If we’re going to have our most productive season possible under Nigel Adkins we’re going have to solve one big issue that for me has plagued the club across its tenure in the Madejski; how do you put the ‘Mad’ back into the Mad Stad?
The atmosphere inside the ground at Reading games has varied from joyous pitch invasions to watching the away team celebrate promotion at our expense, with plenty of quiet, empty-feeling Tuesday nights in between.
Last season in particular seemed to have everything conspire against creating a genuine football atmosphere, with many of these factors in the clubs hands, and naturally plenty dependent on on-the-pitch performances.
The first area of improvement is a particularly simple one, getting rid of the float-parade marching band that clogs fans ears with some completely out of place church-Sunday jauntiness. My personal distaste for them was the consistent playing of the Great Escape theme tune over last season, natural in a relegation season one might admit, yet infuriatingly patronising to many who had no choice but put up with it while watching their team.
Joining the band in my atmosphere Room 101 are ‘clappers’ which see the majority pleasantly clapping along with the PA before a game and little else.
Some noise generating devices must stay; however, I’ve always been a big advocate of the drummers in the North East corner. At significant moments they are the force behind thousands of people indulging in song simultaneously, and when they chant alone it’s hardly their fault no one else can be bothered. We could shift them (probably against their will) to the South East corner, in an attempt to merge the two louder parts of the ground into a singing section, yet Reading has always tended to have a large bank of vocal supporters across one side of the pitch as opposed to a small corner, and at the risk of a diluted atmosphere I think we’re best served with two areas of noise.
Before a game really is the time an atmosphere can be created, it’s when national anthems get played and clubs like Liverpool have always belted out a club anthem in the pre-match period. Reading doesn't, and for the foreseeable future will not, have a club anthem as such. The Reading Anthem by Kevin Girdler is the closest we may get to a musical identity, and should get a blast in the lead-up to all games. Sadly, along with the ‘Number 13- Reading fans everywhere’ name of the teamsheet it has sadly declined in recent years, in desperate need of a recall. Also on this list is the big Number 13 shirt that is traipsed across the East Stand before games, another little bit that keeps the club unique and, hopefully, the fans interested in making an atmosphere.
Returning to the 2005-06 season as inspiration, ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless was chosen by the players to be played just before kick-off and it is indeed a personal favourite for any occasion that has a build-up and a kick-off.
Yet my key area here is the pre-match film. It is time to drop the ‘Impossible Dream’ concept that was held under Brian McDermott. Firstly, it doesn't match an early season promotion push, and secondly, it’s not sensible to argue that we are either living a dream or doing anything deemed ‘impossible’.
It would be controversial to criticise the fans in the ground for being quiet, I think there is potential for more, but the club- in the form of management, players or the PA announcer- could tinker with the idea. Maybe our PA announcer could learn from any live musician, with a call and response or by literally calling ‘louder!’ to the fans, I maintain this must not be cheesy or too condescending. A risky strategy, indeed.
The ‘Bring It On’ cards of Norwich at home in 2005 season represent an idea, but song sheets really do not. I doubt any fans who’re willing to sing abstain from such due to not perfectly knowing the words. Maybe getting fans involved in what type of phrases this cards would say, if held up, or chanted along to, is an avenue worth exploring.
As touched upon moments ago, it would be too far to suggest the club’s upper echelons criticise the family-friendly nature of the club. Moving on from this family image may well improve the decibel levels at the Madejski. While the ‘Reading way’ is gradually perishing (good riddance, I say) the club’s rhetoric on its supporters is clear. While it may not help the atmosphere as such, ensuring a safe environment for the future generations of the club is crucial to our long term future. The other way is to look at more vocal fan groups, for example; Newcastle, West Ham, Leeds, and notice how few women and children are in the stands. Of course, you don’t have to be a male aged 18-45 to create an atmosphere and there are ways of getting all fans to open their mouths, clap their hands or stamp their feet. So in this area, change isn’t particularly desired and hopefully completely unnecessary.
One big part of the ground remains to be discussed, the south stand. I’d like to propose the idea that we always have home fans in this area of the ground; some may argue it spreads home fans too thin for smaller matches and can be viably covered by a giant shirt or flag, let alone the fact it won’t create any noise. In principal these are valid arguments, yet massive gaps in fans gives a disconnected feel with other home supporters and having a blue elephant of empty seating looks incredibly poor for any club. Also, the echo created off plastic seats sucks life out of the crowd. Ever the inspiration for atmosphere-generation, in a Fulham style move, we could always put neutrals there. Thus hopefully solving the nightmare of away fans in the home end, but I think stricter stewarding is entirely necessary for this largely Premiership-based concern.
The more likely event when teams such as Leeds, QPR and Brighton arrive will be that the entire South Stand is offered to away fans. In no way is this ideal, half of that stand tends to out-sing the home support and 4000 away fans give little hope to most teams, let alone if we have as little as 15,000 Royals present. As Reading fans show, away support tends to contain more vocal groups than a team’s equivalent home support, and with this in mind keeping them on the East Stand side is better for encouraging Y26 out of their seats.
These recommendations aside, there is no doubt in my mind that the key ingredient to an atmosphere is competitive games. Yet, I don’t mean simply winning all our home games. We need a home fortress but certainly not complacency, with fans turning up to be entertained and not support a team that expects to win, an attitude that cannot handle the going getting tough. Fast-paced, tight games filled with goals and action breeds the best atmosphere. Just think of the atmosphere of the Leeds home game in 2012 as we stepped towards promotion. An easy 5-0 win would have pushed us as high, but the physical, dramatic and competitive game created a vibrant and brilliant atmosphere.
We should get those games much more in the Championship, a shame as fans turn out in far larger numbers to see us get thumped by Spurs, Arsenal or Man City. Hopefully the club is aware of the situation we find ourselves in regarding atmosphere. It isn’t at panic stations, far from it, with potential for some great nights in the season ahead. But I fear without change and consideration, there is potential for more home games to feel like our 0-0 draw with QPR in April. And no one wants to think about that, let alone relive it.
But how would you improve the atmosphere? Do you think changes need to be made or should it continue the way it is. Let us know in the comments below, or why not write a fanpost of your own?