After a number of underwhelming seasons in tandem with some of the most tepid football played at the Madejski, it should be no surprise to anybody that the atmosphere at Reading has suffered as a consequence. Luckily, regardless of whether you question their motives, the owners of the club have noticed this and I'm told are constantly banging the atmosphere drum, the atmosphere's flat, dead, etc. So in response the club have initiated a Supporter Focus Group which is attended by numerous stakeholders within the club and a selection of invited fans from across the Reading area who sit in different areas of the stadium. Club representatives that attended the latest meeting included:-
Adam Benson (Commercial Director)
Ray Booth (Stadium Manager)
Jackie Evans (HR & Customer Service Manager)
Marcus Gale (Deputy Safety Officer)
Richard Herring (General Manager of Compass)
Tom Law (Marketing Executive)
It so happens that, as a result of acquaintances within the club, I was happy to accept an invitation from Rob Coleman (Stadium & Customer Service Supervisor/Supporter Liaison Officer) back in August and have attended both Supporter Focus Group meetings which were held in August, and Monday just gone, 25 January.
Results of August's meeting
The first meeting yielded a number of ideas and initiatives, some of which are there for all to see and hear. The Fan Zone outside of Gate 7 is probably the most obvious, and was an idea that was already in place but was substantially added to by members of the forum, the immediate addition being the name, Royals Rendezvous, which readers may recognise as harking back to the Supporter's Club bar outside the Southbank turnstiles. We now have a semi-permanent structure in place with heating and covering for all supporters, home and away, in an attempt to tempt supporters to arrive early and have a drink and chat.
To complement this, an external sound system has been installed around the perimeter of the stadium so music is piped to the exterior, and we are led to believe that TV's will be installed in the area of the Royals Rendezvous for fans to watch things like the early kick off, team news, reruns of old matches against the day's opposition etc. All of these things were raised in the last Focus Group meeting. Adam Benson suggested there was currently no budget for the TV's at this moment in time but is certainly in the pipeline. As with most initiatives, these things take time to build and get off the ground, but the club's view on the Royals Rendezvous is that it has been nothing but a massive success, and as word spreads of its existence then I hope the club have plans for a more permanent structure to be erected with greater capacity and more facilities (possibly within the confines of Royal Elm Park?)
In terms of football finance, the outlay for stadium improvements doesn't seem to have borne as much fruit as could be visually expected, but Adam can be quoted as saying the now not-so-new owners have spent a lot of money behind the scenes updating and upgrading the infrastructure, some effects of which will never be seen by supporters. Money is always a finite resource but the Thais are committed to improving the stadium to try to give it more character and make it more welcoming to supporters, and to make it feel more "ours". Improving the stadium will be a slow but steady process, but improvements will happen as the club implements more and more facilities.
Just some of the ideas put forward that would cost are, for example, having the letters "RFC" imprinted in the centre three sections of the North Stand, and maybe "Reading FC" across the East, basically to further add an identity to the club and stadium. Additionally, painting the concourses from the drab, yellowy mustard colour breeze blocks to club colours, and placing more artwork around the stadium. To complement this, supporters are now able to purchase alcohol thoughout the match while the match is beamed to the TV Screens in the concourse. It has been suggested that more TV screens are placed around the concourses showing different channels (Sky Sports News for example). It isn't currently possible to split the feed within a stand, but the club have promised to look into this for the future.
The Royals Rendezvous is just one undoubtedly positive aspect that has occurred as a result of fan/club dialogue, and as a result of another area of discussion in the August meeting the club have set in place plans for a "Pub Partnership" scheme. The idea of this is for Reading FC to officially affiliate themselves with local pubs in the area to provide more formalised meeting points for supporters, and associated bus services for home matches direct to and from the pubs. The club would also advertise where their televised matches can be viewed for example, and also use the venues to host official events.
Personally speaking this can only be seen as a positive, the club has a distinct lack of presence in the suburban pub trade and any initiatives up until now have been solely pub and supporter led. The lack of clout that the individual pubs hold is a severe restrictor to any scheme's success, so the club getting on board and allying themselves with pubs will only increase the popularity of those pubs with the obvious knock on effect that the pubs get a major cash boost in takings alone, particularly on matchdays. Kudos to the club on this one.
Having the club affiliating themselves with local businesses is, in my view, a great way to engage with fans and the club acknowledge that fan engagement has not been good in the past. The club recognises that it has lost a lot of core, vocal support over the last few seasons for a variety of reasons, and they also acknowledge that they have neglected the 18-24 age group over the years, and perhaps more importantly, the Y25/26 contingent, whose support has been taken for granted. The club are actively trying to re-engage with the 18-24 age group in an effort to create a better atmosphere as they recognise the most likely demographic of fan to sing and chant is 18-24 years old and/or sits in Y24,25 or 26. As word spreads, the current and former occupants in those blocks will hopefully return and bring back some of the old atmosphere that used to pervade the Southbank, particularly on big matchdays, and bring back some of the variety of songs and chants that Reading fans used to sing.
Further efforts to engage with fans have been devised by STAR (represented by Paula Martin and Roger Titford) who are negotiating with volunteer members to become official supporter's representatives. The idea is there will be a supporter's representative in each stand whose seat will be advertised for supporters to approach for any issues, suggestions or grievances they have. STAR will then take up the issue with the club, offering a direct line for STAR to engage with all supporters, not just their membership. Much kudos to STAR on this one, it is their own initiative and one that opens the door for for non- member representation. This has been a major flaw in in their armoury for some time. I don't think STAR as an organisation is not entirely representative of all Reading supporters so to openly recognise this and engage directly with all supporters is proof positive that STAR are willing to ride alongside the club on this issue.
Moving away from material and social issues, an often maligned individual within the Reading supporter base is the drummer in the north east corner. This chap has been somewhat isolated from the hardy contingent of atmosphere creators in Y24-26 since his inception over a decade ago. I have always been in favour of having a drummer however I have often questioned the wisdom of having him so disparate from the main contingent of chanters and atmosphere creators. It hasn't gone unnoticed that Y24-26 has lost that old South Bank ability to maintain a distinct and consistent rhythm to the more continuous chants, instead they now uncontrollably get quicker and quicker to the point the words are no longer distinct from each other.
The issue of the time lag between ends of the stadium also contributes, and of course the lack of atmosphere in the north-east corner renders the drummer's efforts predominantly futile. There has been no counter to that, and the introduction of a drum in the vicinity of Y24-Y26 I feel would work to steady the chants, so the club are going to move him to different locations around the East stand during the remainder of the season and are seeking supporter feedback on the effect it has. The club would love to have a whole stand atmosphere and so by moving the drummer to engage both ends of the stand, with the emphasis on bringing Y24-26 to within his effects, it can only improve. Can't it?
Allied to atmosphere and variety of songs/chants (which has diminished dramatically over the last 5-10 years), a Twitter account has been proposed to be run by fans in Y24-26 in an attempt to increase the variety and originality of chants. The account would be completely separate of the club, run by fans for fans. On the face of it, cringeworthy, but knowing the supporter who is being lined up to run it, he certainly isn't your now seemingly stereotypical, replica shirt, Jester hat wearing Reading fan. He's a chap who knows what an atmosphere at football should be like, follows England away so regularly speaks with and meets supporters from other clubs, and won't settle for any cringeworthiness. For me, a good move, it embraces modern technology to bring fans together for the common good - atmosphere creation.
Moving on, Richard Herring attended representing Compass and has stated that, despite the limitations of the concourse, Reading is at the top end of best practice service times. The average serving time was 45 seconds per customer. In a bid to decrease this even further, the club have looked at contactless payments for all stands. A full site survey has been carried out but they would need to implement a new EPOS in the summer in order to introduce the facility. The club have received quotes for contactless at every till (which made Richard's eyes water!) or to have every kiosk wired up with one contactless point, the difference was about £50k. Good move, one that potentially alleviates the need to bring cash into the ground and convenience for all.
Food and drink
Discussions were also had in both the August meeting and this week about allowing the North Stand concourse to remain open post match to allow for a slower crowd dispersal. This was introduced a season or two ago but was not communicated well by the club and so after one or two matches stewards prevented people from entering or asked people to drink up after just 10 minutes. The club are willing to look at this (and why wouldn't they if there's money to be made). Ray Booth put forward that it may be wiser to open the Lower West concourse as it is directly next to the Compass office and provides a larger (although narrower) facility. Either way, a further option to wait around post match for people who don't want to sit in their cars or stand in the bus queue for 30 minutes is a good thing.
Briefly, the quality of food and drink was discussed this week, fans attending felt the quality was excellent and the beer was significantly better than the previous Kronenbourg and Fosters on offer. Yours truly didn't participate in this element as I rarely buy food or drink on the concourse, but there was a sample offering on the tables for products that Compass are looking to introduce. Unfortunately for this event we weren't aware of this and so while I would happily have provided feedback, I had a sizeable dinner in the hour before the meeting and so had just a token offering of a rather nice hotdog. The type of offering was not your standard fare at football, instead included wraps of varying description and Cumberland or Lincolnshire sausage hotdog (I forget which). All looked rather tasty, but for me, a money driven individual, the quality will always remain in the price!!
Finally, a few points placed on the agenda by myself:-
With the increasing clamour for the Government to look at repealing or amending the laws governing standing at football matches, I asked whether the club had seriously looked at where they could implement safe standing and how they would do it. Ray Booth is a very vocal supporter of safe standing at football and would like to see it introduced, but as ever with this issue the critical point to note is that there is no legal grounding under which the club can implement safe standing at this moment in time, and until that is introduced nothing can be done. If there was then the club would need to look at the economics of the situation, assessing what conversion would mean in terms of stadium infrastructure. If the government did eventually approve a set scheme but the costs of introducing were astronomical, it would undoubtedly prove prohibitive to introduce regardless of whether or not the club backed the principal. However, Ray did point out that there might well be very straightforward schemes which get approved and this would make it far easier. Because of this ambiguity, the club can't categorically say whether they would implement safe standing if it were approved.
Secondary to this, Ray raised the point about attendances and suggested it was economically unsound to convert the area as we rarely sell out in the Championship, and there would therefore be little desire to increase the capacity of the stadium. Of course, being realistic the club has to factor in the economic argument, although the agenda for the likes of the FSF, Supporter's Direct et al is to introduce the choice for fans whether to sit or stand, and to introduce lower ticket pricing. I have absolutely no qualms in suggesting that should safe standing be introduced at the Madejski then that particular area would be a sell out at Championship level for every match, and it could tempt back some of the old school from Elm Park who have fallen by the wayside as a result of the sanitised atmosphere and previous attempts at supporter control. I personally hope it is legalised soon with the very model we see in Germany, and I hope the club do all they can to introduce a section regardless of what division we're in, preferably in the North Stand. I would move there in a heartbeat if it happened. I feel the club need to downplay the economic argument somewhat and take a look at what this could do for the atmosphere if legalised. They want atmosphere after all!!
My second point raised was one that divides opinion, with most sitting polar opposites to each other. Personally I know of nobody who approves of him, although I admittedly associate myself with a particular type of supporter who wouldn't appreciate the approach taken so I have not got an all-encompassing demographic of supporter opinion to fall back on. I think the reaction of supporters on the panel spoke volumes when I mentioned him, affectionately nicknamed DJ Megaparty. In short, the PA Announcer is here to stay. The club hired him to bring a bit of fun and enthusiasm to proceedings as there were times when Paul Allen's mantra simply wasn't doing the job, but the unanimous feeling from all supporters present at the Focus Group was that currently he turned people off, and he should sit further in the background, take a "less is more" approach and have a bit of charisma.
I think the message has been received within the club, they admitted to realising he was too over the top when he first arrived and got him to tone down his approach soon after, and it is noticeable that he has changed since his inception so it seems the clubs insistence that he is open to feedback and will change his approach according to need is fair. I feel there is a way to go for him, but the club have stated all this guy wants to do is fit in to the PA role while maintaining an air of enthusiasm and fun, and the club back this to the hilt. They are going to feed the pointers back to him, and hopefully we'll have a PA announcer in the forthcoming weeks that is tolerated by all. Watch this space!!
Finally, the club have suggested that the car park on Imperial Way may no longer be of use towards the end of the season. The developers of Worton Grange are in discussion with the club who will give detailed information out in the way of leaflets, as well as social media, etc. as and when they know more.
To sum the meeting up, it was nothing but positive with many ongoing issues to resolve and some excellent ideas flying around. The club want to hear from fans who have ideas on how to build the atmosphere and what they can do to improve the ambience of the Madejski to make it more RFC supporter friendly. As ever the stumbling block is money in some cases, but there is no doubt some positive things have come of these two meetings, with more to come.
I await the next meeting at the end of the season with anticipation, and should any readers have any ideas or suggestions they would like put forward then the place to email is email@example.com, Tweet @TheTilehurstEnd and quote the hashtag #ttefocusgroup, or message us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thetilehurstend.