I know there’s been somewhat of a movement towards non-league football for a number of folks the last few seasons, so I wanted to put down my own thoughts and my own path as to why I now mainly watch my local non-league team over watching Reading week in week out.
In this piece, I take a look back at why the modern experience of watching Reading isn’t quite what it used to be. In the next part, I’ll let you in on why I’ve grown to love non-league Supermarine.
I first went to Reading in 1987, aged 6. We were at home to Hull City in the old Division Two. Kevin Bremner scored and we won 1-0. I went back the week after and we beat Sheffield United 2-0. My Grandad and all my uncles are fans and we stood together on the Tilehurst End*. I lived in Reading at the time and I really enjoyed the experience. Standing at the front behind the fence, terraces, sweets from the old corner shop, a couple of glasses of coke, reading the matchday programme and playing table football in the Spread Eagle pub opposite the ground. I can still close my eyes and visualise walking up the slope and seeing the lush green grass and Southbank Stand in front of me to this day.
*Editor’s note: The Tilehurst End was definitely the best place to stand.
Even though we moved 100 miles away to Gloucestershire later that year, I was hooked and my parents took me back once a month to home games and we still had a lot of family in Reading so we made a day of it and even as a young teenager, my uncles took me to my “local” away games such as Bristol City, Bristol Rovers and Swindon.
I had a Saturday job as a teenager and saved up and bought my first half-season ticket aged 16, much to my Parents annoyance, as they now had to take me to every home game!
Before the highs of supporting Reading came the lows...
I don’t think I’ve ever been as upset at a sporting event as I was when we lost to Bolton in that playoff final. I distinctly remember crying in the ground and on the bus back to Reading. I was devastated. It was poignant that Westy said on the podcast that he’ll probably never experience a low like that again in his lifetime because we probably have the very same the same footballing highs and lows. It does still scar me to this day. What could have been...
When we left Elm Park, as a still very impressionable 18 year old it didn’t hit me straight away. It was sad, and I do still miss it now, but we had a shiny new Concrete bowl stadium out of town, so it was exciting and more and more teams were getting these “exciting new stadiums”. I had a car by this point, so I was able to do the 200 mile round trip myself and went to the last couple of friendlies before it was knocked down and have a couple of seats from the old West Stand now in my back garden. A week after my 18th birthday I got a Reading tattoo!
I continued to make that 200 mile round trip as we went through what I can only recall now as a couple of seasons of obscurity before making our move back to the 2nd tier. I was gutted after losing at Cardiff to Walsall. No tears this time, just anger I recall and I was now old enough that I could get hammered to try and forget about it! So I did and I haven’t!
Three more years of football obscurity followed in the second tier, before Steve Coppell put together probably the finest Reading team there has ever been. At this point, I was travelling home and away and racking up the grounds in fast fashion. The announcement that we had gone up in the away end at Leicester in March 2006 is probably the happiest moment of my sporting life. There were tears, hugs from strangers. It was ecstasy. Little old Reading had defied history and made it to the top tier for the first time in existence. We lit Cigars, we told stories of good and bad. It was a day I will never forget. It was a day I will never have again. It was a day that will never be repeated. It was the top of the mountain for my Reading FC fandom.
The following season, the magic continued, we finished 8th in the Premier League and our undoing was not building on that in the 2nd season. The magic quickly disappeared, we were relegated after that turgid second season. I didn’t see it as “Second season Syndrome” just a lack of investment in January and probably Coppell’s ultimate downfall.
A changing atmosphere
Very quickly the fan experience at Reading became about the money and very little to being a fan and very little about the lads having a few beers and a bit of a jolly on a Saturday. Plus, we were all getting a bit older, wiser. Wives and children and home-buying now became our priorities and the number on our row dwindled from 9 or 10 of us to three who currently still go. There was now a forced atmosphere, goal music, no standing, over-zealous stewards, stupid gimmicks that were forced upon us and we were fast becoming customers and not fans. Coppell resigned in 2009 and the end of an era was over and I think a little or maybe a lot of me went with him.
Another playoff final defeat, this time to Swansea in which God Save The Queen was not performed before the kick off (I’ve always thought the FA were a bunch of spineless idiots, but this was just another screw up on their behalf and another nail in the coffin moment) and it’s almost just a case of shrug our shoulders, deal with it and move onto next season. “There’s always next season” Used to be an ongoing joke with my Grandad and Uncles growing up. It should really be on the club’s badge, READING FC EST 1871. THERE’S ALWAYS NEXT SEASON or whatever the Latin equivalent is! I’ve lost count of the amount of times I used to come home from Elm Park and in the early days of the Madejski and moan to my grandparents, “I’m never going again, we’re rubbish” only to be there two weeks later!
Promotion back to the top flight eventually followed the next season. Football wise that promotion race was entertaining and exciting and we played some excellent football, but even after winning promotion, going onto the pitch and celebrating felt more like me going through the motions of doing so, because “that’s what you do when you go up” it was fun, but it wasn’t Leicester away in 2006 and we knew what was now ahead of us. A season where we would most likely be playing for 17th place. Bar the odd game here or there, probably last on Match of the Day and given no respect or time in the press or by the media and given what happened, probably rightly so!
That season again I felt like I went through the motions, I went because “that’s what I did on Saturday” Going to football and to Reading had become a chore. It got in the way of other things I wanted to do and that was when I decided I wouldn’t get a season ticket. I’d pick and choose my games and as I wouldn’t be doing as many away games, the “loyalty point scheme” didn’t really bother me anymore. A house move in 2012 meant I was actually closer to Reading, which at the time, was somewhat of a bonus. My 200 mile round trip had become a 90 mile round trip, but as I was now only going once a month, it didn’t really raise my pulse anymore, I’d fallen out of love with the game and the club!
The grossly obscene money and identikit soulless plastic bowls (which by now weren’t really exciting new concrete bowls I thought they were back in 1998) where only the amount and colours of the seats change and the distance between player and fans and clubs and fans had seemingly sanitised my need to watch football at the top couple of levels. I still play Fantasy Football each season, so that I at least have some interest. Without that, I genuinely may not have watched a top flight game for a few years now.
Reading used to do things a little differently as well. Dealings in the transfer market would always catch us out. Nobody knew about it, there weren’t leaks. We did our business in a manner that you could be proud of. A right and a wrong way of doing things and invariably, in my time growing up and until the last five to six years or so, they did it the right way, but foreign investors coming in looking to make a quick buck and get out of town or to sell the car park because of its value for building additional housing, shops and retail units on. We’re now on our third set of owners in around 10 years. I had my doubts over each of them, and miss the days when football was more transparent.
Look out for the next part of Brian’s story, when he explains why following non-league Supermarine is a better footballing experience.