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The Promotion Paradox

Of course, every football supporter wants their team to be playing in the top division, and to see them competing with the best. So with preparing for the play-offs there’s understandable excitement in the air – noticeably much more excitement that the last play-off "adventure" in 2009, when the team’s spirit had evaporated over the previous few months and everyone knew we were destined to fail. But this year there is a tangible feeling that this is quite possibly our time again.

But we’ve been there before, and we know what the Premier League is like, so the excitement is tinged with a certain amount of worry, for me at least. Being a match-going supporter of a team in the Premier League is quite horrible compared with supporting one in the Championship, so it’s a bit of a paradox. Yes we all want to go up – but will we enjoy it if we get there?

For starters, ticket prices are horrible.  Yes, we’re protected in the first season by the renewal rates set by Reading FC, but for future years (if they happen) all bets are off on home ticket pricing.  And for away ticket pricing prepare to be fleeced at every possible opportunity – Premier League tickets regularly start at £40-£50 – that’s big money in anyone’s terms.  Match scheduling as well is horrible – with TV calling all the shots on when matches are played, and moves not just for TV but also because of other teams playing in the Europa League.

But apart from the pricing, there’s the whole awful media circus – glory-hunters coming along just to see the big name stars (who are often just as famous for what they do off the pitch as on it); and plenty of unseemly scrambles for tickets when one of the “Big 4” plays here.  As always, expect a “lifelong Royals fan” or two from Australia to pop up in the Evening Post in a desperate plea for tickets.   Then there are football trippers, who’ll go and watch matches at the big famous stadiums but won’t be bothered to go to the less glamorous venues like Blackburn and Bolton.  Plus, of course, it’s all about the big clubs – when Reading beat Liverpool, for instance, the stories the next day hardly mentioned Reading and how well they’d played.  Instead the story was how badly Liverpool had played and how they’d lost to a team like Reading. 

Of course, there’s also all the diving, cheating and general nastiness that seems to go hand in hand with the Premier League, but for me one of the biggest issues is the lack of competition.  Finances in the Premier League are so unbalanced between the clubs at the top and the likes of Reading that the most realistic target we can have is survival, to allow future consolidation.  Others may be happy with that, but I want to watch my team play in a league where they compete and have a chance of winning – not one where they’re cannon fodder for the big boys and see a 17th place finish as a worthy achievement.   But until the whole structure of football finance changes that’s not going to change, and Reading haven’t got a hope of competing financially with clubs backed by oil money or with those happy to run up unsustainable debts.

All of the above factors are common to all smaller clubs in the Premier League – and many supporters I’ve spoken to agree that the Premier League is not the place to be if you want to go to matches.  The whole shebang is organised around television and global audiences, and the needs and convenience of match-going supporters is way down the priority list of those in charge.  Certainly Portsmouth supporters of my acquaintance are loving being in the Championship – better prices, tickets much more available, no Premier League histrionics, and the majority of the crowd genuinely  there for the football, not the star names and glamour. 

But there is another additional factor at Reading we should perhaps be worried about.   Promotion is likely to put the club back on the global radar, and make a sale of the club much more likely.  Sir John Madejski has been unable to find a buyer for a mid-table Championship club, but a Premier League club is a much more saleable asset.  Sir John has learnt from the past Premier league experience that although income increases exponentially in the Premier League, so do costs – for instance average player salaries in Tier 1 are 4.54 times greater than those in Tier 2.  

Sir John is determined to make the club pay for itself - and it’s arguable whether he actually has liquidity to inject in the club even if he wanted to - so a sale would be completely consistent with everything he’s said over recent years.  And a sale to a new owner might make us a very different club completely, and would almost certainly take us into an unknown future – destroying the “Reading way“ ethos that makes us so special and such a joy to support.   That would be the opening of a whole new chapter in our history, and no one can tell where it would lead.

I sometimes wonder whether  the Premier League was deliberately structured so that smaller clubs like Reading have their season or two in the Premier League “sun” creating the illusion of sharing in the wonderful bounty, but really just making up the numbers and providing a sideshow for the real clubs there.    And as a result that league really is a horrible place to be a match-going supporter, so while I’d love promotion to happen I don’t think I’d very much enjoy the experience of actually being there. 

I wonder if we’ll be allowed to win promotion, get the glory, but stay in the Championship.....