About Me

My photo
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, 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League), planning my away trips alongside visits to friends now studying across the country, pausing from reading historical documents to note down the essential travel information from the library's edition of the current British Rail timetable.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.

No comments: