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, 22 December 2013

The Elm Park Years Part 2: Branfoot out!

As the leaves started to fall from the trees to signal the end of the 1988 cricket season, a return to Elm Park was in prospect. It was time though to leave the North Stand behind and take my place on the South Bank, the covered terrace which stretched the length of the touchline. With the big roof capped by the Courage sign and clock obscuring the faces of those within, it looked a dark mysterious place from which sound would emanate throughout the game, the volume reflecting the intensity of the action on the pitch.
Officially it was known as the Network South East Enclosure, and could only be entered with an electronic membership card, a move championed as visionary by the club in the face of the government's growing demands for football to "to put its house in order" by introducing a compulsory ID card scheme. At Elm Park at least this proved largely a cosmetic measure as a card was easily obtained and tended to be passed around friends regularly. Even at the turnstile if the reader gave a red signal the turnstile operator would merely shrug his shoulders and wave you through, and of course traffic between the South Bank and Tilehurst End was fairly free flowing.
The first time I turned off Norfolk Road and walked up the steep hill through the car park at the back of the away end to the South Bank was for a midweek game against Southend in September 1988. Although on the surface hopes were high of a quick return to Division Two, the fact that the only close season signing was lower division utility player Karl Elsey rather gave the lie to Chairman Roger Smee's claims about having the biggest budget in the division. So the response to starting the season without a league win in the first four games had been to sign another uitility journey man Irvin Gernon and non league boy wonder Keith Knight. Striker Billy Whitehurst had quickly departed under a cloud prompting a mercifully brief return to the first team of Colin Gordon. 
Starting the game bottom of the league, my appearance at the game clearly inspired the players as they ran out 4-0 winners, man of the match Knight scoring on his debut.More importantly the game enabled me to take stock of my new surroundings and decide where I would be watching most of my football for the next three seasons. On passing through the turnstiles you were presented with a letter box view of the pitch and could pass yourself through exits to the right or the left side of the terrace. 
On first impression the left side offered the better prospect, with no fence to obscure the view, but this was contrasted by a distinct lack of atmosphere, aside from when a controversial decision was made by the officials and the moral majority that occupied this part of the ground roared into life. 
Much more exciting was the right side, fenced in with spikes to deter anyone thinking of invading the pitch, the roof echoing to the sound of the Elm Park songbook. With crowds normally amounting to just four and a half thousand during this period there was no trouble finding a spot which just about allowed you to see the whole pitch and feel right in the middle of the atmosphere, singing along until the ball hit the back of the net. 
If Reading scored it was time to jump around and watch the charge down to the front to see who could clamber up the fence and punch the air whilst hanging on to the spikes, waiting for the stewards we knew as Chief Chirpa and Pigsy to come along and wave everyone down with a broad grin. An opposition goal though sparked howls of outrage and aggression directed at the usually sparse away end, all couched in an environment where anything goes secure behind a fence and a line of stewards and/or police.
Every game the ritual was the same. The mythical Gerry was our leader, though I never actually knew who he was. Every game we would try in vain to get Ray Ilsley arrested as he did his weekly safety check, though we never saw Chief Steward Clive Goddard attempt to escort his colleague from the ground.. A newcomer in our group would lead to a running gag about who brought the song sheets after one occasion when someone asked how people knew what to sing. Occasionally there was an introduction to part of Reading's recent past when an infamous player returned to Elm Park for example Ron Futcher (boo), Nicky Cross (up the bum) or Clive Walker (flasher). In short it was an education and once I'd sampled a game from the right side of the bank I wasn't going to watch Reading anywhere else.
After Southend results picked up and my next visit coincided with the return of local hero, Trevor Senior. A lower division goal machine, Senior had made the inevitable move up to Division One, but unlike his predecessor Kerry Dixon could not continue his form, so returned home after disappointing spells at Watford and Middlesbrough. Any doubt about the esteem in which he was held at Elm Park was removed by the way the gate increased by 50% for his re-introduction to the Royal colours against Mansfield. As he ran out he was stopped by a young fan offering a good luck charm. The game was won with a Stuart Beavon penalty (a rarity this season as the once reliable spot kick taker seemed to lose his killer instinct after being required to miss in the climactic episode of the Manageress drama series filmed at Elm Park), Micky Tait seeing red in the dying minutes.
The attack was further boosted by the signing of Scotsman Mike Conroy and both him and Senior were to play vital roles in what was the first genuinely thrilling game of football I had seen at Elm Park. Bristol Rovers were the visitors, with their sizeable travelling following meaning the game felt like a derby. Conroy scored twice in a 3-1 win but what made the game was the departure of Steve Francis with a broken arm in the second half. Who else but Senior pulled on the green jersey, making some decent saves as the Royals continued their rise up the table.
Going into November in 5th position it seemed that promotion was on but the evidence of the following month showed the real limitations of the squad, not least when the hapless Gary Phillips was brought into replace Francis. On his home debut against Brentford he squandered a first minute lead by throwing one in against the club he had joined Reading from in the summer. Knight rescued a point after the Bees had gone into the lead, but when the next home game against Preston took a similar turn it was clear that although the pace of Michael Gilkes would unsettle any team, the defence was too shaky to secure all three points on a regular basis.
This became all too clear in Reading's distinctly shambolic FA Cup run to the 4th round. First up were Hendon who despite going 2-0 behind found a way back with young striker Iain Dowie leading the line. An equaliser spurred Reading to reassert their superiority and go on to win 4-2, but in the next round Football League bound Maidstone United earned a replay, the only benefit of which was that it attracted the Sportsnight cameras down to Watling Street which meant I could watch Reading sneak past the Stones 2-1 from the comfort of my living room.
The run of fortunate draws continued as Fourth Division Tranmere Rovers were held at Prenton Park before being narrowly beaten at Elm Park in a replay. John King's nascent team from Birkenhead ran Reading ragged for much of the game but the warning went unheeded as when once again a fourth division team in the form of Grimsby were held away in the fourth round, even the prospect of a tie away at FA Cup holders Wimbledon couldn't inspire the Royals to produce the goods. 
Confident that a win was elementary I had already worked out my route to Plough Lane in the couple of days between the first game at Blundell Park and the replay but a weak Gilkes backpass provided Grimsby with the chance they needed to deservedly win the game and send the Harry Haddock inflatables in the away end skyward, whilst the South Bank exploded in rage at the loss of an opportunity to liven up an increasingly mediocre season. 
In the meantime, league form had stabilised with the addition of centre back Mark Whitlock to the team, whose portly appearance belied the fact that he could play a bit, at last plugging the gap left by Keith Curle's autumn departure to Wimbledon. Still the visit of Wolves in January showed the deficiencies in the Reading team as the men in Old Gold brushed aside the Royals in a 2-0 win en route to back to back titles. They didn't even need the services of goal machine Steve Bull, with strike partner Andy Mutch scoring both goals. Bull though showed his talent in flashes brushing aside the Reading defence with his big frame at walking pace.
Spring saw my first away trips in more ways than one. A short trip up the M4 to Brentford with Dad's work mate Bill led to my first meeting as an away fan with the Met Police, their aggressive attitude to football supporters giving an inkling of the awful events to follow in April. On a packed uncovered terrace behind the goal I could just about see Senior's stunning volley from a tight angle to equalise but Reading went on to lose by the odd goal in five. 
Two weeks later and I had rather more room when I went in to the away end at Elm Park for the first and only time as Dave and his Dad wanted to reconnect with their Welsh roots. Naturally Reading won 2-0 so I had to keep silent with my abiding memory being looking over the wall behind me to see a urinal open to the elements.
This was Easter weekend so Monday was derby day and a trip to Aldershot by train. This game went to stereotype with the relegation destined Shots playing above themselves to hold the Royals to a draw as I stood on a packed Kop split between the two sets of supporters.
These three away experiences were totally uneventful in contrast to the bleak picture painted by the media of football supporters as some kind of lower life form which made fans social pariahs at the time. This was brought home to the population at large in the most appalling and tragic way at Hillsborough on 15th April when Liverpool fans were crushed to death in what was literally a death trap. The mendacious response of the establishment to this loss of life served to increase the pain of those who suffered a loss, a response which took the best part of a quarter of a century to redact. 
Reading had a home game the following Wednesday against Wigan and all I could do was attend and bear witness to the fact the sport would continue, pointlessly throwing coins in a collection bucket before observing a minutes silence. I have never felt worse at a game of football. No one cheered or sung, everyone seemed to stand there in reflective silence, doubtless pondering their own fate looking at the tiny couple of gates that had appeared in the fence at the front of the South Bank. Two tiny exits four feet off the floor. Barely room for me to scramble my small frame through, whilst hundreds would have been behind me also trying to get, out with no thought given to what happened pitchside once I'd flopped out the other side. An utterly shameful state which was allowed to arise by those responsible for spectator safety seeing their charges as little better than animals, a fact even more horrifying considering what had happened at Bradford and Heysel only four years earlier.
Wigan won the game 3-0 which in terms of the league table meant the season would end as a relegation battle. This was unexpected as when goalkeeper Francis had returned to the team at the start of April the season seemed to be winding down nicely with consecutive wins over Port Vale and Huddersfield pointing to a final place in the lower mid table. Another home defeat the following Saturday against Gillingham revealed the league position of fourteenth was something of a false one.The run of losses stretched to five by the time of the final home league game of the season against Bristol City and now supporters were either voting with their feet as the crowd dipped below the four thousand mark or voicing their displeasure if they continued to attend. Protest was very much the theme of the day as Reading lost their sixth consecutive game. Not only manager Branfoot but also chairman Smee were targeted as following a mid game sit down protest everyone stormed round to Norfolk Road to continue to vent their spleen after the game. When it became clear this was something of a pointless gesture, the mob quickly dwindled much to the content of the policeman stood near me who expressed a concern that the dogs would be let loose "and they can't tell the difference between a uniform and a pair of jeans".
The following week I tuned into Radio 210 and by half time it seemed that all was lost as relegation rivals Chesterfield had a two goal lead but manager Ian Branfoot earned his corn with his interval speech to send the team out to score four goals and rescue the season with a last ditch comeback.
Despite the general air of frustration at the mediocrity that was being served up on a regular basis however my friends and I only grew in our devotion to cause. As I finished my GCSEs I got a job at Maidenhead's brand new Waitrose, so flush with the prospect of disposable income for the first time in my life I ignored the fact that Ian Branfoot was allowed to continue bumbling along with a raggle taggle squad of journeymen, and bought a season ticket.
Of course the fact that this was only £40 helped, I was also now guaranteed a ticket for all the big Cup games that would follow, fully foreseeing a return trip to Wembley. Naive optimism aside, the Elm Park crowd was one which was good to be part of, full of knowing cynicism and gallows humour, reflected in the fanzines that had sprung up. The first one to catch my attention was Elm Park Disease, a good read but rather earnest. This was soon eclipsed by Taking the Biscuit a publication which fully fitted the Private Eye style satire which was the stock in trade of the best of football fanzines, and one which was completely at odds with the petty officialdom which characterised Reading FC as much as any other club across the country.
The nemesis of the fanzines at Reading was the club's General Manager Annie Bassett, whose ardently Thatcherite approach in seeing the price of everything and the value of nothing was accompanied by a frequent sense of humour failure. Frequently expressing in strident tones that terrace revenue only made up 40% of the club's income, her gaping deficiency in the customer relations department was revealed when fans turning up to watch wearing a Reading FC 1989/90 Tour T Shirt were turned away on the basis that it came with the headline "Mission Impossible", which despite the evidence of the previous twelve months was deemed to be too negative. 
It didn't take long to see who was right as Reading won just two of their opening twelve league games. This was hardly surprising as the only summer additions to the squad had been David Leworthy and Darren Wood. Leworthy who started his career with Tottenham was one of those likeable hardworking strikers who never scored goals. Centre back Wood was a little more promising but did have a worrying habit of standing off the attacker and gambling that the ball would land before he played it. Add in deadline day buy Lee Payne, as uninspiring a left winger as the Labour leader at the time Neil Kinnock and there was little to give confidence that a promotion run could be mounted. There was hope though in a couple of promising players from the youth set in Ady Williams and Scott Taylor.
Any lingering discontent from the previous season's great escape disappeared briefly thanks to a couple of thrilling League Cup ties.In the first round Reading were drawn against Bristol City and the first leg saw my first trip on the supporters coach. Against the odds Reading won 3-2 at Ashton Gate with Michael Gilkes scoring a hat trick in his new position up front partnering Senior. Gilkes scored again in the second leg as Reading scraped home with a 2-2 draw to win 5-4 on aggregate to draw Newcastle United in the next round. The Magpies were then in the second division but it was still something of a shock when Reading ran out 3-1 winners in the first leg at Elm Park. Buoyed with the enthusiasm at this win my friends Mark and Simon decided to bunk off school to travel up to St. James Park for the second leg and were duly rewarded with a 4-0 thrashing.
Back in the league it wasn't until mid October that Reading managed their second league win and that was only thanks to a last minute Ronnie Mauge own goal in a 3-2 victory at home to Fulham. The following week a trip to Leyton Orient provided the added opportunity to stock up on fanzines at Sportspages but this provided to be the highlight of the day as Reading were soundly beaten 4-1. One fan summed up the state of affairs by shouting out "Ian Branfoots Blue & White Boxer Shorts" and a few days later the sack followed. 
Having missed all of his success apart from the Simod Cup I was not sorry to see him go. Along with Smee and Bassett he seemed part of a club establishment that seemed rooted in the past. Something had to change. The question was, would removing the weakest part of this unholy trinity make any difference?

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

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