About Me

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Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For ten seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The aim of this blog was to write football related articles for publication in the match programme. In particular I like to write about the representation of football in popular culture, specifically music, film/TV and literature. I also write about matches I attend which generally feature Maidenhead United.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Elm Park Years Part 1: Soccer As Family Entertainment

It seems odd to say it now, but there was a time when going to watch a football match was a simple leisure pursuit, something to do in your spare time, rather than the lifestyle choice replete with rights and responsibilities which appears to be the case nowadays.
So it came to pass that me and a group of school friends started to watch Reading FC in the late 80s. Of course we all supported big teams for me it was Arsenal, for Dave QPR, Simon was Manchester United and most importantly for the start of this story James was Leeds United. All about the age of 15, we had the freedom, if not the money to do what we wanted with our Saturday afternoons and for a variety of reasons many of which I forget we started to spend them at Elm Park.
Attending Desborough School, it was likely that we heard that you could go and watch Division Two football for a £1 at Elm Park from one of our many peers who lived in the Twyford/Wargrave area under a scheme known by the acronym SAFE, where seats in the block nearest the Tilehurst End were sold for a pound. Certainly we weren't going out of any affinity to the Royals, indeed what united us was the fact that in an ideal world we would go and watch our own teams but with no one else to go with had to settle for a club that no one had anything against if not anything much in favour.
Despite growing up only twelve miles from Reading and spending much time in the town shopping or playing cricket the football club was something of a mystery. Like every schoolboy I knew three facts: they played at Elm Park, they used to be know as the Biscuitmen, and in 1985 had grabbed the national headlines by smashing Spurs record for consecutive wins from the start of the season. Other than that nothing. The ground was somewhere in the west of the town but I wouldn't have been able to pick it out on a map. I could name the odd player although of course the most famous one Trevor Senior, had recently departed, but realistically they might have played on a different planet. No one I knew in Maidenhead supported them or went to watch them play so it really was a journey into the unknown when James suggested we get SAFE membership and tickets for the visit of Leeds in December 1987.
The SAFE membership came in handy for this particular game as like all Leeds games at the time it was an all ticket affair.The rules were that anyone under 16 could join free of charge, and then buy tickets for a £1, as long as this was done before 11 am on the day of the match. This latter rule meant the odd early start and then a long time hanging around the town centre (often searching for vinyl treasure in Listen Records in the Broad Street Mall) waiting for 3 pm, but generally someone was able to get a load of tickets in advance anyway.
This would have definitely been the case on this occasion as we took the train to Reading which almost certainly Dave would have jumped on as it pulled out of the station such was his fine attention to detail when it came to timekeeping. We then made the first of many long walks down the Oxford Road with all its exotic sights and sounds, not least of which was the Lovecare sex shop.
I can remember little of the match itself which was settled by a John Sheridan penalty, indeed my only memory is of egging on James to run onto the touchline and pick up David Batty's discarded tie up (he didn't) but it must have made a sufficient impression on us all as over the next few seasons, as from this game on we all became regulars to a greater or lesser extent. Quite a few other friends were to join us at matches and I myself went on to be a season ticket holder in two seasons (1989/90 and 1994/95) whilst Dave remains a regular supporter right up to the present day, having held a season ticket for many years. All of which goes to show the value of these schemes, no matter how superficial they may appear.
Maybe it was simply the fact that Reading was a quiet unassuming club (Elm Park the least interesting ground in Britain at the time according to no less an authority Simon Inglis) or that there really was nothing better to do as a group of friends but we were all hooked, returning in the new year for the visit of Southampton in the FA Cup third round.
Oblivious to the fact that this was something of a derby the visit of Southampton offered a little glamour such was their status in Division One at the time wearing a bang on trend Hummel test card strip. In a tight game the Saints won by a single Matt Le Tissier goal in front of 11 and a half thousand. This mattered little to us though as two weeks later we were back for the visit of Shrewsbury, with Reading seeking their first league win in thirteen games.
This game against the Shrews typified the Reading experience and if anything signalled what was attractive about it. For some reason I chose rarely to buy a programme in my first two seasons watching Reading. In part this was due to the price which represented 70% of the cost of a ticket and thus I was at a loss when before the game we mingled freely with the players warming up in front of the stand (likewise at half time the stand would empty as smoking was banned in the wooden structure forcing everyone to puff away pitchside). Therefore unlike Dave I do not posses an autograph of Shrewsbury right back Wayne Williams. Thanks to a smart volleyed goal by Stuart Beavon and helped by a rare red card for opposition defender Richard Green, Reading won the game. This proved to be a rare three points in the fight against relegation.
Reading were in their difficult second season in only their second spell in Division Two, and having lost some key players in the summer were a team in transition. Initial replacements for Senior and Kevin Bremner, Francis Joseph and Colin Gordon were pale in comparison, resulting in a record breaking transfer fee being paid for Steve Moran, although his effectiveness turned out to be in inverse proportion to his growing waistline.More big money was spent to greater effect on the pacy centre back from Bristol City, future England cap, Keith Curle. The rest was a motley collection of journeymen, has beens and never weres, which could only in flashes lift themselves to produce the collective performance necessary to compete at this level. Some players I warmed to for example goalkeeper Steve Francis, full back Linden Jones and utility hard man Mick Tait. Others such as Les Taylor and Martin Hicks passed me by. The one stand out talent though for which it was worth turning out to see was the lightning quick left winger Michael Gilkes. He had pace to burn and even after breaking his leg at Southend a few years later returned to finish well in the nationwide sprint challenge. The "run, run, run, run, Gilkesy" was, along with the "you're so loud you sound like Aldershot" chant something that was definitively Reading regardless of the lack of achievement on the pitch.
As Winter turned into Spring, manager Ian Branfoot again raided the club funds to sign striker Billy Whitehurst, a footballer who seemed more animal than man. At least he was able to make his presence felt as Reading became if nothing else hard to beat as Bruce Rioch's Divison One bound Middlesbrough found out when they came to Elm Park in February and left with a point after a goalless draw.
Regardless of league form light relief was found that season in the form of the Simod Cup. This was a competition for Division One and Two clubs (official title Full Members Cup), notionally introduced to provide football in the absence of European football following the Heysel ban, yet subsequently boycotted by all the big clubs.
In the same way as the League Cup is treated today, the better teams fielded squad XIs and so my first trip to an evening game at Elm Park would be a quarter-final tie against Bradford City, reached after wins against Division One clubs QPR, Oxford United and Nottingham Forest.Despite an early setback when a lax back pass by Curle was punished by John Hendrie, Curle being roundly cursed for his error by the witches from MacBeth sat behind me, Reading equalised through Colin Bailie and won the tie in extra time with a goal from Dean Horrix to set up an Elm Park semi final tie against FA Cup holders Coventry City.
This match at the start of March saw seat tickets rapidly sell out which meant I had to double my outlay to £2 to secure a place on the Tilehurst End to watch Oggy, Speedie, Cyrille, Killer et al. At the time evening games at Elm Park kicked off at 8 pm, with the pressure of a fifteen and a half thousand crowd pushing the start back another fifteen minutes, a delay that would have consequences later on.
Neil Smillie gave Reading the lead early in the second half before David Speedie was given the opportunity to indulge in his favourite hobby of fence climbing by scoring the equaliser. This meant the game went into extra time and with no further score I was unable to stay for the climactic penalty shootout as I had to make the long walk back to the station to catch the last train back to Maidenhead just after 11 o'clock.
I reached home to the news that Reading had won their first semi final for sixty years and would therefore be going to Wembley for the first time in their history. At a time when the play offs were in their infancy this really was an achievement which necessitated a trip to the Post Office to withdraw £9 for a seat ticket, with a rosette purchased in the Butts market ahead of one of the home games in between.
What was ironic was that Reading had reached Wembley without their two first choice cup tied strikers in Moran and Whitehurst. Instead it was reserve Dean Horrix who led the way to Wembley, scoring three goals and despatching his spot kick against Coventry, only to be transferred to Millwall ahead of the final. Tragically Horrix, who grew up in Slough and played in the same Britwell boys team as Steve Richardson and Garry Attrell, was to die in a car accident two years later.
In the weeks leading up to the final Birmingham City and Aston Villa visited Elm Park, the former drawing a humdrum game 1-1 whilst champions elect Villa won comfortably 2-0 in front of a huge away support which ebbed and flowed throughout the game up and down the steepling away terrace.
Cup Final day came at the end of March with Reading given little chance against a Luton Town team poised to shock Arsenal with a sensational League Cup final win in April, and only bow out at the semi-final stage of the FA Cup to eventual winners Wimbledon. With Reading fielding a very makeshift strikeforce of Tait and Gilkes, it appeared to be a case of a simply enjoying the day out when Luton took an early lead.
Then roared on by a support which made up about two thirds of the 61,740 crowd (an astonishing number considering that barely 4,000 home fans went to Elm Park regularly), Reading swiftly overturned the deficit when Gilkes created the legend which led to the song "Gilkesy ran the Luton" as he firstly cut in from the left to score and then win a penalty converted by Beavon.
The second half saw further goals from Smillie and Tait to really cap a great day out, albeit one which proved to be the end of an era, the last flash of glory of the Branfoot regime, confirmed when old stagers Gary Peters and Jerry Williams came off the bench to end their Reading career by strolling around the Wembley turf.
Following the Wembley win the story should have ended with a successful fight against relegation, but the Royals could not reverse the downward league trend. The Simod Cup was paraded at the next home game against Ipswich, another draw of which the lasting memory was Whitehurst regularly laying out rookie Town defender Ulrich Wilson. Another draw on a warm April evening against fellow strugglers Bournemouth, reflected Reading's key problem of a lack of goals and so they were finally relegated in the final game of the season at home to Hull. By then I was back enjoying my summer passion of cricket, listening to the Royals demise on Radio 210, as I scored for Pinkneys Green at the Berkshire County Sports ground at Sonning Lane.
Relegation notwithstanding though, my friends and I would be back in the autumn for the delights of Division Three and ready to make our first visit to the Network South East South Bank enclosure.

My memorabilia from this season can be found here: http://www.tumblr.com/blog/elmparkyears


Paul Kirkwood said...

Great post. As a Reading fan I remember the Simod run well especially the Coventry semi-final which remains probably the most memorable match I've ever been to. Heard you on the Non League Radio Show the other day too.

Have added a link to your blog from mine. Any chance of a reciprocal link?

I've made just the one visit to Maidenhead United - for an FA Cup tie in 2006: http://facupgroundhopper.blogspot.co.uk/2007/04/maidenhead-united-0-stafford-rangers-2.html


Steve said...

Thanks Paul, you may also like the other 8 chapters of the Elm Park years which can all be found on this blog.
Have posted your link on the front page.
You should come back to York Road soon we have a fantastic new stand on the railway side now which opened in the summer.