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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, 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.

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