WORDS: ROB LANGHAM
After flirting with two northern giants as a young boy, a love affair with local side Reading changed a young man’s life. Since taking up his place on the South Bank at Elm Park, he has seen the team rise through the leagues, fill a purpose built new stadium and even dabble with top-flight football…
Image: Pyro Rock Monster Petty (via Flickr)
First a confession. When asked to contribute to the One Love series, I squirmed with embarrassment. For at points in the recent past, I’ve indulged in bigamy.
Proof lies in a scrapbook tracking Maidenhead United’s Isthmian league season of 1983/84 and a few faded Manchester City programmes from my university years – memories of Paul Lake, Trevor Morley and Ian Brightwell coinciding with the mayhem of Madchester.
Worse, before that I cherished a distant and quite frankly inexplicable attachment to Leeds United. It’s a myth that seven year olds don’t have it in them to be contrary. For the Leeds of Revie, trophy wins and a European Cup Final were already past when I took up the cause, suffering the regimes of Jimmy Adamson, Allan Clarke and Eddie Gray as the club floundered in the Second Division – if only they knew then that this wasn’t the worst it could become.
Shamefully, I even cheered as a John Sheridan-inspired Peacocks came back from 2-0 behind to defeat my local team Reading 3-2 at a two-thirds-empty Elland Road in August 1985 – my first trip north of Henley-on-Thames and a memorable day indeed. My dad sat disgusted behind me as a small pocket of Royals fans cheered manfully.
But I plead that Reading’s was at least the first ground I visited – club legend Robin Friday on show as the hoops defeated local rivals Swindon 4-1 nine autumns before that Leeds game – torrential rain not preventing our migration from the covered South Bank to the open Tilehurst End so that one pint-sized individual could “see better”.
A 7-0 win over Barnsley, during which local celeb Michael Parkinson was baited by the home fans (this was before he mysteriously switched his allegiance to Manchester United but who am I talk?), was a highlight of those early years but Reading slowly began to take a hold on my imagination as a the 1980s progressed.
First, Kerry Dixon started banging them in without preventing relegation to the bottom tier, while his replacement Trevor Senior did even better the following campaign as Reading charged back up, still yet to return.
My position was beside my dad and brother at the front of the South Bank, slightly below the level of the players due to the alarming camber of the pitch and still a viewpoint I value as it gives one a proper sense of the frenetic nature of the game. Nearby were local characters – the pre-Bradford ‘smokers’, a Del Boy Trotter lookalike and his son, covertly christened the ‘Poseurs’ and ‘la famille large’ – gargantuan relatives whose label was bestowed upon them in A-Level French.
Senior teamed up with Ian Branfoot, a man who makes John Beck seem like Roberto Martinez, and the searing pace of Michael Gilkes helped the team to 13 straight wins at the start of the 1985/86 season, upstaging Manchester United the same year and ending up with a return to second-tier football after half a century. Two years later, the club were back down but not before a glorious 4-1 victory in the Simod Cup final at Wembley, then lofty Luton Town put to the sword, the yellow and light blue away kit still an item to relish.
A brief move to the town from nearby Maidenhead in 1993 brought with it the ability to leave for Elm Park a mere half an hour before kick-off while a car and an entry level publishing salary allowed for a series of madcap decisions – Rotherham on a Tuesday night – you bet! A 3-0 win at Huddersfield and a 4-2 thumping of Bradford at the start of the 1993/94 season signalled the true arrival of the club’s greatest-ever side to that point and promotion was secured.
A year later and, despite the defection to Leicester City of Mark McGhee mid-season, Reading finished as runners up in the second flight before losing the play-off final agonisingly to Bolton having led 2-0, the game a blur despite the early kick off and an inability to partake of alcohol (my main memory is a traffic jam on the North Circular). I was deflated but secretly proud as punch.
Several long years of underachievement followed, including a particularly miserable spell under Tommy Burns but in the meantime, Reading were away from Elm Park – described by Simon Inglis as the least interesting ground in the league and wrong he was not. Almost as distant from the town centre as the Madejski Stadium, I had enjoyed many a fine time there but did recognise the need to move on.
And boy has that decision been vindicated, even if we owe everything through gritted teeth to Tory boy John Madejski. I still flinch that Reading are now, for the moment at least (hubris alert) an established Championship side – a litany of smart decisions dovetailing with clever usage of those modern ills Marketing and Publicity, as well as (Royston Drenthe apart) financial prudence to transform a club.
The years 2005 to 2007 were immortal, with the finest team ever to play Second Division football in England notching up 106 points and then finishing eighth in their initial Premier league season. I watched among capacity houses, thinking back to my feeling that a ground that could hold 24,000 would surely be too big for a club used to attracting well less than half that.
As an adult of sorts, my match days are now as enjoyable for visits to the town’s peerless Nag’s Head pub (signs from Elm park festoon the walls) and Sweeney & Todd’s pie shop, purveyor of over 20 types of pie.
For as a friend would have it, very few foods are not enhanced by the addition of a pastry case.