonn Dolan stand
A plaque on the Eamonn Dolan Stand at Madejski Stadium is made up of smaller pictures of the 32 young players he helped to graduate to the first team

"In his time as academy manager, we had 32 players come through to the first team," Herron said.

"Eamonn had a real special knack of being able to communicate with lots of different people from all walks of life. He could affect and make anybody feel a million dollars at any one point. That was for players and staff alike.

"He was a very humble man who realised that to be successful you needed to work hard, keep improving yourself and keep being challenged.

"We still have an environment at Reading where we challenge each other. It enables you to make better decisions and think more.

"He used to call it 'poke it'. We had to poke each other, to get ourselves better."

Dolan's mindset is further shown by an anecdote told by Perryman, who calls him "one of my very best friends in football".

He recalled: "Eamonn actually phoned me one day - I don't know if he thought I was low or if we were lacking some confidence - but Eamonn went over and scouted Gylfi Sigurdsson in Iceland. He was a very strong influence on Sigurdsson.

"He phoned me up and said 'Steve, I just thought you needed to know Sigurdsson has never met you, but he has met you'.

"It was sort of saying that some of the stuff that I talked to Eamonn about, he'd told his young players. Part of our common philosophy, if you like.

"That was really nice and I walked with a skip in my step. I'm supposed to be the motivator, I'm supposed to be a captain-type, but this fella thought enough to phone me."

Regenerating Exeter's academy

Dolan is credited with helping rejuvenate the youth infrastructure at Exeter while in charge of the first team as the club dropped out of the Football League.

"I was running an under-11 team and that was the only youth team we had at that point in the lower age groups," Tagg revealed.

"Eamonn came along with the Football League grants and built that into an academy where we had almost 200 children - with teams right the way through from 11 to 18."

Exeter are now revered for their youth system, which has seen players such as George Friend, Matt Grimes and Dean Moxey play Premier League football.

Dolan would go on to establish the club's Football in the Community programme, a scheme he first began working in when his own playing career was cut short in 1993 when diagnosed with testicular cancer.

"Eamonn's had a hand in so much at Exeter and we have continuity," Tagg added. "But a lot of that continuity is built off the foundation Eamonn laid."

Stam sees benefit of Dolan's legacy

Dolan's passing in June sadly meant he and Reading manager Stam never had the chance to work together, but the Dutchman has seen the fruits of his endeavours.

"He was very important in the academy with the young players, bringing them in and giving them an education," Stam told BBC Sport.

Jaap Stam
Jaap Stam has used academy graduates Jordan Obita and Liam Kelly at key stages this season

"For where we are as a club, in not having a lot of money to spend on players, the academy is very important.

"You need to make sure you have people like Eamonn, the right people that can spot talent, can bring young players in and give them the right education. That's not only as a footballer, but also the things beside in life, in school, in everything."

Herron added: "There's no doubt that if Eamonn was still here, he'd have loved working with Jaap, as they're both special guys."

Son Seamus to play Wembley role

As a tribute to Dolan's impact at Reading, his 10-year-old son Seamus has been chosen as the club's mascot for Monday's meeting with Huddersfield.

"That's very nice, I think you need to do that," Stam said. "If people have been important for the club like Eamonn, sometimes you need to give them something extra like that for them and their family."

Seamus will be accompanied on to the Wembley turf by his sister Grace and mother Erica.

"He had a nice little grin on his face when I chatted to him about being on the other day," Herron said.

"Seamus is delighted and excited and it just shows the football club have done fantastic on the pitch, but also off it."

On hearing that Dolan's son would be mascot at Monday's final, Perryman replied: "We'll remember him in a couple of weeks' time when it's the year anniversary (of Dolan's death), but we want to pay respect to him at Wembley as well."

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