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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.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Elm Park Years Part 9: So Long Its Been Good To Know You

After the party comes the hangover. Following two years of pretty much non stop league success, the play off final defeat at Wembley brought the Reading juggernaut to a shuddering stop. Pretty soon the two stand out players in the team, Shaka Hislop and Simon Osborn were off to the Premier League anyway courtesy of record breaking seven figure deals with Newcastle and QPR respectively, whilst Scott Taylor had joined Mark McGhee at Leicester. Expectations remained high when they were replaced by Bobby Mihaylov and Michael Meaker, with Trevor Morley also added to the squad. Unfortunately Quinn and Gooding lacked McGhee's magic touch in the transfer market, the two English signings lacking the quality of their predecessors. Bulgarian Mihaylov brought with him the pedigree of a 1994 World Cup semi-finalist but never settled at Elm Park. He mythically signed for the Royals after watching the play off final believing it to be played at Reading's home ground, if this was the case the realisation of what he had done must have been as shocking as his infamous wig, and the goalkeeper position became a real problem for Reading for years to come.
Off the pitch the club was faced with the reality of a ground ill suited to a tilt at promotion to the Premier League and essentially spent the next three seasons marking time until the new stadium was opened. Quinn and Gooding just about kept the club up, helped by support which unlike the previous spell in Division Two, did not waver when results took a downturn. The town was ready at last to back the football club, as shown by the way crowds increased when Reading started life in their new ground in a lower division, therefore this period was another step, (if a small one) to a sold out all seater stadium in the Premier League.
It was a period though that I would watch from a distance, the very inoffensive nature of the club that had drawn me to it in the late 80s being the factor that made it easy to breakaway. I had followed the Royals like a favoured indie band in their development in the back rooms of pubs, Reading had broken past that difficult second album stage and were now firmly established with a solid fanbase, but I was only interested in old B sides.
Nevertheless Elm Park still made for a good and convenient trip to the match and I enjoyed popping back now and again until its gates were locked shut for the final time. Away trips were equally as worthwhile, if increasingly expensive and looking back this period presents a fascinating snapshot of a sport in transition as the Premier League closed its death grip on the national game.
Post Wembley optimisim was maintained with with my fourth and final visit to the Victoria Ground Stoke on the opening day of the 1995/96 season which ended in a 1-1 draw. In November a first ever trip to Selhurst Park was made unforgettable by an obvious adaptation of the recently revived hit by Smokie "who the fuck is (pal)ice", which was sung with evermore gusto from the Arthur Waite stand as Nogan and Lovell recovered their form of the previous season to score a goal apiece in a 2-0 win. At the end of the month a goalless draw at Bramall Lane was only notable for wandering into a pub full of Blades fans next to the ground who as always confounded popular perceptions of football fans by ignoring us as we downed a pre match pint.
With Reading just about fighting off relegation the highlights at Elm Park were confined to Cup competitions, particularly the League Cup. An third round tie against Bury was abandoned after 28 minutes with Reading 2-0 down, following a torrential downpour, a single groundsman failing to beat the odds when he emerged with a fork after the players had been taken off. Naturally Reading won the replayed game to set up a derby against Southampton.
A packed Elm Park roared Reading onto a 2-1 win which was comfortable enough for the South Bank to trial a new song inspired by the Outhere Brothers when new signing Steve "Boom Boom Boom let me hear Swales" Swales came on as a late substitute. This win also revealed the pre eminence of football in the media when the following morning's Radio Five Live breakfast show featured an interview with Gooding. This win set up a quarter final trip to Elland Road in January, Reading not perturbed by the ongoing goalkeeping crisis which led to Eric Nixon playing his one and only game against Leeds. After going behind early on Jimmy Quinn rolled back the years to equalise with a terrific strike from distance only for Lucas Radebe to seal the win by half time for Wembley bound Leeds. Travelling back to our billet in Manchester we had the odd experience of a middle aged gentleman in suit with briefcase trembling as we staggered onto the last train over the Pennines, only to sigh with relief when it became clear we were fellow Reading fans.
The FA Cup inevitably brought the Match of the Day cameras to Elm Park for the visit of Manchester United in the fourth round, a tie which rather exposed the Reading ticket office's limitations when they issued a paper voucher to be exchanged for tickets. Much acrimony ensued when someone realised they could be photocopied convincingly but any Reds taking advantage were given sort shrift standing on the far right side of the South Bank when they celebrated United's opening goal. That season's double winners went onto win 3-0 in a breathtaking display of pace and movement with Eric Cantona in his pomp. Comfortably the best team I ever saw at Elm Park.
The following summer more of the promotion squad left, Welsh international Ady Williams joined McGhee at Wolves whilst Dylan Kerr moved on, sadly unable to recapture the form and fitness that made him the championship winning team's player of the year. Steps were taken to shore up the defence. Northern Irish international Tommy Wright for a time stopped the revolving door that was th number one shirt with countryman Barry Hunter taking Williams' captain's armband and central defensive berth, supported on the flanks by Martyn Booty and Paul Bodin. Further up the pitch Darren Caskey proved to be another midfield addition who did not live up to his price tag, but initial signs from fellow signing Martin Williams were good.
Williams scored the stand out goal in a 2-0 win over Oxford United, in a game broadcast live by ITV. The goal went onto feature on the opening titles for Football League Extra for some time, the programme at last providing a chance to see all the goals outside the Premier League, if you could remember to set the video for its small hours screening. Presumably the Oxford game was chosen because it was a local derby. Reading had lost a first ever cup tie to new local League neighbours Wycombe Wanderers in the previous midweek but had no problem beating the Us, a group of whose fans laughably tried to liven up the derby by viciously shaking the fence at the nearest corner of the away end to the South Bank. One of their number then found out the problem of having strikingly ginger hair, as I saw him picked out and arrested in a local side street as we traipsed back into town after the game.
With no Cup distraction Reading maintained their 1996 final placing of 18th with a little more breathing space between the relegation zone. Indeed the Royals slipped into the relegation places just once after my first visit to Huddersfield's new McAlpine stadium on a boozy day in September which ended up in the Golcar branch of the British Legion.
Boxing Day allowed me to introduce my sister's Kiwi fiancee Mark to the delights of Elm Park. He was treated to a rip roaring 2-2 draw although his New World innocence was denuded by his shock at the stick doled out to Albion striker and husband of Karen Brady Paul Peschisolido, Mark's verdict on the game being "I couldn't believe what they were saying about his wife"!
The season was summed up by an abortive trip to Loftus Road, the game postponed due to an almighty thunder storm which hit West London during the short tube ride to Shepherd's Bush from Paddington. Having arrived at the ground before the news was confirmed we ended up wandering around the White City estate looking for the Central Line station, like Reading we found our way to safety eventually but it wasn't much of an experience.
By the time I returned to Elm Park in September the promotion squad had all but disintegrated. Michael Gilkes, the last remaining player from the first match I had seen at Elm Park a decade ago had followed Williams to Wolves. Only Keith McPherson, Stuart Lovell and Phil Parkinson remained as in the summer Quinn and Gooding had been relieved of their managerial duties.
With the move to the new stadium confirmed for a year hence, it was an ideal time for a new manager to come in and rebuild. Personally I thought Terry Bullivant was a sound choice. He had had a good grounding at Barnet and brought in some useful additions to the squad in the form of Ray Houghton, Linvoy Primus and Carl Asaba, but the general response was negative with much being made of his alternative career as a taxi driver. The abject failure of his successor Tommy Burns who had a much bigger profile perhaps would have been avoided by Bullivant with his intimate knowledge of the English lower divisions. Maybe I had a jaundiced view due to the few games I saw in this final season at Elm Park as by now I had moved up to London. In particular I enjoyed first and fruitful visits to Fratton Park and the Brittania stadium but the highlight was one last terrace shaking match at Elm Park.
The visit of Nottingham Forest was picked for a live game at the end of October. Forest still retained the high achieving ambition of the Clough era and would end the season as champions. With a team full of established Premier League players, Dave Bassett's team were 1-0 up at the break and even Steve Stone's inept miss at the Tilehurst End meant little to a side boasting a forward line of Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell.
Forest doubled their lead with Van Hooijdonk's second goal just after half time  but the game turned on a penalty incident soon after when Dave Beasant brought down Martin Williams. The referee showed the red card to Beasant and the ground came alive as Lurch initially refused to leave the pitch.Williams converted the penalty and although Forest restored their two goal advantage through Campbell, Reading, roared on by a twelve and a half thousand crowd tore into the ten men with relish. For once James Lambert gave a glimpse of his previously much touted potential to dance through the Forest defence to score a superb individual goal before Primus completed the comeback.
With spirit such as this it wasn't surprising to see Reading progress to the fifth round of both domestic cup competitions and a win on the last day of January at home to Birmingham saw the Royals sit in relative comfort in fifteenth position. However the next eleven league games saw just one win (notably against Manchester City who would join Reading in relegation) and ten defeats which ultimately led to the demise of Bullivant. He was replaced immediately replaced by Burns who then engaged in a frenzy of transfer activity ahead of the deadline to bring in a string on nonentities and an ageing Robert Fleck.
Having secured my ticket to the final game of the season against Norwich, the last ever at Elm Park, I watched Reading's relegation confirmed, ironically on TV at Nottingham Forest on the last weekend of April. At least this meant my last trip to Elm Park could be enjoyed without any stress about the consequences of the result. The result was neatly the same as my first visit, a Craig Bellamy goal giving the Canaries a 1-0 win but the mood was one of indefatigable celebration of a ground which held so many good memories. I didn't bother going onto the pitch at the end instead I waited as those who did gleefully flung chunks of turf onto the South Bank, collecting a choice clod and wrapping it up in the Evening Post. This made an innovative table decoration in the Rising Sun as we sat down and raised a toast to the old ground. I've no idea who lives at my family home of 47 Courtlands nowadays, but they should feel blessed as the garden is infused with a piece of turf soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of the Elm Park Years 1896-1998.

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