If the recent lockdown(s) have taught me anything, it is never to take my Saturday routine of watching my beloved Royals for granted. Having supported Reading for 42 years I have become well versed in being able to accept disappointment and celebrate success in slightly unequal measure, although over the last few years I have become an expert in telling friends that “I never expected anything from the season anyway” when secretly I had hoped that everyone would underestimate us, and the players that I knew were not good enough would turn into world beaters overnight.
With mental health (and more importantly the exposure that it now has) becoming part of our daily lives, it is becoming more and more important to have a routine, a focus, something to look forward to, which for me was and always will be my Saturdays watching RFC.
Since Boris announced a national lockdown on March 23rd (which incidentally is my birthday, thanks Boris!) I never believed that, eight months later I would be sitting here writing about the team I love rather than watching them at the Mad Stad. For me though, the period of lockdown has had quite a strange effect on the way I think, as I have not only missed more recent times watching Reading, but have now started to reminisce about Elm Park days and how my Saturday routine evolved.
My Saturday routine started way back in 1979, at a time when lockdown meant me not going out to play because I hadn’t finished my homework, and social distancing was something that I only practised in the changing rooms after swimming because the kid next to me had a verruca. My first trip to Elm Park was uneventful to be honest. We beat Barnsley 1-0 (I think), it was the middle of February and it was seriously cold and miserable. In fact, the thing I remember most about it was going back to my aunt’s house in Suffolk Road after the game, where we discovered that Steve Death lived next door!
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, on that day I had been bitten by the Reading FC bug, and it was in the following season that my dad bought me my first season ticket: C Stand, row D, seat 8. To the untrained eye this was just another faded plastic seat, but to me this was my throne, my kingdom; this is where I would sit and play judge, jury and executioner for the next eight years.
In my head I was a better manager than Maurice Evans (and later Ian Branfoot), a better striker than Kerry Dixon or Trevor Senior, and I could play passes that neither Neil Webb nor Dean Horrix would ever see. Of course, it wasn’t just me who believed that they could do a better job. My dad’s friend, who was called ‘Brian from Woodley’ (which was strange because he lived in Whitley) was in his 60s at the time and he would often tell the Reading bench that he was 64 next week and even he could run faster than Martin Hicks.
Over the next eight years my life was dedicated to Reading FC, Elm Park and C Stand. When I think back now, the things I miss most about Elm Park are today a Health & Safety Advisor’s dream: the wooden stands that carried the sound of footsteps throughout the ground, the stench of cigar smoke that wafted from the tea bar at half-time, the turnstiles that you could only walk through facing forward if you were less than six stone, Bovril so hot that it melted the plastic cup that was designed to hold it (which I know from painful personal experience to be true) and my personal favourite: the smallest club shop you have ever seen, where up to 30 people used to cram into a 6x6 space to collect match tickets and a signed photograph of Billy Whitehurst.
Even at school I couldn’t escape Reading FC (not that I wanted to) as my teacher in primary school was club historian David Downs, and if anyone lived and breathed Reading FC it was him. For me the Monday-to-Friday chat with Mr Downs about Reading FC made Saturdays come around that much quicker. Mr Downs also had a very old briefcase that he used to call Percy, and whilst he tried to convince many that it housed teaching schedules and homework assignments, I am convinced that it actually contained his own team selection for Saturday’s game, together with a number of recent matchday programmes.
I guess it was only some years later that my Saturday routine changed slightly. I no longer wanted to sit with my Dad in C Stand, and instead wanted to go and stand with my mates on The South Bank. The South Bank was somewhere I had only seen from the other side of the ground between the ages of 7 to 15, so getting the chance to go and stand with those that made the noise on behalf of the whole ground was part of the excitement.
I already knew the words to most of the songs that came from the South Bank, although - let’s face it - many football songs do not need hours of practice, just a mental note to yourself that you need to leave out the expletives if you are singing them at home with your Parents around. Reading songs over the years have not really changed much, and with the lack of an anthem that defines Reading FC, it becomes difficult to remember any Reading song from any decade that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
I may have missed something when I say this, but I never quite understood why Molly Malone wheeling her wheelbarrow through streets wide and narrow made it into the list of the South Banks greatest hits. That said, I would sing along to every word, whilst pointing menacingly to the sparsely populated away end, which to me gave the song a bit more meaning. I also later discovered that if you happened to forget where you were on the South Bank, you were reminded every five minutes or so with a chorus of “we’re the left side, we’re the left side, we’re the left side of the bank”.
My personal favourite though was one that took very little practice, even though it later became my biggest source of embarrassment. Having spent a bit of time watching Reading from the South Bank, our group had slowly moved its way across to the main focus group of the South Bank - those that stood closest to the away end, about three quarters of the way up the main steps. This is where the orchestrators stood, those that braved a solo opening to every song and fiercely encouraged those around them to join in, if you knew the words of course!
As you got to know those stood around you, you would also start to gain confidence in what you were doing, what you were singing and how quickly you could duck under the barriers if Reading scored and there was a surge forward from the top of the South Bank. So, it’s from here that I go back to my biggest embarrassment, not once but twice within the same incident.
It was a midweek game (can’t remember who against) and the South Bank was unusually quiet, so I had an agreement with my mates that I would start a song and they would join in. Imagine my pride as I belted out “GIVE US AN R”, which was quickly to be followed by “GIVE US AN E” (which incidentally took on a whole different meaning towards the 90s).
What followed can only be described as deathly silence. Not one person joined in, in fact the loudest sound I could hear came from my mates laughing hysterically behind me. As I turned around to challenge their lack of participation, Reading scored. Now facing the wrong way to take the force of a surge forward, I was suddenly faced with a wall of people coming towards me and had to think quickly: what would a normal person do in this situation?
And so, to embarrassment number two. I decided that the best way to avoid those coming towards me was to coil myself around the barrier next to me and spin myself around it as quickly as possible - clever eh? Although clearly not clever as I managed to skittle over a number of those closest to me, one of them being a lady who I managed to catch flush on her jaw with my flailing limbs.
As I lay on the floor, I could see blood, and after quickly realising that it wasn’t mine, I looked up to see the lady’s mouth pouring. I really cannot repeat what she said to me afterwards through bloodied lips, but let me just say that she taught me swear words that I had never heard before. As the St John’s Ambulance crew arrived I remember repeating to her how sorry I was, and if she remembers the incident in 1987 and somehow gets to read this then I would like to repeat my apology, I’m sorry and I really hope that your mouth healed quickly.
In later years I continued to watch Reading from the South Bank at my beloved Elm Park, and visited many away grounds during that time, usually referring to each one as a dump. This wasn’t due to the grounds being any worse than Elm Park, it was mainly because they didn’t have the added South Bank feature of overflowing urinals that poured down the steps as you were watching the game.
As I got a bit older my Saturday routine started to increase from Saturday afternoons only to Saturday mornings, Saturday afternoons, and later Saturday evenings, with varying finish times dependent on whether we had won or lost that day. Included in my new routine was a fixed-odds coupon at Coral’s in Oxford Road (on carbon paper, nothing online in those days), a breakfast from anywhere along the Oxford Road that took our fancy, followed by a few pre-match pints, normally consumed in one of two places: The Royals Rendezvous or The Spread Eagle. The Rendezvous was great if you managed to get in there early enough to get anywhere near the bar, but the Spread Eagle was for me a proper matchday pub.
Over the years the Spread had many landlords, but one I remember from the later Elm Park years was a guy called Mick, or at least I think it was Mick. Mick (as I will call him for the purposes of this article) was a straight-talking no-nonsense Yorkshireman. When other pubs were starting to employ door staff on match days, Mick used to man the door himself, and if he didn’t like the look of you then you were not coming in.
I also seem to remember Mick’s wife cooking hundreds of roast potatoes on match days and putting them on the bar in dishes. I am not sure whether roast potatoes instead of peanuts was, and maybe still is, a Yorkshire thing, or whether the pub had won a year’s supply of King Edwards in a competition. Whatever the reason it certainly added to the Elm Park experience and judging by the rate in which the roasties were consumed, I am probably not alone in my thinking.
My Saturday Elm Park routine continued until that last day against Norwich City in May 1998, a 1-0 defeat, having already been relegated to League Two. As well as fond memories of Elm Park, I still have a few bits and pieces that I have collected over the years, my most treasured being the turnstile plate from one of the Tilehurst End turnstiles, although how I came by that is a completely different story and one that is probably best left for another day.
I am nearly eight months into Covid-19 restrictions that mean my Saturday routine has been put on hold, a Saturday routine that has changed very little over the years. Saturday mornings still include studying form for my six-team accumulator (online of course), I still try to grab a breakfast when I get to Reading if time allows, and pre-match drinking is now firmly set in the hotel, usually from 11:45am onwards and nearly always sat in the same seats, trying to watch the early game on Sky, unless the overhead TV has been replaced by yet another picture of sunflowers!
So why am I writing this?
Quite simply because I seriously miss the routine of Saturday football. My mental health has taken a kicking because the routine that kept me sane is now on hold. I desperately miss meeting up with my mates to put the world to rights and compare Super 6 predictions before kick-off. I miss moaning about paying over £5 a pint for lager in a plastic glass (is it just me or does anyone else dribble on the rounded edges of those things?) I miss the disorganisation of the car park after the game, I miss being able to speak to the same people when I have a half-time cigarette, and I miss the fact that I don’t even know many of their names.
However, I don’t need to know their names, we have a common bond: we support Reading, and right now I seriously miss being able to do that.