Reading fans are a pretty divided bunch. With no proper rivalry to bring the fans together they instead direct their negativity towards each other. Part of it is without doubt down to social media, which seems to bring out the worst in people, and Reading fans are far from the only ones who look down on their own, but there is something particularly unique about the vitriol that Reading fans direct to their own.
Despite that there is one thing that they nearly all agree on: the matchday atmosphere at the Madejski Stadium is bad. The variety of chanting has never been worse, the old school terrace wit has been lost and the noise generated was rarely audible across the whole stadium for most of last season despite us finishing third. Reading fans have never been the loudest set of supporters, but it’s getting worse.
It wasn’t always like this. In 1999/2000 Reading fans were actually voted the best supporters in that year’s Division 2. In the early years the Madejski Stadium was consistently voted one of the best stadiums in the country. The atmosphere in the playoff against Wigan remains legendary.
In 2008 I sat in the home end on a fateful May afternoon in Pride Park and was shocked by the noise generated by the Reading fans. They might have been sat the opposite end of the stadium, but they sounded louder than most away fans have when I’ve been in Y25/26.
I struggle to think of a set of away fans that have created more noise in 19 years at the Madejski Stadium. So it’s a myth that Reading fans can’t create an atmosphere. They have done and showed in the home leg against Fulham last season that they still can. But it’s getting rarer and rarer.
Lack of excitement
Part of the decline is down to Reading becoming a victim of their own success. It is now expected that the club will challenge for promotion to the Premier League. Anything less than a playoff challenge is deemed failure and hardship even when relegation to League One is never likely. However, because in the 21st century it has been rare for Reading to not go into the last game of the season with a chance of being in the Premier League, promotion challenges themselves do not generate excitement.
In 2012 it took until the last couple of months of the season before the crowds grew and you could feel a buzz around the Madejski Stadium. Last season it only really happened twice: against Leeds and in the home leg of the playoffs. That was because they weren’t just that they were big games in the context of the whole season, they were also up against opponents who looked down on The Royals.
Reading fans didn’t just want to win, they wanted to stop Fulham and Leeds winning. That’s what sets apart matches against local rivals from normal games. The fear of losing can be a bigger incentive than just winning.
Against Huddersfield in the playoff final it was noticeable that the Reading fans seemed subdued. Of course we wanted to win, but it was hard not to feel happy for Huddersfield. If it had been Fulham, Leeds or Sheffield Wednesday in the final it would have been different.
It’s a strange problem for Reading and one that other clubs will struggle to understand. The incentive to win and reach the Premier League just does not do it for Reading fans like it used to. We’ve been in the Premier League and nearly always challenge for promotion. Being successful is the norm so there needs to be something else to help create an atmosphere and buzz.
The matchday experience
The games I’ve attended in recent years where there has been a good atmosphere and excitement around the stadium have nearly all taken place in stadiums located in urban areas. Reading’s FA Cup quarter final against Bradford in 2015 was a classic example; Valley Parade is a 15 minute walk from the centre of Bradford.
As you get closer to the ground you join more and more people and feel part of a great communal event. There’s something amazing about knowing you’re one of thousands of people attending the same event, and that first distant glimpse of the stadium that tells you you’re almost there. As a home fan you feel like your whole town/city is with you. As an away fan you feel like you’re in enemy territory.
At the Madejski Stadium you’re in no man’s land. Reading Football Club has gone from being part of a proud working class area of Reading to an outer town soulless location. It’s easy to go to a game without ever going through any part of the town.
There’s of course nothing the club can do about the location of the stadium. Battle Hospital aside, there was no land big enough in the Reading urban area that could accommodate a medium sized stadium without building on precious park land. If the Madejski Stadium was ever to be knocked down, then Reading would almost certainly have to move out of the Borough of Reading.
The problem though is that the Madejski Stadium does not feel part of Reading, which means it’s harder for the club to be part of the town. There is no physical reminder that it is the heart of the local community. Valley Parade or St James’ Park are two stadiums that are virtual cathedrals to their cities. The Madejski Stadium is more akin to an out of town shopping centre.
It has been suggested that Royal Elm Park might help improve the situation. In reality unless they build three or four pubs that happily cater to the traditional football fan then it’s unlikely to make much difference. Good weather aside there will be little reason for fans to congregate early in a characterless housing development.
At Elm Park fans had local pubs with character to choose from and could make a match part of their lives in Reading. The Madejski Stadium takes you out of the town and in the near two decades it has started to feel like the football club has made that same move.
In some ways Reading are a reflection of top level English football in general. Owned by foreigners with no links to the local area and a successful academy, that for all its hype, rarely produces first team players and when they do they never seem to come from the actual town of Reading.
The last two decades of success has seen the club attract supporters from further afield. In 1995 I was asked in Wallingford whether my Reading shirt was a Sheffield Wednesday one. That wouldn’t happen today which is great.
However, there’s never been a great local pride in Berkshire or the Thames Valley. Might it be time for the club to re-embrace the town of Reading. People are proud to come from Reading, not Berkshire or the Thames Valley.
The decline of the traditional football fan
The lack of links with the town is possibly one reason for the decline in the number of traditional football fans who attend games at the Madejski Stadium. A myth has grown up since the turn of the century that Reading is a uniquely middle class when it comes to football towns.
I challenge anyone to walk through the centres of Cardiff, Derby, Huddersfield and Reading and to notice much difference between the locals. If you listen to some away fans you would think Reading was a bigger version of Henley. Reading is a normal provincial town. The only difference it has with most of the country is its closeness to London. That has led to it becoming a prosperous town, which has meant its working class population are upwardly mobile.
Whilst the opposition fans are wrong about Reading as a town they are right about the football club being more middle class than normal. Go to a Reading away game and you’re as likely to see middle aged retirees as your more traditional young working class male football fans. This is not a criticism of Reading fans. I myself am as middle class as you can find and attend games with my parents who are both retired and in their 60s.
The issue I have is that for too long it felt like Reading FC took the traditional football fan for granted. For years the marketing was solely aimed at making a match a family day out. That was a mistake for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is patronising to children and families to presume they will only attend football if it’s child friendly. The Madejski Stadium is a safe environment and is big enough for there to be family areas.
Football brings people together and that’s what gets children and their parents hooked. As a child I loved sharing a common passion with my Dad. We went to the football because we both wanted to, not just because he was being a good parent. There was excitement of being in an adult environment. I looked up to older fans and as a I got older I felt a sense of pride when I started being one of those fans who started chants.
Football was once known as the working class man’s game. Sometimes it has felt like Reading have been embarrassed by that link. No one wants to see a return to 70s/80s style hooliganism, but that hasn’t been a problem for decades anyway. It’s young men and women who create the atmospheres that we all remember which makes the club’s shunning of them even odder.
Making matchday another family day out also means there is a risk that a generation of Reading fans associate football as just another nice activity. When they reach their teenage years and start having to pay for tickets they’ll more likely spend their money on other things because football was never angled to them as a place to get a buzz.
The club have gone to some way to acknowledging this by extending the reduced tickets to 25, but the years of family orientated marketing may have taken its toll.
Mascots, goal music, heavy handed stewarding and a drummer are all examples of a dumbing down of the traditional football matchday experience. Football terraces used to be places of great wit and imaginative chants. It’s been years since Reading fans sang something witty or unique.
Even when they do come up with a decent chant it often becomes diluted by an ability to sing any song that contains more than 10 words. It’s unthinkable that a chant like “show me the way to Aston Villa, Man Utd...” would be thought up by Reading fans today.
The club doesn’t always help the situation. The music played seems randomly chosen with no thought into what might help build an atmosphere. The attempt to make Sweet Caroline the club’s anthem has been a failure. It’s played before every game, but DJ Megaparty talks over it and the chorus is rarely given an airing before kickoff. Can you imagine You’ll Never Walk Alone being talked over or the chorus not being played. Either do it properly or don’t do it all.
How to make things better
As we approach the 150th anniversary of Reading FC being founded there has never been a better time to ask what sort of club we want. There are some things that cannot be changed, like being locally owned or having a stadium in the heart of the town.
If Reading fans want a better atmosphere then they need to do something about it. Too often in recent years there has been dismissal of any ideas suggested. As if being seen to make an effort was worse than having a bad atmosphere.
The award in 1999/2000 wasn’t given because Reading fans were the loudest fans. It was because they were imaginative. ‘Sunny Scunny’ saw Reading sell out the Scunthorpe away end for an end of season middle table game in the third tier. There was Pants Day, Beard Day, Beach Day and Bald Day at home games. It was at times silly but fun.
We’re lucky here at The Tilehurst End that we’ve created a good dialogue with the club and it’s clear that they’re keen to help the fans however they can, be it spreading ideas from other fans, helping fund projects or further support.
With the drummer retiring, they’ve already put an email out asking if anyone wants to step in to his shoes. Initiatives like this show the club are open, but they’re not going to force anything down our throats. It’s now down to us as a fanbase to try and stir something and give the club something they can also get behind.
To start looking at how to improve you have to look at what’s gone wrong. The club has made undoubted progress in the last year. There’s still work they can do, but ultimately the fans have to make an effort too.
In our next article on this topic we’ll look at how to improve the atmosphere. We at The Tilehurst End are under no illusion that we can single handedly change things. We want to be a forum where ideas can be shared and discussed, so the more you send our way the better.