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, 16 March 2014

The Elm Park Years Part 8: In sight of the Promised Land

As I watched the Royals parade their Division Two Championship trophy around Elm Park in the rain at the end of season friendly against Genoa, I had a real feeling of job done. I'd spent three seasons watching Reading all over the country slowly building up to their title challenge, whilst I worked towards my degree. Now both projects had been accomplished it begged the question, what next? I fudged the question of a career by enrolling on a Masters degree course at Reading University, which provided the opportunity of study alongside gainful employment at Southern Electric. By remaining a student I was entitled to buy a season ticket for just £90 with my relocation back to Berkshire, yet I sort of knew this would be my last season watching Reading full time. Little did I know what an unforgettable season this would be, and how valuable that season ticket would become by the Spring.
I suppose I didn't really consider how well Reading would do in the higher division. I was confident it would not be a season fighting relegation. Perhaps one of mid table consolidation with a cup run. Certainly not a full blown second successive promotion campaign. Mark McGhee had again trawled the bargain basement in the summer transfer market by signing Dariusz Wdowczyk, Simon Osborn, Andy Bernal and Paul Holsgrove. All four were well worth the transfer fee and although Holsgrove was very much a make do and mend type player the other three would prove their worth from the off with Wdowczyk and Osborn being the two best players I saw in Reading colours.
The fixture list sent Reading to Molineux on the opening day and we travelled up to the Black country in bright summer sunshine, eager to find out how the Royals would fare against a team tipped for the title. Before a sell out crowd, the PA whipped up the Wolves fans into a post match frenzy by playing Hi Ho Silver Lining, Woolly Bully and finally the Liquidator which saw men in Old Gold contort their faces in anger as they screamed "fuck off West Brom, the Wolves". For the first time in my life I saw the proof of the phrase "the crowd are worth a goal head start" as the home fans seemed to suck the ball into the net to give Wolves an early lead. However once the pre match bombast had died down, Reading dominated in an enthralling performance which saw everything apart from a goal. Leaving the ground it was clear that the beautiful football that had won Reading the title a few months earlier could easily transfer to a higher level, which when infused with the class of Wdowcyzk and Osborn, would turn aspirations for the season sky high.
The season started slowly in terms of results though until a double sending off for the visitors at Elm Park saw Reading get up and running with a 4-0 win over Stoke at the end of August.
A coupon busting 3-1 win at Oldham (I had backed Reading to win 2-1 at very good odds but had little time to celebrate before news of a third goal came through) lifted the Royals up to the heady heights of second, and they were to remain in the top six for pretty much the rest of the season. Each point was to be hard earned though and the autumn campaign seemed to provide as many setbacks as it did wins. 
Despite the attraction of many new grounds to visit I had decided to restrict my away trips to the south east, and therefore had a very different experience of watching Reading compared to previous three year exile in Lancashire. At home crowds remained buoyant, being upwards of seven thousand for every game, providing a first taste of the soccer revolution, inspired by Italia 90, Fever Pitch and the Premier League, as many new fans started to watch live football. Reading provided the perfect prescription of good football to watch which was cheap and easily accessible, set against a background of a growing local population eager to support a successful team. Therefore expectations were now a little higher, a fact best reflected by the new fanzine Heaven Eleven which had none of the wit and gallows humour of its predecessors Elm Park Disease and Taking The Biscuit, instead adopting the baser humour and demanding tone reflected by the new football media such as Fantasy Football League and 6-0-6. Likewise the away following was much bigger, quick to take offence to Jan Age Fjortoft's goal celebration at Swindon which was a just response to the barracking he received. 
Two short away trips provided the highlight of a stodgy autumn. At Watford Reading were soon two goals down, leading McGhee to quickly change tactics which inspired a stunning fightback led by Scott Taylor, Osborn and Stuart Lovell scoring to earn a point. At Charlton Reading won the game in style, the opening goal being a stunning volley by Osborn as the Royals returned to the top three.
As autumn turned into winter though it was clear that there was something missing. Up front Jimmy Quinn's age was starting to catch up with him whilst his strike partner Lovell was still learning his trade, and the lack of goals was beginning to tell on results. There was no doubt Reading would compete well enough to stay the course as a 1-1 draw against eventual champions Middlesbrough in early December showed but something was required to turn them from play off contenders into promotion winners.
The catalyst came in two forms, both conventional but with stunning results. McGhee was now being talked about in the national papers as a one of the best young managers around, with sports editors helped by his connection to the now eminent Alex Ferguson. To me it seemed obvious that McGhee would soon be tempted away from Reading whose ambitions were inevitably limited by their Elm Park ground which prevented the necessary expansion of the supporter base and commercial activity to even match the resources of the average club in the division. His manner of leaving though proved rancourous and ultimately saw me take my own leave of Elm Park as my opinion of his departure seemed to be wildly at odds of everyone else at the club. To me once Reading allowed McGhee to talk to Leicester they had given him the green light to leave and I didn't understand why anyone would begrudge him a move to a Premier League club. However chairman John Madejski successfully spun a story that after a night of negotiations McGhee had had a change of heart and agreed to stay at Elm Park only to turn again to move to Filbert Street. This implication of old fashioned deceit, of breaking his word, led to McGhee becoming public enemy number one forever more, whilst Madejski was seen as a wronged man who had bargained hard in the interests of the club and therefore was rewarded by the supporters standing fully behind him.
Its hard to remember that these were the days before 24 hour rolling news coverage. There were just snippets of news amounting to just a few lines in the national press. Therefore its still unclear what happened. There is a rumour that McGhee was determined to leave due to Madejski's continuing fiscal austerity which reportedly extended to refusing to pay for the team to have fish and chips on the coach back from away games. At the time I saw a Chairman embarrassed at his mistake to allow his best asset to talk to another club and therefore trying to obscure this by presenting McGhee as a traitor for leaving. With the benefit of hindsight Reading have had the last laugh by becoming a genuine force in the second rank of English football whilst McGhee never came close to realising his potential. Whatever the truth of the matter I felt distinctly uncomfortable standing on the South Bank listening to the abuse directed at a man who had produced a miracle to get the team not only to emerge as serious contenders for the Premier League but also do it in such style. It was also galling that most of those vituperative voices were nowhere to be seen until success was virtually a fait accompli. Still at least there was the consolation that it fired the team to their best victory of the season so far.
The first game after McGhee left was to be broadcast live on ITV on Sunday afternoon. Wolves were the visitors to Elm Park and despite Reading's position in the table were still the favourites to win and complete the double over the Royals who were being run by a committee of senior players. With appositely named Dutchman John de Wolf a striking presence in the Wanderers midfield, it had all the makings of a cup tie rather than a league match and with a febrile atmosphere surrounding Elm Park an early injury to Steve Froggatt upped the ante even further. In a bona fide classic, Wolves took the lead, but it was Reading who went into half time ahead thanks to Osborn and Quinn. Unfortunately Quinn scored at the other end to allow Wolves back into the game after the break but that only spurred the Royals to greater efforts as they sealed the win with two goals from Michael Gilkes whilst Shaka Hislop made sure the visitors would not create a last act. The match introduced Reading to a national audience and for Hislop started the transfer speculation that would lead to a well deserved career in the top flight. More significantly to Reading the decision of the two men who would eventually be given the job of managing the team, Quinn and Mick Gooding, to tinker with McGhee's ball playing philosophy, along with the Christmas signing of striker Lee Nogan, provided the impetus to ensure the second half of the season would end as the greatest in the club's long history to that point.
Madejski wisely made the innovative decision to make Quinn and Gooding joint managers. This kept the incredibly valuable team spirit in tact and allowed Reading's forward momentum to continue. Quinn and Gooding remainded faithful to McGhee's footballing values but encouraged the team to get the ball forward quicker to ratchet up the pressure on the opposition. After a patchy opening month for the new managerial pair, they never looked back, as new signing Nogan fitted perfectly into the team which really started to turn in the results as winter turned into spring. For me two evening home games stood out in the memory. They were low key in nature against Southend and Oldham but the way in which the team stuck to their task to overcome determined mid table opposition (particularly the Latics who led for much of the game), signalled to me that this was a team that could go all way. Still at Elm Park the outstanding 4-1 demolition of Watford was countered with a dire 3-0 defeat to Barnsley, and following a collapse against Port Vale at Elm Park which saw a 3-0 half time lead courtesy of a Nogan hat trick squandered, the Royals lay outside the play off positions in sixth place with only four games to go.
The Vale game was the first of the Easter weekend with the short trip to Kenilworth Road to come on Easter Monday. This was to be only my second away trip since the turn of the year, having also been to the defeat at Millwall, an evening most notable for a train full of Reading fans returning to London Bridge, singing the theme tune to the Magic Roundabout to a local blonde haired youth who was keen to articulate the local  fans reputation. The game at Luton was a tense affair with an Ady Williams goal seeing all three points return to Berkshire.
Just four days later, Bolton travelled to Elm Park. Familiar opposition whilst Reading had languished in Division Three, the Trotters were now the country's pre eminent club, looking good for promotion having reached the League Cup Final. The crowds flocked to the ground with the gates ultimately being locked with many, including most of my friends, left outside whilst my season ticket gained me safe passage through the queues to the gate without a line. In a game of stunning quality for this level of football, Reading edged home 2-1 with Hislop again to the fore. Lovell had opened the scoring before David Lee equalised soon after half time. With only minutes remaining an audacious pass from Osborn put Nogan through to win the game with a performance that was the best I ever saw at Elm Park.
Silverware was to follow at the start of May with a Berks & Bucks Cup Final win at Wycombe over Slough. It was a case of smiles all round as the Rebels discovered they had been promoted by default due to Enfield's financial mismanagement. The game ended in a lame pitch invasion in view of the magnitude of what was happening in the league, but the way in which the Royals had taken the County Cup seriously was a big boon to football in the area as I had found out earlier in the competition when they had won at York Road, the squad freely chatting to all in the Maidenhead United social club after the club, with Stuart Lovell telling me how much better the post match hospitality was compared to York Road.
The final game of the league season saw the ITV cameras return to Elm Park. Once again Reading thoroughly entertained the viewers with Osborn scoring with another volley against the Addicks, Williams winning the game with two minutes left after Charlton had equalised. Watching the game again on video, it ended with a wonderful line from commentator Brian Moore, screaming "here come the madcaps" as the pitch invasion started early. The result had left Reading in a final position of second. Sod's law meant that this was the first time the runners up had not been promoted automatically due to the reduction of clubs in the Premier League, but there was no feeling of injustice. Reading had not been in the top three since October and the final placing was viewed only as a historical footnote for the record books, the mood was very much one of nonchalance such was the confidence that the play offs would be won.
The draw paired Reading with Tranmere Rovers, the media darlings of the period thanks to their old pros Pat Nevin and John Aldridge. With John King having served notice of the potential of his team in an FA Cup tie at Elm Park in 1989, Rovers had gone on to win promotion twice and this was to be their third attempt to get to the Premier League via the play offs. Rovers might have had experience but the naive optimism possessed by the Royals was intoxicating and as I headed up the M6 for the first time that season, the lack of any real expectation made the ensuing 3-1 deconstruction of the home team all the more enjoyable. Nogan and Lovell were at their very best that day, leaving the second leg as a mere detail which was negotiated with satisfyingly dull ease reflected by the casual way we all wandered onto the Elm Park turf at the final whistle.
Life watching Reading continued to be like a Hollywood movie. The tickets for Wembley were secured  with the opposition being the best of the play off teams, Bolton. Following the short train ride up to  London we joined the throng outside the Globe pub opposite Baker Street station, not even attempting to get served at the bar, we popped into a local off licence and enjoyed the fun as everyone cheered a Royals fan attempting to pin his colours to some scaffolding up on high. Soon it was time to board the train up to the Twin Towers, trading banter across the carriage, then chiding the Bolton fans for their faith in John McGinlay whilst walking up Wembley Way. We took our seats high up behind the goal and smiled with disbelief as Reading took the lead through Nogan, then doubled it through Williams. It was almost too easy but utterly in line with two whole seasons of everything following the glorious script of success. Then we rose to our feet and bounced around once more as the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
It seems odd now looking at the bare facts of the game but it really did feel like Reading had blown it when Lovell's penalty was saved by Keith Branagan. It was the moment at which the enormity of what the team was trying to achieve had sunk in, and the fine margins by which it would be decided were revealed. The save revitalised the Bolton team and the Reading team suddenly looked tired. All the adrenaline of the last few weeks seemed to finally take their toll and despite the two goal cushion it felt like a case of when not if Bolton would get back into the game. Perhaps it was a reflection of the tight win in the league a few weeks previously, Bolton were after all an outstanding team under Bruce Rioch. Perhaps it was the age old fear that grips when the ultimate prize is in touching distance. Perhaps it was just one game too many.
Re reading the match report of the game it is scarcely believable the score was still 2-0 with fifteen minutes to go, and four left when the equaliser finally came, but in my mind Reading's cause was lost with the missed penalty, a memory perhaps shaped by the media narrative which inevitably followed. With Bolton going from strength to strength in extra time, the mood became more desperate as I had to suffer a soundtrack supplied by an American accent somewhere behind me, on a loop of "let's go Reading". After Fabian De Freitas had confirmed the victory with a fourth goal, Reading finally scored their third through Quinn, a goal that felt cruel in offering hope, but welcome in preserving the close nature of the game.
The final whistle at last released us from play off purgatory to allow us to luxuriate in the truly British response to glorious failure. Never mind we thought, we couldn't have been really serious in thinking the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United would be visiting Elm Park on a regular basis. Time to enjoy the memory of hope and speculation safe in the knowledge that we would not have to deal with the possible reality of a season of embarrassment in the top flight. 
A few days later we left work to travel over to Reading to watch the open top bus parade, the town turning out in the pouring rain to thank the team for offering a glimpse of a glorious future. Gathering in front of the Town Hall the microphone was passed around the squad to deliver a message to the fans, the definitive words being uttered by the classy Pole, Wdowczyk: "I love you. I love you all",

No comments: