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.

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?

1 comment:

Simon said...

Hampshire Constabulary? Were their Dorset colleagues on strike?