You have a choice of the uncovered end terrace, or the terrace alongside the pitch, which does have a roof, albeit an undistinguished one crisscrossed by girders and a variety of translucent panels giving the look of having been patched up many times over the years.
You pay cash at the turnstile, then make your choice, perhaps after having queued for a limited choice of refreshments from the corrugated iron shed at the back of the terrace, and then you take your place leaning on a blue crash barrier. A few minutes before 3pm the teams emerge from the tunnel midway along the main stand, a stand also unremarkable, supported by posts along the front of the pitched blue roof, and only about 20 rows of seats deep.
There’s a sense of anticipation, which leads to excitement as the home team, resplendent in blue and white hoops and white shorts, kick-off. It’s only when you spot the giant crane behind the away end (or what was the away end, its benches now unused as away fans sit under cover towards one end of the main stand) that you’re reminded that this isn’t Elm Park in the 1980s, although it’s as close as I think it’s humanly possible to replicate that experience.
Instead, this is Cappielow, home of Greenock Morton, a ground I’d wanted to visit since I was about seven and was outraged by the Subbuteo catalogue, which alongside a picture of the "flick to kick" figure painted with blue and white hoops had the listing "QPR, Morton, Reading" – in that order!
Since then, I’ve always had a curiosity and a certain affection for Reading’s Scottish doppelgängers – a curiosity finally satisfied with a visit to see them play Dumbarton, local rivals from just across the Clyde, accompanied, for reasons I won’t go into, by Maidenhead United’s match day announcer. And it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, which did genuinely remind me of what it was like at Elm Park in the 1980s.
Because it’s all about the football, and not much else. All the commercialisation, all the ‘branding’ all the other crap that surrounds modern football these days – crap intended to monetise anything that can be possibly monetised. The teams come up, toss the coin with the referee, select ends and kick-off. There are no elaborate p.a. announcements, no over-enthusiastic gimboid with a microphone constantly exhorting more and more artificial noise, no family-friendly entertainments (using the word ‘entertainment’ in its loosest sense), no contrived and insincere forced team handshakes, just no messing about before the game starts.
And once the game has started, it’s a lot less fussy and complicated, too. Perhaps I was lucky, but I didn’t see any player feign or exaggerate an injury, even though the game was full-blooded by the standards of the Championship.
When a player was down on the ground, they got up quickly and with a minimum of fuss, and I don’t remember any diving or arguing with the referee – except when an obviously ludicrous penalty was given to the home team midway through the second half, to the surprise of just about everyone in the ground. But the gods of football karma were watching this match closely, as almost immediately after that penalty was put away the visitors cancelled it out from a shot which took a wild deflection.
The whole attitude on the pitch seemed more honest and positive throughout, as well, too. Both teams wanted to play attacking football, and got the ball forward whenever they could. There was no endless passing across the back, no retaining possession whilst trying to prise open a packed defence. Some might say the game is less sophisticated, or less tactically advanced – but those people are probably the same people who quote possession figures rather than score lines as an indicator of how a game went.
It was, purely and simply, a good, honest game of football from two teams who looked like they wanted to play and to score goals at all times – and an entertaining, all-action, one. Morton, third in the table and chasing promotion to the top division (another parallel!) started well, but soon lost their lone striker to injury. Despite that they scored after 19 minutes from an own-goal that was conceded trying to defend one of the countless crosses coming in from Morton’s tricky wingers.
The oncoming Morton substitute was one of the most intriguing players I’ve ever seen, though – in terms of appearance and physique you’d never expect him to be able to play up front on his own, and he certainly didn’t have the pace for it. But he obviously had a brilliant football brain, and he certainly made things happen, even though he looked to be out of position to me – an attacking playmaker who happened to also be the only forward in the team.
But it worked, and his distribution was top-class at all time, bringing in the wingers with clever balls or holding up play as required. With no demarcation between the Sinclair Street End and the Cowshed (equivalent to the Tilehurst End and the South Bank) we were free to stand behind the goal Morton were attacking in the first half, then spend the second half under cover in the Cowshed – always a glorious way to watch football.
And under the roof it did feel like the good old days – some industrial language (but hey - swearing always used to be a natural accompaniment to any football match – it’s all about passion), lots of kids enjoying the game, no in-your-face CCTV checking your every movement, and no stewards constantly patrolling. And, you won’t be surprised to hear, when goals were scored supporters were left alone to celebrate them in whatever way they damn-well liked, with no deafening music imposing a club-approved, safe and sanitised method of celebration.
If you love football and hate the commercialisation of the game, you’ll just love it here, just as I did. It’s a reminder of simpler, more honest and more straightforward times, when goals and points were what mattered and ownership discussions and "monetisation" weren’t on the radar.
And it genuinely made me feel like I was back at Elm Park in the 80s, since all the things that made me fall in love with the game and with Reading FC were there in abundance, and most of the things that have made it so much harder to maintain those loves were absent. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely being going back as often as I can.
PS – as if a proper old-school ground with tin roofs and terraces wasn’t a good enough reason to love this place, there’s the added geek-appeal of having that massive crane at one end, and a railway line running right next to the main stand. What more could you possibly want of a ground?