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, 23 February 2014

Chelmsford 1, 2, 3-0 to Maidenhead

I was expecting nothing from a trip to Chelmsford yesterday either in terms of the match or the day itself and therefore at the start of the season had penciled in a first trip to Colchester's new ground on this date. However the sheer novelty of watching Maidenhead play on a Saturday for only the second time in 2014 meant I got off the train a little earlier than initially planned. The warm sunny weather was certainly welcome as was the sight of the ground improvements at Melbourne Park since my last visit three seasons ago. With a terraced end (one covered) directly behind each goal it felt more like a football ground and slightly lessened the impact of the athletics stadium. Off the pitch I was impressed by what must be the slickest operation in non league football in terms of their hospitality for all comers whether they be officials or paying supporters, and of course the programme remains of a quality that could grace the Premier League (no idea how they make that pay though).
Before the match Drax had been quite bullish in his approach to the game, saying that he would be going all out for a win in the local paper. This looked a little unlikely due to the lack of striking options on the team sheet but as it turned out was an accurate prediction.
Kicking off into the wind on an understandably heavy surface which was soon covered in divots, Maidenhead were initially made to work hard by a Chelmsford team eager to continue their much improved form under new manager Mark Hawkes. However by failing to create any on target goal attempts, the home team set their tone for the afternoon. In contrast once Maidenhead began to bring the ball forward, their incisive passing was backed up by some ruthless finishing which virtually decided the results in a four minute spell around the quarter hour mark.
Leon Solomon opened the scoring in the thirteenth minute with a shot from the right flank which curled round the keeper Carl Pentney and into the back of the net. Three minutes later, Adrian Clifton, who had an impressive game in the false nine role, slotted in a slide rule pass which split the Chelmsford defence. Harry Grant who was playing off Clifton's left shoulder ran through to collect the ball and apply the finishing touch to double the score.
Maidenhead almost put themselves out sight with their next attack when Grant returned the favour for Clifton, only for Pentney to scramble his near post effort off the line. Chelmsford responded by methodically bringing the ball forward but barring a couple of efforts that were blocked in the penalty area scarcely looked like troubling Elvijs Putnins in the Maidenhead goal. Not that you would have thought this was the case if you closed your eyes as the Chelmsford fans continually erupted in howls of outrage at the referee which was marked by the lack of any protest from the home team players.
By contrast Maidenhead always looked likely to add to their tally and Clifton's industrious afternoon continued to go unrewarded when he headed a Danny Green corner from the right onto the woodwork at the far post six minutes ahead of the break.
Little changed when the teams changed ends. Magpie debutant Tyrell Miller-Rodney who gave an unfussy efficient performance sat in front of the central defence throughout, really started to shine as he began to get forward firing in a shot which Pentney could only push behind for a corner early in the second half. From the resulting corner Clifton then capped an unlucky day in front of goal when this time having  hit the back of the net with his header saw the referee rule it out for a foul.
Chelmsford continued to enjoy periods of pressure with no meaningful end result bar a Justin Miller effort which Putnins had to tip over the bar.
Three Maidenhead substitutions injected some much need life to a team faced with an energy sapping surface to maintain a counter attacking threat as Mark Nisbet and Jacob Erskine continued to deal effectively with anything Chelmsford could throw at them. The Magpies attacking ambition finally paid dividends in the final minute of stoppage time when Miller-Rodney delightfully nutmegged defender Christian Smith before squaring the ball to Jonathan Constant to score with a tap in with virtually the first touch of the Maidenhead career.
There was nothing flattering about this scoreline which accurately reflected Chelmsford's impotence and Maidenhead's ruthlessness when going forward. A first United win at Melbourne Park at the seventh attempt was a great tonic, taking the team out of the bottom three and hopefully revitalising the fight against relegation after two poor recent results.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Elm Park Years Part 7: Mark McGhee is Magic

"Mark McGhee is magic,
He wears a magic hat,
And when he saw the Championship,
He said I'm having that"
Anon, The South Bank 1993/94

The joy of watching football is contained in its unpredictability. Regardless of the number of games that end in their expected outcome there are enough that don't to sustain even the faintest of hopes of upsetting the odds. By contrast then, what made watching Reading romp to the 1994 Division Two title so enjoyable was that it was a rare example of everything going to plan. The rarity of the near perfect season, especially at Elm Park, in itself was a brilliant example of an outsider upsetting the odds.
The Royals essentially led the way from start to finish, and barring the odd slip, like me graduated with second division honours at the end of the season. The title was also a great reward for me and the other 2.000 or so fans who were still going to Elm Park in 1991, who loyally stood by Mark McGhee as he slowly built a team that could deliver his vision of free flowing winning football. Watching for the first time in years, the highlights video of the season, I was struck by the high quality of Reading's play, notably their passing and high tempo counter attacking, all finished off by some glorious goals from the wise experience of Jimmy Quinn and the youthful boldness of Stuart Lovell.
It was hardly a surprise that Reading hit the ground running. They were the form team at the end of the previous season with McGhee only adding two full backs to his squad over the summer. The right sided one Ray Ranson was to remain a figure as peripheral as his position but his partner on the other flank Dylan Kerr proved to be the one ingredient that was required to turn a good team into a great one, his cheeky character and ability to score from long range adding a new dimension to the side.
Michael Gilkes was now the only remaining member of the Simod Cup winning squad, with Steves Richardson and Francis having moved on in the summer, and it was a mark of the development of the team that Gilkes' talent was now only one of the reasons which made a trip to Elm Park an attractive one, and certainly not the most important. Aside from forwards Quinn and Lovell, and player of the year Kerr, there was super keeper Shaka Hislop, steely defenders Jeff Hopkins and Ady Williams, brave hearted midfielders Phil Parkinson and Mick Gooding, whilst Gilkes' pace was matched on the right by Scott Taylor. A particular favourite player of mine though was Kevin Dillon, a sublime passer of the ball who also possessed a short fuse which could liven up the dullest of games.
The power and resilience of the team was already in evidence at the early season home games I attended. First up were Burnley, probably the biggest team in the division, Reading edging home 2-1 in a tense finish to a game having looked comfortable following an impressive first half. I wasn't able to buy a programme for this game, a feature which was common throughout this season and reflected the ever improving attendances.
A month later Plymouth Argyle came to Elm Park in what was the match of the season. Argyle along with Reading and ironically the next visitors to Berkshire, Hull City, formed the top three answers to the question about which places in England had never produced a top flight football club. With Plymouth being managed by Peter Shilton they were expected to be serious title contenders, and their big travelling support saw their team go toe to toe with Reading in a five goal thriller which was decided by my favourite ever Elm Park goal, a late shot from distance by the maestro Quinn.
With two promotion rivals beaten my return north to university meant my next Reading game would be against a third, Port Vale who were unbeaten at home to that point. My first and so far only trip to the Wembley of the north saw Reading give a virtuoso performance, the best I saw that season, completely dismantling their opponents 4-0 in front of over 9,000 spectators. Four days later I took advantage of a new late night train service from Manchester Airport which guaranteed I could get home from Rotherham. I might as well have left early as Reading gave away a 2-0 lead . Still it was point on the road and travelling back over the Pennines in a bus on rail tracks I met Paul, another student based in Manchester with whom I was to share many a happy trip to and from Reading games.
Its amazing to look back now and think that I went to games all over the country in the knowledge that I would bump into someone I knew without needing to use any form of the yet to be invented social media, indeed I didn't even have a landline in my student house, let alone a mobile phone. I could go along to games not having to worry about buying a ticket in advance, knowing I would find someone to have a drink with and share part of my journey so that a post mortem on the match could be conducted. A deaf Reading fan called Chris would also come along with Paul from Manchester, whilst depending on the location of the away game I would usually meet a friend from the Thames Valley who was studying locally.
However my next trip was back home and the opportunity to go to the game at the Goldstone Ground. Reading beat Brighton with a solitary goal from Scott Taylor to hit the top of the table for the first time in mid November. Back up north Reading really showed their cool against eventual play off winners Burnley at a packed Turf Moor. Mick Gooding had given Reading the lead, but when the Royals went down to ten men with the dismissal of on loan full back Paul Humphrey, the Clarets sensed a way back laying siege to the Reading defence guarding the cricket field end. Eager to keep up the momentum, veteran striker Adrian Heath chipped the ball back to goalkeeper Hislop after a foul. Shaka stood tall and watched with hands by his side as the ball sailed over his six and a half foot frame. This led the referee to book Heath for time wasting and as he had already been cautioned a red card followed. The ground erupted in fury aside from the laughing away section as Inchy eventually traipsed off the pitch.
Personally I had now seen the Royals take 25 out of 27 points from the matches I had attended, with no defeats so had no doubt that what I was watching had serious title potential. This ambition was confirmed by no less an authority than Neil Warnock who brought his Huddersfield team to Elm Park, the week before Christmas. Colin clearly set out his stall to park the bus, in what was something of a compliment considering the Terriers' preeminence in the previous two seasons, albeit a frustrating one to watch from the South Bank.
Winter intervened to stop a long anticipated return to Twerton Park for the Boxing Day Holiday fixture against Bristol Rovers, the news of relegation coming over the airwaves as we turned off the M4, but this proved to be fortuitous as it meant the team would be 100% fit for the visit of second placed Stockport County to Elm Park the next day. The crowds flocked to the ground in such numbers that the gates of the South Bank and Tilehurst End were closed, leaving many to stand in the away end, where home fans soon outnumbered those from the north. Reading rose to the occasion, winning comfortably 2-0 to create the surreal sight of the Town end erupting with joy at a Reading goal, as the South Bank sang "seven points clear".
This buffer proved to be useful on New Year's Day when I finally managed to see a game at Ninian Park, four years after a previous January 1st visit ended in the car park with news of a postponement. A struggling Cardiff really saw the fans turn out for them that day, over ten thousand turning up to see the league leaders fall to a 3-0 defeat and send the Bob Bank into much beating of heads as they repeatedly did the Ayatollah. Yet the most memorable incident came when a Reading player went down injured in front of the Cardiff fans. Dillon took exception to their comments and decided to strike the free kick as hard as he could from the touchline into the packed terrace. Fortunately we didn't have far to walk back to the car after the game.
Back at Elm Park Reading got back to winning ways with a hard fought victory over dark horses York City and a rather more comfortable one over doomed Hartlepool United, the corresponding away game with the latter being my next trip to see the Royals, which even given my residence in Preston was a long one.
The game at the north eastern Victoria Ground has since been immortalised in Harry Pearson's book the Far Corner, and for me standing on the chilly open terrace behind the goal with the length of the pitch to my right undeveloped and open to the harsh elements of the North Sea over the road, it became the day I was immortalised on film for the end of season video, although I expect I'm the only one who can make myself out stood next to Russ Marlin and Graham Luckett. Just over two thousand saw the Royals sail to victory and keep the title ship on course, not that this bothered the youths outside the ground at a nearby bus stop. When reminded of the scoreline they simply replied "fuck off we're Man U".
All roads now pointed to Plymouth, who now presented themselves as the Royals' main challengers. Fortunately I had a friend at college there so along with former school mates now studying in Birmingham and London we descended on Richard's house for the weekend. Our host was full of tales about the notorious Lyndhurst stand and they duly delivered behaviour which turns my stomach to this day. On loan Ray Wallace made his debut for the Royals at Home Park and his unfamiliarity with his teammates was pounced on by Plymouth early in the game as they took what proved to be an unassailable lead and ran out 3-1 winners. All this was put into the shade by the racist abuse hurled at Hislop in the Reading goal although this aspect of the Lyndhurst proved to have a happy ending later in the season when Burnley winger John Francis turned to them and literally aped their behaviour as he gave an inspired performance for the Clarets which saw the home team knocked out of the play offs.
At half time a line of police dog handlers emerged to stand between the home and away fans. I asked Richard, who occasionally attended Plymouth home games what was happening and he replied knowingly "you'll see". As the second half kicked off the Lyndhurst did the same, making a concerted attempt to break through the police line to get to the Reading fans. Only one made it, a man mountain who charged towards the away end which was protected by the usual massive fence. As he came closer it was clear that he wasn't going to stop, almost as if he expected the fence to disappear. Fortunately his magic powers deserted him and he crashed straight into the barrier, falling into arms of the waiting constabulary. It always makes me smile when I see them struggling at the bottom of the Football League, now far and away the biggest English city that has not hosted top flight football.
I soon saw Reading  get back on track, returning to the top of the table with an accomplished win at Hull in the sun courtesy of a classic Quinn double. Before kick off I met John Madejski for the one and only time as he wandered along the away terrace, exchanging plesantries and thanking us for making the trip, which was long enough even from Lancashire. This win came in the midst of a mini slump which saw Reading slip to second for the only time in the latter half of the season. Reading's dominance could not be shaken even by a defeat courtesy of a missed penalty by Quinn at York at the end of March on a Tuesday night when I took advantage of the late train home for the final time. Easter brought an accomplished win over Bristol Rovers, Quinn redeeming himself with a superb turn and strike to open the scoring in a 2-0 victory, and three points at Barnet on a freezing evening when Hislop had so little to do it was rumored that he almost caught hypothermia. The sight of the finishing line brought with it nervy draws at home to struggling Cardiff and Rotherham to set up a thrilling end to the season. Firmly believing it would go down to the wire I bought my ticket for the final game of the season at Bournemouth securing a promise of accommodation with Mark in Portsmouth, appropriate seeing as we had been to so many games together over the past five years.
Reading remained seven points clear at the top of the table but fourth placed Stockport could cut the distance to a point if they won their three games in hand. The clubs would meet at Edgeley Park but on my return up north for my final term at university, worries about this clash were allayed by a storming 4-0 defeat of Blackpool at Bloomfield Road. Saluting and receiving appreciation from all parts of the ground at the final whistle this was the moment when in my eyes the team won the title. Full of confidence we waved them off safe in the knowledge that they were in top form for the game at County the following Thursday.
The tiny Cheshire ground felt jam packed as I made my way onto the flattish away end with for the first time two companions from university. It turned out I had being living round the corner from a girl from Reading for two years and she knew another student who was a Readingensian. I had met my first Reading glory hunters of the new era. As we made the journey south she regaled us with tales of sexual favours given to Archie Lovell so it was good to know she had done her bit for team morale.
The game itself was predictably, constantly being aimed goalwards at County's six foot seven striker Kevin "Twiglet" Francis, the tallest player in the football league. Despite much pressure at times, Reading more than held their own with who else but Gooding scoring to earn a point and put the title within reach.
Just two days later Reading claimed the championship with a 2-0 win over Brighton. I was sat at home in Preston when the result came through but Mark did his bit, invading the pitch at the end and being the first to congratulate Ady Williams. This left what would now be a promotion party at Bournemouth, an evening of celebration where the result meant nothing. Reading fans took over the ground, not only was the away end full but the covered terrace along the side was also given over to Royals supporters in what was dubbed the glory hunters section, with us hardcore early adopters stood in the rain behind the goal. The Cherries ran out deserved 2-1 winners although Reading did equalise when a Gilkes cross was tapped in at the far post by a fan who jumped onto the pitch to score in one of those trompe l'oeil moments. Still the final whistle gave me the opportunity for a pitch invasion, with the Hampshire constabulary soon giving up any hope of keeping back the crowds to allow us to conquer Dean Court.
On my return north two days later I stopped off at Reading dropped my overnight bag in left luggage and popped off to Elm Park for one final time. The occasion was a friendly against Genoa, arranged so that Reading fans had an opportunity to see the championship trophy handed over to club captain Keith McPherson, and salute their heroes one last time. The match took place in driving rain with the Italians winning 4-1 as McGhee took the opportunity to give all the playing staff and even himself the chance to have a run out and accept the cheers of the crowd. For once watching the game on my own it was a time for contemplation. Like my degree course, McGhee's graduation from Division Three had taken three seasons and had been worth every minute. Adding the trials and tribulations under Branfoot and Porterfield since relegation in 1988, not to mention the financial strife off the pitch, it was a remarkable achievement both in its scale and manner. Surely it couldn't get any better than this?

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Finney and the MK Enigma

Maidenhead United's ongoing flood break presented an ideal opportunity to make my annual trip to watch Preston North End on Tuesday night as they visited MK Dons. Once it became clear the weather had settled down enough for at least professional football to continue, it looked like I had a smooth evening. There was a conveniently timed direct train from Shepherd's Bush to Bletchley, and the Dons' website had allowed me to buy a ticket for the away end for collection from the stadium box office so all was well as I boarded the train at ten to six.
However I'd been on the move for only a few minutes when the driver announced the train would be terminating at Watford Junction. No problem there would be plenty of trains to Bletchley I thought until I discovered that all services leaving Euston had been suspended due to a death at Milton Keynes. This was the second time this had happened to me in a month. I turned back at Paddington at the end of January when I realised I would miss the kick off at York Road for the Weston-super-mare match, this time however I had already bought a match ticket so had little choice but to plough on. Having waited for the best part of an hour a Bletchley train arrived and I got to my destination shortly after kick off.
Thanks to the official MK Dons Twitter account I knew where my ticket was waiting so after getting the first cab off the Bletchley station rank I was able to pick it up and sprint round to the away entrance and use the automated turnstile in time to only miss the first quarter of an hour. With the game goalless this meant the only event of note that I missed was the opportunity to pay my respects to the late Tom Finney.
Although it was pleasing to see an appropriate amount of media coverage of the footballing Knight, it was a shame that some of it was used to push a journalist's own agenda and perpetuate a myth or two. The simple fact of the matter was that Finney was one of the greatest footballers the game has produced anywhere in the world and naturally the people of Preston loved him for it. In the words of his peer at great rivals Blackpool Stanley Matthews: "To dictate the pace and course of a game, a player has to be blessed with awesome qualities. Those who have accomplished it on a regular basis can be counted on the fingers of one hand – Pele, Maradona, Best, Di Stefano, and Tom Finney.", whilst his North End team mate Bill Shankly simply described him as “the greatest footballer ever”.
I suspect Matthews would have added Cristiano Ronaldo to his list had he lived to see the Real Madrid talisman flourish so imagine if you will a middling Premier League club, coming from a smaller conurbation than the biggest clubs, which would rarely trouble the end of season honours board but could still hold its own. Maybe Norwich would be a good current comparison. Now imagine Ronaldo spending his entire career at Carrow Road and you have the situation which led to Finney's team mate Tommy Docherty recalling how the North End team would often be described as "a plumber and ten leaks".
Finney was of course known as the Preston plumber as this was his trade outside of the game. So next consider Ronaldo running  a similar business a short walk from the ground right up to his retirement, maintaining his involvement with the club and regularly attending matches. This explains why Finney became such an icon in the town of Preston. He represented an all time world class talent who never forgot his roots.
Yet amazing as this was it is not enough for some who seek to mythologize Finney in order to express their disgust for the modern footballer, citing Finney's war record and refusal to accept a lucrative offer from Palermo. However the truth shows Finney was as much a human as the rest of us and in my eyes all the better for it.
Simon Kuper inteviewed Finney for his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe during the Second World War, asking him about the War Cup Final of 1941, when Preston beat Arsenal. Wasn’t it odd, he asks, to play the final in bombed-out London? ‘I wasn’t all that interested in the war when I was playing,’ Finney answers. ‘I was only 18. And the main concern was to go down and beat them . . . I wasn’t really all that interested . . . I mean, other than the fact that we wanted England to win the war.’ 
As for the move to Palermo, the power clubs had over their players meant Finney never had the opportunity to reject it himself instead the Preston chairman Nat Buck dismissed it out of hand saying "If tha' doesn't play for us, tha' doesn't play for anybody." However it was Finney himself who took the offer to his Chairman after a discussion with his wife Elsie, musing it would take ten years at North End to earn what he could get in a year in Italy.
Indeed having lost a significant chunk of his career to the war and the opportunity to become financially comfortable for life, his continued commitment to the Preston cause and general air of humility only serves to make him a more admirable individual and explain one of the most heartwarming events I have ever seen at a football ground. 
I regularly attended Deepdale in the early 90s and by the 1993/94 season the club was starting to experience something of a resurgence in Division Four under the management of John Beck. As part of this revival home fans replaced away fans at the Town End, a covered terrace behind the goal which was a lot smaller than the opposite Kop and therefore generated a better atmosphere. It was there that I stood when Sir Tom brought one of his great grandchildren to the game, introducing him to the crowd before kick off. Given a ball the toddler started to kick it towards the Town End goal, and the whole ground started to cheer as he eventually emulated his great grandfather by hitting the back of the net.
Who knows what Finney would  have made of Milton Keynes Dons, a manufactured club which looks the part in a magnificent stadium but like their new town peers Crawley and Stevenage are basically treading water in Division Three. The attendance last night was reported as being over seven thousand but I doubt that half that figure were actually at the match, the rows of empty seats belying the fact that the club has not had time to grow a support to match its surroundings. Of course this is all due to the egregious manner in which the Dons arrived in Buckinghamshire, the irony being that, if like Crawley and Stevenage, local businessmen had poured money into a new non league club, in all probability they would have climbed to the same level pretty quickly but would occupy a ground built up as the ground grading required to accommodate a growing but still small support.
It was easy to see why Stadium MK had been shortlisted as part of the doomed England World Cup 2018 bid. I like the way you enter onto a balcony overlooking the pitch, with the lower tier built into the ground. The club marketing and customer service was also excellent but I was a little perturbed by the passport size photos of children which decorated the walls resembling a memorial to innocents of some unknown genocide. Above all there is a wonderful feeling of space and light, and unpleasant walk to the station aside I would love to see a proper club host a game here in a packed stadium.
Instead hampered by an inevitably heavy pitch which looked quite cut up I was served the usual lower division Football League fare of bags of physical effort, sound technique but little in the way of goals. Preston were the better team for the seventy five minutes I watched, although could not be said to dominate, with the result in the balance til the end. The second half produced more in the way of goalmouth action. For Preston Keith Keane came closest when he hit the post, whilst at the other end makeshift defender Jake King headed a Daniel Powell effort off the line after goalkeeper Declan Rudd had a rush of blood to the head and ended up well out of his penalty area.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Elm Park Years Part 6: It was 2.45, the place was alive

A new regime in any walk of life will go through three stages to try and create success: firstly they'll stabilise and assess the situation, secondly they'll implement change, and finally they'll see the consequences. Personally the second stage is the most exciting as you begin to see the potential of what might happen, commonly as part of a small group of people who are first to witness this. This is as true of football as any other organisation and the Madejski/McGhee revolution at Reading in the early 90s neatly fitted this model into three seasons.  1991/92 whilst not quite a relegation battle had seen the Royals remain in the bottom half of division three until they sneaked into the top half right at the death to finish twelfth. Having done this against a background of financial austerity, McGhee was given the opportunity to start to build his team and reduce his reliance on loan signings.
A significant part of the wage bill was freed up with the departure of Trevor Senior Linden Jones, Craig Maskell, Danny Bailey, Floyd Streete and David Leworthy allowing McGhee to make what in hindsight was an amazing quartet of signings in Tom Jones, Jimmy Quinn, Phil Parkinson and Jeff Hopkins. They would be donning a new shirt as the club reverted to a classic strip of simple blue and white hoops so not only would they play like a half decent team they would look like one too. For me this was a perfect set up as I prepared to start my second year at university (rather like the Football League Polytechnics had been upgraded over the summer in the same way Reading were now in Division Two thanks to the start of the Premier League), planning my away trips alongside visits to friends now studying across the country, pausing from reading historical documents to note down the essential travel information from the library's edition of the current British Rail timetable.
Before I paint too rosy a picture of this season though, Reading rather flattered to deceive in the opening month, having to wait six games for the first win of the season when Jimmy Quinn introduced himself to the Elm Park crowd with a brace of goals in a 3-1 win over Rotherham United. 
The previous home game against Hull City had seen the club unveil its new marketing strategy directed by Madejski placeman Kevin Girdler. Girdler had  recorded a pleasingly cheesy "Royal Anthem" full of tacky studio stylings and la, la, las. The track was a welcome addition to the pre match entertainment unlike one innovation which lasted just one game. For the visit of the Tigers a warm up man who seemed to have walked straight off the set of The Comedians, scuttled round the pitch shouting "wahey" into a microphone in between making a dire attempt at banter with the Hull players warming up which reached its nadir when he approached their Northern Irish goalkeeper and asked "Fettis, that sounds like something you give birth to". Needless to say Hull went onto win a contentious game thanks in no small part to the return of referee Clive Wilkes almost exactly twelve months since he was last the object of the crowds' ire.
Shrugging off this failure the Elm Park marketing team were provided with an open goal when McGhee plucked goalkeeper Shaka Hislop from American college football. Clearly marked as a successor to the long serving Steve Francis, Hislop was given an early opportunity to impress in a League Cup trip to Watford. Reading had received a rare bye in the first round thanks to the demise of Maidstone United, a bizarre attempt to keep the club alive by moving it to the North East coming to nought. Hislop had already played three league games to inspire a "Shaka can" marketing campaign on local radio, and the visit to Vicarage Road was the night he proved to me he could potentially be a better option than Francis who with the departure of Jones had stepped into the void to fill my favourite player vacancy.
Having wandered around the allotments in the pouring rain we were rewarded with the cover of the Rookery End with unusually the away fans being given rather better treatment the home supporters who had to stand in the wet. Jimmy Quinn and Ady Williams ensured the Royals were equal to two Paul Furlong goals but it was Hislop who was the hero of the evening running back up the tunnel after the final whistle to acknowledge the chant of "Shaka, Shaka" which was interspersed with "you're getting wet, we're not" as we awaited the decision of the police to release us from captivity.
The following Saturday a first ever trip to Brighton's oddly appointed Goldstone Ground saw a great strike from Stuart Lovell win the game with the only goal to make it nine points from nine and reassure me that my impending return to Lancashire would be made in the knowledge that Reading were poised to make that crucial transition from lower mid table team to upper mid table team.
Initially though my away trips to stand with the raggle taggle band of Royals that went to games north of Birmingham saw little change from the previous season. In October I saw a dull goalless draw at Leeds Road, and then having for the first time walked to a Reading game, saw the Royals slump to a 2-0 defeat at a moribund Preston North End. 
Things began to perk up in November with my first visit to what would become a firm favourite ground, Turf Moor. Full of stories about a staunchly loyal club boasting over 8,000 season ticket holders, I loved the trip into deepest East Lancashire, with an approach to the ground which was still recognisable to that lifted directly into an inter war novel by JB Priestley. A rare McGhee appearance saw the manager score the goal which earned his team a hard fought 1-1 draw watched by myself and very few others on the away section of the expansive terrace which still ran the length of the pitch.
A trip back home was timed to coincide with Reading's first ever live broadcast from Elm Park as the TV cameras arrived on an autumn Sunday to watch Jimmy Quinn knock Birmingham City out of the FA Cup (the Blues had been promoted into Division Two the previous season but by dint of being runners up had the rare bad luck to be forced to continue in the first round due to restructuring) in front of a bumper crowd approaching 8,000 with the locals bucking the trend to be attracted by watching a televised game in person.
December saw a first ever visit to Chester City's new Deva stadium, a tortuously long walk from the station. Fortunately I had now found a fellow Royal called Mark studying in Manchester to share travelling and matchday drinking with. There was no shortage of energy for our return journey as we were enthused by a 3-0 win with Liverpool manager Graeme Souness reported to be in attendance to watch young Reading starlet James Lambert. 
These three points were much welcomed as the Royals continued to struggle for consistency with league form happily masked by another FA Cup run. As with the previous season, Reading had to travel to the north west for the third round and with the destination being Maine Road, once again I was heading back up the M6 midway through the Christmas holiday. This time there was quite the flotilla of cars sporting Reading colours travelling to Manchester, and once we had negotiated the Coronation Street style surroundings to reach the ground, the big away following was rewarded with a Scott Taylor goal to give Reading the half time lead. City equalised through Mike Sheron to take the game to a replay but Reading had more than held their own against the Premier League side which augured well for the rest of the season.
Inevitably the following week I saw Reading end up on the wrong side of a 3-2 result at Millmoor, Rotherham's goalkeeper Billy Mercer putting in a great shift on a day most memorable for sitting in a pub post match watching the last unified darts world championship reciting great lines from Sid Waddell's repertoire. That this proved to be the last time I saw Reading lose this season, reflected an improvement in form which almost led to a play off place which would have come a little too soon, a final placing of eighth being a realistic indicator of the side's improvement.
With alcohol becoming a increasingly important part of the match day experience highlights were a last trip to Springfield Park and first trips to Boothferry Park and Bloomfield Road, with visits to Elm Park punctuated by stops at The Butler and/or The Rose and Thistle.
By the time Ossie Ardiles brought his West Bromwich Albion team to Elm Park in late April, league crowds were beginning to return to their Branfoot era level, Phil Parkinson's goal holding the promotion via play off bound Baggies to a draw. The season finished a little too early for the Royals to break into the play off pack but perhaps this was just as well that McGhee could keep his powder dry. For me the West Brom game was the perfect time to take my leave from the 1992/93 season, a campaign full of hope and potential, watching Quinn swiftly remove any apprehension about who would fill Senior's scoring boots whilst Parky established himself as the driving force in midfield, allowing utility man Mick Gooding to fill in with his usual professionalism wherever was required. The squad had developed to the point where Hopkins and Jones could quietly slot in alongside the likes of Williams, McPherson, Dillon, Gilkes, Taylor and Lovell as it became clear that the following close season would lead to newcomers being seen as the missing part of the jigsaw rather than plugging a gap. For once it was time to look forward with hope to the start of the new season.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Elm Park Years Part 5: Royal Exile

With Madejski and McGhee now in post, 1991/92 promised to be a season of change for the Royals. This was true for me too as I moved up north to study at what was then called Lancashire Polytechnic. With regard to football this turned out to be a happy accident as Preston North End were on hand to continue to keep me up to up to date with Division Three with the historic development of the Football League meaning Reading would have an away game within fair distance at least once a month.
Before I hit the north though, I had the opening six weeks of the season to look forward to down south, which was enough time for Madejski and McGhee to set down some markers for the future. It was clear that there was to be no money to build a squad with Managing Director Mike Lewis explaining that the club had lost over £18,000 a week across the 1990/91 season. Naturally it would be hard to attract support back to the club with little prospect of investment and crowds hovered around the 2-3000 mark for most of the season. Instead it was down to McGhee to use his contacts within the game to bring in some of his former team mates starting with Kevin Dillon and Neale Cooper. These were the only newcomers in a close season which saw record appearance maker Martin Hicks, and record signing Steve Moran depart, with Dillon only being given a month's trial intially.
Another change saw Reading join the ranks of clubs sporting one of the awful strips which were prevalent in the lower divisions at this time thanks to kit manufacturers Matchwinner. At home it was TV interference (shared with Dundee) whilst away it was the Red Arrows (same as Bournemouth) both of which added to the atmosphere of a club on its uppers.
Certainly it was to be no fairy tale start for McGhee as the season started with four defeats, which at leasted signalled the end of David Leworthy's Reading career. Thus the visit of Bury saw McGhee pick himself to replace Leworthy, scoring at the death to give Reading a win by the odd goal in five. This game also saw the debut of one of many successful loan signings, winger David Byrne from Watford.
The win was enough for six of us to squeeze into Mark's car for the midweek trip to see the Red Arrows play at Swansea City. Our trips to the see the Royals had seen us team up with a group of peers from Twyford and Wargrave and you can imagine our dismay when what we thought was a short trip over the bridge, saw us greeted by a sign telling us it was another 70 miles to the Vetch Field as we crossed the Severn.Still a uncomfortable journey was made worthwhile as we strained our eyes from the cavernous away end to see Byrne and Trevor Senior turn the game around after the Swans had opened the scoring with only eighteen minutes to go.
The unbeaten run continued when eventual runners up Birmingham City were held 1-1 in front of Elm Park's biggest crowd of the season, with Hicks playing at the back for the Blues. Next up was another unpleasant afternoon at Brentford with Reading fans squeezed into one corner of the ground with the old away end standing empty, closed due for safety reasons. Of course the Met weren't shy in throwing their weight around. One of them pushed me down the steps in the middle of the terrace only for karma to apply itself as I saw a helmet sail over my head when I reached the bottom. Needless to say the game ended in defeat thanks to a late winner from substitute Richard Cadette.The bitter mood continued as I bid farewell to Elm Park watching a stormy defeat against Bradford with referee Clive Wilkes the star of the show, the game ending in farcical circumstances, when with all substitutes used, an injured Floyd Streete hobbled along the touch line.
Despite defeats outnumbering wins, the early signs of the McGhee reign were promising, with the team beginning to recover the resilience shown in the best phase of the Porterfield era although it was probably for the best that I was only going to be dipping into the steady revival of the Royals for the foreseeable future.
This started a little earlier than expected as Reading had an away trip at Wigan on the Friday night of my first week in Granadaland. The short trip down the West coast mainline from Preston to the home of Uncle Joe's mint balls was a bit of an eye opener. Sadly the chippy opposite Springfield Park had run out of their 20p portions, so I wandered over to the turnstile which I was invited to jump over by the fraudulent operator. This was only in exchange for the correct admission so I declined, to at least give the tiny official crowd (1,817) a semblance of authenticity. The raggle taggle travelling fans were sparse on the terrace at the front of the away end which had a big grass bank behind it, upon which stood one fan mounting a lone protest against the police, brandishing a picture of Harry Roberts. A dire match ensued with Reading going behind, before they salvaged a point with a last minute goal from another short term signing Allan Cockram.
With defeats now being turned into draws, Reading were four games unbeaten by the time they returned to the North West to play Bolton Wanderers. Another short trip down the line was a followed by a walk to the ground lined by pubs refusing admission to away fans, interspersed with graffiti warning of dire consequences for anyone who met the Bolton Cuckoos.All this was capped by an away end shared with the Normid supermarket which obscured the view of a large part of the pitch, not that there was much to miss in a 1-1 draw thanks to Tony Philliskirk-Pen.
The run grew to one defeat in seven (or one win depending on your point of view) when I went further afield to Macclesfield who then hosted Chester City. The week before draw fever had extended to the FA Cup when Reading had somehow managed to squander a 3-1 lead at Slough in the time it took me to walk home from the Launderette. At Moss Rose, four goals were shared with the most noticeable incident being a complete overreaction from the constabulary to a half time play fight in the away end.
By the time I returned home for Christmas draws were starting to become wins, thanks in no small part the arrival on loan of Jim Leighton to cover for the injured Steve Francis. Leighton had become a forgotten man at Manchester United after being ruthlessly dropped by Alex Ferguson after the drawn 1990 FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, Les Sealey replacing him for the replay.
Leighton, along with McGhee and Cooper had been part of Ferguson's legendary Aberdeen team which beat Real Madrid in the 1983 European Cup Winner's Cup Final, and the Scottish keeper grabbed the opportunity given by his former team mate to reboot his career with a string of fine performances which secured him a move back north of the border to Dundee and eventually a return to the national team.
Leighton was outstanding in Reading's finest victory of the season, a 1-0 win at Elm Park in the New Year over Huddersfield Town, who would go on to finish third. Also in the team that day was fellow Scot Steve Archibald, who made just the one appearance for Reading but remained every inch a style icon, holding onto the cuffs of his long sleeved shirt, playing alongside Senior, whose winning goal was his 200th of his Elm Park career.
This was Reading's fourth consecutive league win, as they inched their way up into the mid table. In between I had a made a day trip back to Bolton for an FA Cup third round tie at Burnden Park. Our transport was a transit van and another uncomfortable journey with space only available in the back, with the driver/navigator seats having already been claimed. Needless to say the day did not get better with Philliskirk-Pen scoring both goals in an edgy 2-0 win for the Trotters.
Back at college the first trip was to the Victoria Ground, Stoke and another wasted journey as the Potters were gifted a 3-0 win by zealous referee Brian Coddington who sent off two Reading players early in the game to leave munchkin Linden Jones as the central defensive lynchpin. Despite the home win as I left the ground I was offered a lift back to the railway station in a police van "for my own safety" so god only knows what would have happened the previous season when Reading won when I had fortunately travelled on  the supporters coach.
A quick visit south during reading week, gave me a first look at the best of a string of decent loan signings, David Lee from Chelsea.He averaged a goal a game during his five match stay. Unfortunately this did not include a Tuesday night trip to Stockport but he more than made up for it by scoring in the 2-1 win at Leeds Road to complete the double over Huddersfield, where in the chippy next to this ground I discovered what scraps were.
With Ady Williams now playing in a short lived experiment to turn him into a striker due to an injury to Senior, McGhee continued to show the ingenuity to attempt to turn Reading's sow's ear into a silk purse.As Spring drew on the squad was stretched to its absolute limit, and results started to decline, but there were enough points in the bank to avoid a descent into a relegation battle. This meant a trip to the Hawthorns could be enjoyed as much for the Baggies reaching something of a nadir under manager Bobby Gould, despite a comfortable 2-0 win for West Brom, watched from the back of the away stand by the injured Senior, whose presence soon became the highlight of the day.
A 6-1 win at Easter over a doomed Torquay United team featuring the now tragic figure of Justin Fashanu maintained a points buffer above the relegation zone, with three wins in the final four games leading to a final placing of twelfth which did something to justify McGhee's oft repeated belief that his team were better than their bottom half position suggested.
So the first year of my Royal exile proved to be one of much needed stability with a side run on a shoestring budget showing resilience, a little flair and the odd touch of glamour due to McGhee's contacts book. The side was still very much in transition with none of the latest crop of youngsters being able to follow Williams and Scott Taylor into the first team, but alongside these two the core of a decent eleven was emerging with the likes of Michael Gilkes, Mick Gooding, Keith McPherson, Stuart Lovell and the classy Dillon.