As I am writing this up to send into The Tilehurst End I struggled to come up with a title. In all likelihood, the editors will change what I submit anyway, as that is what editors are paid to do. But the working title is ‘A Trip of A Lifetime’. That sounds reasonable, right? So where did I go, you ask? Would you be surprised that the answer is Reading? Well you shouldn't be. Here is my story, take a few moments to read it and you just might agree that it was that kind of trip!
Choosing Reading FC
First things first, just like one of my favorite football chants to hurl at opposition fans, you have to start with the question of ‘Who are ya?!’ My name is Dennis Crowley. I am an American who ten years ago decided to throw my support behind one of the newly promoted teams to the English Premier League. I chose Reading. You could just as easily say Reading chose me.
I played football (soccer) with Marcelo Balboa back in Junior High School. When I discovered he had made it into the US National Team I started watching the World Cup. This was in 1990. So I started off a follower of the World Cup and would cheer for the US, England and Ireland (I have both English and Irish heritage). Then in 2006, after the World Cup, I decided that it was silly to wait four years to watch the beautiful game and wanted to support a team in the Premier League. Plus Balboa had retired and was now in broadcasting.
As I looked over the Premier League teams, I immediately eliminated the top four. I am not a front-runner and I found Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool repugnant at best. When I came to Reading everything started to make sense why they should be my team. They were new to the Premier League (as was I), they had two Americans (one from Seattle who was a fellow Seahawks fan), they had three Irish boys (Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Stephen Hunt), hearing Steve Coppell talk was like listening to a General you would go into battle with full of confidence and, finally, watching the clips of what how they played in the Championship sealed it. They played the game the right way.
I started to watch Reading FC games on Fox Soccer Channel, a few months later I found the Reading Fans Forum called HobNobAnyone? (www.royals.org), and I quickly joined in to give my tuppence (although it took several months to get my account approved as I think the admins did not believe that someone from Los Angeles actually wanted to join the discussion). I started to tune in to BBC Radio Berkshire weekly to listen to current players be interviewed and to learn about Reading's past. I even called in to ask questions on the post-game show.
What really tied me to the team and the town was the relationships I started to develop with fellow Reading fans on HobNob. One of them, Neil Maskell, would send me programs and newspaper articles from the Evening Post. With the technology in place I started to not only feel part of the team but part of the community as well. Another fellow ‘Hob Nobber’ was a fan from Osaka Japan. Hiroshi Watanabe had gone to school in Reading at the Japanese Business College. We became friends and when Hiro and his wife Minori went to Los Angeles on holiday I picked them up from their hotel and we watched a Reading – Everton match at an English Pub in the area. I then took them to Anaheim Stadium to watch the Angels play the Mariners so they could root on countryman Ichiro Suzuki.
Hiro and I both talked about attending a game together at the Madejski Stadium one day. But at that point it was just a dream. We became Facebook friends and would keep an eye on each other through that medium. It might be months in between messages but whenever something exciting involving Reading FC would occur we always talked about it with each other even if it might be lunchtime in Los Angeles and bed time in Osaka. How cool is it that two people on opposite ends of the planet had their eye focused on Reading Football Club?
Fast forward to February 26th, 2016. I get a note on Facebook from Hiro inviting me to accompany him to a game on April 9th at the Madejski Stadium! As a father of four, an impromptu solo trip to watch Reading seemed a bit selfish. So I told him I couldn’t make it, I didn’t even tell my wife about it as I know she would tell me to go. But Hiro made it even more enticing, he was not just inviting me to the game but he had paid for a hospitality suite. We would have the opportunity to tour the stadium, we would be on the pitch and meet the team captains! Oh man, I had to at least consider it. Just as I suspected once I told my wife she said ‘You have to go, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity’. And so I was about to make a lifelong dream come true.
Now that I was coming over I decided to try and take in two games, so along with the April 9th game against Birmingham I booked my flight to arrive Tuesday the 5th so I could watch Reading play Nottingham Forest as well. After booking my flight I started a thread on HobNob to ask what the ‘can’t miss’ things I needed to experience while I was in England to watch my favourite football club.
Not only did the suggestions come flying in (cheeky Nando’s, Sweeney and Todd’s Pie Shop, Mr. Whippy, etc.) but so did the offers to spend time with me and show me around Reading and other places around England. I was so excited, this was going to be an amazing trip.
David Harris, another friend from HobNob, had told my story to the club and they decided to do something special for me. I went from excited to apoplectic when I found out a few days before my trip that I was selected to partake in the halftime ‘Lucky Strike’ promotion where I would try to kick a ball in from different distances to try and win various prizes. How crazy was that going to be?
Tuesday, April 5th:
Tuesday the 5th actually started for me when I jumped on my Air New Zealand overnight flight from LAX to Heathrow. I boarded the plane at 5:00pm PT and after a 10 and a half hour flight I landed at lunchtime in England. As I went through customs I was of course asked the purpose of my visit. ‘To watch the greatest club football team in England, Reading FC!’ was my response. The look I was given was quizzical at best. ‘You don’t hear that very often.’ He got an earful as I happily told him my story and he quickly but politely moved me through the line. I wish I had captured the look on his face as it matched the same look I typically get when telling people the club I support. The look, described in words would be ‘Reading? Why Reading?’. The following is a photo log of my week in and around Reading, and this pretty neatly sums up exactly why Reading!
I had planned to take the bus from Heathrow to Reading Town Centre but Handbags (David Harris) would not hear of it and he picked me up from the Airport.
After checking in to the hotel (I had to stay at the Millennium Madejski Hotel of course) we grabbed a cheeky Nandos (check that one off the list). It was amazing, the most flavorful chicken ever. Why don’t we have these in the States?
The rest of the day was spent talking all things Reading FC at The Gateway (an Irish pub near Town Centre). We were joined by Mark Sugar and Andy Ray, two more friends from HobNob. Until it was time to head down to the match via the bus. After exiting the bus, what was your normal walk to the game scene was just incredible to me. To look around and see so many people in Reading colours heading to the game. Here I was, less than 24 hours from being in a place where I literally know no other Reading supporters to being surrounded by thousands of them. You could not wipe the smile off my face! The game itself was amazing, Reading came out aggressive and attacking. They were unlucky to fall behind 1-0 due to a sucker punch goal from Forest.
With my mood dampened, I headed down to the pitch to try my hand (foot?) at the halftime contest. I had not kicked a ball in months and it showed. After barely making the first two kicks I decided call it a day and walk away with a Kinglsey Gnome and a 50 pound voucher from the Team MegaStore. I regret that now of course, I should have given it a shot! My only regret from the trip is not trying it.
Wednesday, April 6th:
Off to London for the day to see the sights! I took a double-decker bus tour and hit Camden Market to buy some T-shirts for the kids. I saw some cool street performers as well.
The highlight of the day was doing a pub quiz with Andy (another friend from HobNob). This was one of those small things I wanted to try as I feel it is uniquely English. I often feel that in the States we are losing those critical social ties that make up what it means to be a community. Something as small as a pub quiz can help strengthen those ties. We tied at 52 with another team (out of 60) and lost on the tie-breaker. So close!
Thursday, April 7th:
Thursday was spent with my good friends Neil Maskell and Ian East. Neil is one of the first ones to reach out to me when I joined HobNob and really made me feel part of the community. He would send me old game programmes and articles cut out from the Reading Evening Post. I can imagine following a team thousands of miles away would have been a difficult thing in the 1970’s. But with modern technology it is a lot easier these days. But Neil went the extra mile helping me to get a real feel for what it was like to be a Reading fan through certain key periods including the Simod Cup win, the failed Thames Valley Royals merger, the near misses at promotion (Archie’s Penalty) and the success brought on by Steve Coppell’s 106 team.
Neil lived near Oxford so I took the train out to see him and get a walking tour of Oxford. He met me at the train station and showed me around and we later met up with Easters (Ian East).
That wasn’t the end of Thursday’s shenanigans. Another friend, Mike Terry, from HobNob picked me up at the train station and took me to football training with the Hobnob FC team. Something I definitely needed considering all the delicious food I was sampling. On top of the fish and chips lunch I picked up a pie from Sweeney & Todd’s for dinner prior to training, it was excellent!
Friday, April 8th:
Friday was another highlight. Stephen Taylor, another friend from Hobnob, picked me up and took me on a driving tour of the English countryside. We saw the Danebury Hill Fort, Stonehenge and then stopped at Wells Cathedral! Another amazing day, with my very first ever cream tea. I am squarely on #teamDevonshire as putting the cream on first was a no-brainer.
To top it all off Stephen took me to the Royal Tandoori in Reading to end the day. Just an amazing day out, it is hard to describe the beauty of the English countryside. This is a side of England that many people fail to see if they spend the majority of their trip in London.
Saturday, April 9th:
The time had finally come! Not only was I going to take a tour of the stadium, see the players dressing room, have a three-course meal and watch the match from a hospitality suite but I was going to see my good friend Hiro again! The day was a barrage of non-stop happy memories. You will see in the pictures below just how amazing it was.
The game itself, a 2-0 win by Birmingham City was a bit of a disappointment but it did nothing to dampen my mood. Sitting in the Madejski Stadium, even watching a poor performance, was magical! After the match Hiro was presented with an autographed shirt and he was also supposed to present the man of the match with a commemorative champagne bottle. But another surprise, he asked me to do the honors!
The final story was after our adventures at the Gateway another friend from HobNob, Paul Compton, insisted that we try a Harput Kebab. Hiro himself regaled us with tales of how when he was a student in Reading he would visit a kebab van on Shinfield Road regularly. That van had since moved on but Paul thought the kebabs at Harput Kebab were even better and he was right!
Hiro’s description of the kebab experience was perfect:
Paul, Huge hug from me to you. Appreciated. While I was drinking in The Gateway pub, Dennis told me that you paid pair of Kebab for us. I enjoyed a little walk to Kebab place with him, and Paul, your hospitality have made my trip something so special too! Taste of Kebab; it was a perfect harmony of tender lamb, vegetables, pita, mayo and homemade chili sauce. It was just what I did eat a lot between 1992 to 97 in Reading, and what I have been dreaming about in last 19 years.
I have to say that finishing up my week of fun in The Gateway was symbolic for my entire trip. It was a gateway. A gateway to new experiences, amazing food, incredible people and a small opening for me to feel what it is like to live in Reading and support this amazing club. I can't imagine how the trip could have been any better. The way the community opened its arms to Hiro and I was entirely unexpected and made us feel special. It truly was the trip of a lifetime!
To find out more about Dennis' trip, you can follow him on Twitter @DangeRussMyHero. If you are also a loyal Royal living abroad and want to share your experiences of following the club from afar, please get in touch with us in the comments below or email: firstname.lastname@example.org