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Back to the Future - Elm Park Style

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Everyone else has this week, so how can we not? Urzz1871 takes a look at what he feels a 1985 Reading Supporter would notice most if he were teleported to the MadStad in 2015.

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Never afraid to jump on a bandwagon, I’ve been giving some thought to what a Reading supporter from 30 year ago would make of the club and the team today.

All smiles at Hill Valley Elm Park

Of course, there have been massive changes over the past three decades, but a Loyal Royal in October 1985 wouldn't have been downcast, because Reading were on the crest of a record-breaking run, putting smiles on faces of the hardy few who were enduring some of the darkest days the game had ever seen. The previous weekend, on Saturday 19th October 1985, Reading’s defeat of Newport County at Somerton Park had given them the record of thirteen straight wins at the start of a season, and prior to the next match, home to Wolves on 23rd October there was a tangible feeling of excitement and anticipation over the town – in modern parlance, the place was buzzin’. Because this match was the chance to equal the overall English record of consecutive victories, set by Manchester United in 1904-05, Bristol City in 1905-06 and Preston in 1950-51.

The darker side of the game

But this was a rare celebration, at a time when football was close to dying and under pressure as never before. The close of the previous season had seen the Bradford Fire and the death of a fan in violence at Birmingham city, and also the Heysel disaster. And with a government that was openly hostile to football there were a number of legislative attacks on supporters – not least the Sports Grounds (Control of Alcohol) Act 1985 which set in places rules on drinking and travelling with drink which still apply, and the imposition of compulsory ID cards for football supporters was also stated government policy.

The changes most relevant to Reading at the time, though – and also those hardest to disagree with - were changes to the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 which were brought about by the Local Government Act 1985. Without going into all the technicalities, this meant that the safety of grounds was now thoroughly by local authorities, with enforced closures of parts not up to scratch. As a result, the capacity of old, ramshackle Elm Park, suffering from years of under-investment, was just 6,000 at the start of the 85/86 season. Not much of a problem for a club which had an average attendance of just 3,688 the previous season, but the record-breaking run meant improvements needed to be made – and quickly – to meet demand for tickets.

As the winning run gained momentum, the club had hurriedly spent £160,000 on upgrading barriers, adding fire exits and fireproofing office areas under the main stand, and by the time of the Wolves match the capacity had been restored to 13,500. But alas, the all-time record was not to be thanks to an 85th Wolves equaliser, but Reading stayed top of the league all season, and the Division Three title was won with four games still to play, heralding Reading’s first move into Tier Two since relegation in 1931.

"Where we're going, we'll need a relief road"

Well, of course they’d be astounded by the MadStad – although talk of moving to an area around the old rubbish dumps in Smallmead had been going on since Roger Smee’s takeover of the club in 1983 – following Roy Trantor’s successful moves to block Robert Maxwell’s creation of the Frankenstein club "Thames Valley Royals" – it was only talk. No-one really expected it to ever come to fruition, or for "little Reading" to ever actually move out of Elm Park, dilapidated as it was. The size and sheer opulence of the MadStad would have the 1985 Reading fan pinching themselves in disbelief – although to be fair that also applied to many 1998 Reading fans when we did actually move.

One of the biggest differences the 1985 fan would notice would be how the facilities have changed to allow entertainment in addition to the football itself. Elm Park didn’t get any corporate boxes until 1986 – crammed into the back of the main stand – so the level of corporate hospitality would be a revelation for the 1985 fan. The 1985 fans would also be taken aback by the concept of concourses – in 1985 there was an open area between the turnstiles and the terraces, and a small area in the main stand between turnstiles and seating, but that was it. You could buy a burger and a programme from a kiosk there, but you did that en route to the stand – no-one thought of waiting there and there were no facilities for entertainment.

This is a double-edged sword, though – I’m convinced that one of the biggest killers of atmosphere is the use of reserved seating, which of course goes hand-in-hand with all-seater stadia. The 1985 fan would go through the turnstile and go to meet his mates (In 1985 it would be predominantly "he" and he would almost certainly be white). Racism was still rife and taken for granted – I still remain shocked by the vicious and unrelenting racism dished out for 90 minutes solid by a "Reading Fan" to Reading fullback Steve Richardson at Mansfield in March 1984, and the fact that no-one, including watching Police, turned a hair or intervened in any way. You just didn’t, in those days, which illustrates that although there were lots of great things about "terrace culture" in the 1980s, much of was odious. Those on the South Bank or away supporters in 1985 would also find themselves watching from behind fences – another reminder of how unsavoury football could be in the 1980s.

On that terrace, every fan would have their preferred place to watch, and the noisiest would naturally gravitate together. In order to be where they wanted to be, supporters would be in their preferred place by around an hour before kick-off, from there anticipation of the forthcoming match would build and build – the absolutely perfect hothouse for unique chants, distinctive songs and a growing atmosphere. Reserved seating and concourse entertainments mean that people get to their seats a few minutes before kick-off and the group dynamic and gradual build-up of atmosphere that was such a wonderful part of being a supporter has gone. Similarly if you wanted to stand with others, or if someone behind you was annoying the hell out of you (I make no comment about the kids in the row behind me at Rotherham yesterday trotting out every football cliché under the sun and praising "Jake Taylor") you simply moved elsewhere on the terrace. And if someone new came along to the football, they could simply stand with you where you were – no need for a military operation to change reserved seats around, if it could be done at all. They could also just turn up on the day and pay at the game, without suffering a "you should have made your mind up earlier" financial surcharge.

Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not harking back to a golden age where the atmosphere at every game was outstanding. I was at some matches at Elm Park where it was a quiet as a library and dull as proverbial ditch water, and similarly I’ve been in MadStad crowds that have generated a tremendous atmosphere. But, on average, I’d have to say that the atmosphere generated at Elm Pak was frequently much better, much more ferocious, and much more spontaneous than most MadStad atmospheres – and would typically be created by far fewer supporters.

"If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything"

Although our 1985 fan inevitably loved that whole promotion season, it’s unlikely that they would ever be thinking of promotion beyond Tier Two. We were still "little Reading," largely unknown to the rest of the football world and always likely to be. The idea of ever playing in the top division or being shown on Match of the Day (about the only televised football apart from the FA Cup Final) was unthinkable – it would surely take cataclysmic changes before that would come about. So I think supporters thirty years ago had more realistic expectations and greater levels of patience – Reading had bumbled around in the bottom two divisions for most of their existence, who would expect them not to – and who would demand success and a change of manager if that didn’t happen?

It was only with the arrival of John Madejski, and the eventual move to a site by Smallmead tip (facilitated by a change of attitude at Reading Borough Council) that the whole nature of the club changed to go with their success levels. One of the major themes of my book "The Sum of the Parts", to be published in March 2016, is how the club came to change from "Little Reading" into one regularly competing for promotion to the Premier League, so I won’t delve too deeply into that here.

But the level of success and the sheer increase in scale that the club has seen from 30 years ago would render many other factors of it unrecognisable to our 1985 fan. A team full of players from overseas, cossetted away and having virtually no interaction with the fans would be another major change, in contrast to players who were much more accessible and often travelled to the game on the same buses as supporters. But one of the biggest surprises would be the level of hype and media overload associated with the club and football in general. The in-your-face level of analysis and publicity, and the industries built on making money out of football would be a revelation, and I wonder how the 1985 fan, used to buying maybe a scarf and a bobble hat from a small kiosk run by the Supporters’ Club, would react if you teleported them into the Megastore!

Because I believe that’s what they’d notice as the biggest change – in 1985 it was a simpler game, and you went to the match to watch the football (or everyone except the unsavoury elements in the 80s did, anyway). These days it so often seems the football is a sideshow, and it’s often difficult to see past all the media distractions, the hype and the various sideshows designed to "monetise" everything possible – usually the supporters.

But if you do manage to see past those distractions, the game itself is as enticing as it’s always been.