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Andy West On Early Reading Online Media And Covering The 106 Side

Marco Bader talks to Andy West, Reading’s former head of comms, who joined the Royals in the late 90s and covered the club until leaving in 2009. He co-wrote Decade of Dreams: Reading Football Club’s First 10 Years at Madejski Stadium.

TTE: The 22nd of August of 1998 - a new era began for Reading Football Club with the first match at the just completed Madejski Stadium. Soon after you became first the new Assistant Programme Editor and then later the Head of Communications at the club. How did that come about?

Andy West: My mother read an advertisement in the paper, I think it was the Reading Chronicle, and she told me about the job at Reading Football Club. By that time, I was working in Wimbledon for a PR agency. I applied and had some days later a job interview with the Head of Sales/Marketing Boyd Butler.

Luckily for me, he had also studied before at the University of Southampton. That was maybe a little door-opener for me. We met at Reading Station, I sent him later some of my writings and in the end, he offered me the job. When I came to the club there was only one other person in this department. Andrea Jenkins was the main Programme Editor and I joined as her assistant.

I got the acceptance for the job shortly before the match against Luton. So, I went there as a fan. Once I got my ticket and went in, I thought: “Wow, what an amazing stadium… and I’m going to be working here”. That was very emotional for me. A great feeling. I always wanted to work in football. This was my first job in the sport. The match itself went really well, Reading won 3-0 as everybody knows. Anyone who was at that game will remember a player called Mass Sarr. His performance that day was amazing and it looked like he was a top-class player. Unfortunately, this was probably Sarr’s best performance in the Reading shirt as it went downhill from that.

Another thing I remember from that day is, that there were no barriers in place between the different sections of the stadium. So, I moved around during the game. I watched the start in the West Stand, then I went to the South Stand behind the goal. The whole day was a fantastic experience. After watching some matches before at Elm Park you could notice what big step this new stadium was for Reading Football Club.

TTE: Parallel to that new era at the Madejski started also the new age of media technologies with the Royals having for the first time their own internet homepage. Which level of medial development did you find when you arrived and what were your biggest ambitions?

Andy West: Two months after I arrived Andi Jenkins left as she took another job somewhere else. The club decided to not appoint anyone else. Suddenly I was the only one in this department. Still, I have to say that at that time the main focus was the matchday programme. With a 10,000 crowd, we still sold about 3,000 copies. I looked also after the media, but that was routine after a while as they were only local. The year before the website had just started under a quite low level of development. We only published press releases. Maybe one additional story a week. But pretty soon it took off and we began to see how much more we could do with it.

I remember especially the match against Walsall in ‘98. It was a 2-0 win and the first time when we figured out how to get a copy of a VHS tape of the game highlights and put that on the website. It was just a 30-second clip, but we were so excited. We were saying: “That’s amazing! Anyone in the world with a computer can now watch this video”. We realised quickly the potential the internet gave us. It was the dot-com explosion.

I soon started developing the site a bit, we published match reports. And as I couldn’t do that all on my own, we recruited Craig Mortimer who became later on the Head of Communications when I left. We worked very closely together, but his main thing was the website. Around that time the Football League signed also a deal with Premium TV. From that moment on all the clubs had the same design.

There was a video section in our case called “Reading World”, as well as there was a “Blackpool World” or “Sheffield United World”. In a way, it was a bit negative because it took away the individuality of our site. But the amount they gave us, using their system, their template made it a lot easier to provide content. That’s when we started producing more videos, doing interviews, offering special features.

I remember also a game in 2002 at Grimsby. We won 3-0. The third one was the weirdest own goal you’ve ever seen in your life. About 40 yards away there was a 50-50 ball which their defender tried to clear before Darius Henderson could get it. The ball flew off the defender and looped all the way into the back of the net. It was amazing. After the game, Craig and I went on the pitch and filmed right from the spot where this has happened. We were saying “You won’t believe the goal we scored…” and described everything standing there on video. It was just really cool we could do this kind of thing now.

TTE: The performances on the pitch were not that successful at the beginning. In your first year, the Royals ended up 11th. After the beginning of the 99/00-season, the team slipped further down until the relegation zone. Did these disappointments have also an effect on your work?

Andy West: Of course! Everything was easier and more enjoyable when the team was winning. In contrast, when we lost the fans were unhappy, the atmosphere in the stadium was different. There were some hard times during the Tommy Burns era. When Alan Pardew came it didn’t really get better during the first few weeks.

There was this famous Pants Day when we played Wrexham in ’99 just before Christmas. The fans showed their frustration. They said that pants stands for players are not trying sufficiently. During that time, it was tough. You had this amazing stadium that was only a quarter full. The fans weren’t coming, because the team played bad. There were access problems because the road wasn’t built yet. For the chairman it was difficult as well. He had put a lot of money in and then the team was down in the bottom zone of the third tier.

Pants protest

TTE: Thankfully Alan Pardew and Martin Allen together managed to get the turnaround. The following year Reading finished third, beat Wigan in a dramatic semi-final tie at the Madejski and lost later the final at Cardiff against Walsall. What are your memories of those last two matches of the season?

Andy West: Apart from the great job Alan Pardew did, Martin Allen played an absolutely massive part in that turnaround. His arrival was very important. Thanks to his energy the whole atmosphere at the club changed. Martin was exactly what was needed. Before we had Jon Gorman. He was a great guy, a very nice person, totally professional. But he was a quiet one. Everyone liked him and respected him, but what the place needed was a lift.

The same goes for Tommy Burns. I remember Phil Parkinson telling me once, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying it, that Tommy was such a great player himself, but he just couldn’t relate to the players he had. He was trying to get them do things they couldn’t. Tommy Burns would have had definitely much more success in a team of higher quality.

After that turnaround the season before, the Wigan game was the highest of high. It was easily the best occasion we had at the Madejski until that point. During the match, it looked already as if it was all over. Then Nicky Forster came on, after being out for most of the season with an injury. His impact was just amazing. I remember clearly the equaliser. Fozzy’s cross from the right took a deflection. You could see the ball was going to drop straight for Martin Butler. For me, it just seemed that time stopped. Then Buts scored and it was an incredible feeling of relieve! Some minutes later Fozzy even scored the winner after Curo had his penalty saved. What a story for him. It was just unbelievable!

Unfortunately, the final against Walsall at Cardiff was then the worst day during my time at Reading. We had done so much and looked all season good enough. We thought as well that we were the better team. The way it happened with that ridiculous own goal… it was just terrible. In the bus journey back home, no one spoke. It was total silence. We knew we had to come out of this division and we knew at that moment, we had to do it all again.

TTE: Twelve months later the Royals finally won promotion back to the old Division One. How important was that 1-1-draw against Brentford for the whole club?

Andy West: I think it was the most important moment in the club’s recent history. If we had failed that season no one knows what would have happened. It might have taken years to finally get promoted. Everything that happened afterwards, like getting into the Premier League twice, wouldn’t have been possible without that promotion. The pressure was very high. At that time, I lived in West London due to the work of my wife. I could take the bus to get to the game. I remember being so tense.

When Jamie Cureton scored that goal, it was an amazing moment. I would still say that Curo’s finish is one of the best I’ve ever seen. After Parky flicked the ball on, it came so quickly to him. His first touch was brilliant, the finish then just top class. To have the coolness, the composure in that particular moment, when it was so important, to lift it over the keeper with the perfect touch was incredible. I also remember Parky when the referee blew the final whistle. He didn’t celebrate. He sank to the floor and was just exhausted. And I felt exactly the same. It was an enormous relief.

There is also a nice story from Parky the day after. There was the open-bus tour and later a party at the stadium. At one point someone put the video of the game on. When the goal was scored, Parky kept shouting: “Look at that flick on! Look at that flick on!”. It was just brilliant. I was also very happy for him.

Brentford v Reading

TTE: Four years afterwards you were part of an even more historical moment: Reading won the league with incredible 106 points. When did you start to believe that the dream of Premier League football could become true?

Andy West: I remember an away match at Ipswich in November. We had made a good start, but after the first months, you never know. So, we went to Ipswich and really destroyed them. We won 3-0. The performance was just perfect. That was the moment where I thought for the first time: “Wow, we’re really good, we can make it”. And it just continued. In the first match of 2006, we beat Cardiff 5-1. Confidence was so high that we kind of knew we would go up. We were by far the best team in the division.

For me personally, the celebrations at Leicester differed from the ones at Brentford. Brentford was more emotional, mainly because of the pressure everyone felt. Obviously to get into the Premier League and the way we achieved that was unbelievable. But this dramatic goal at Griffin Park against the direct rival was just top. If we wouldn’t have won the promotion at Leicester, we would have done it the next game.

What was maybe more special was the 5-0 win against Derby the week after and the QPR win in the last home match of the season when Murty scored. Both days we had sunshine, a full crowd, a pitch invasion… unforgettable days. I was doing the live commentary and the moment when Murts scored the winner was definitely one of my top three of all time!

TTE: How did your work as Head of Communications change during the two seasons in the Premier League?

Andy West: The whole club, not only my work, became a different organisation. There is so much more you have to do in all areas. In the media department, we needed to recruit someone. Craig (Mortimer), Mark (Bradley), the current Head of Communications, and myself we couldn’t do it all alone. We appointed Simon Heggie, who is now the Head of Communications at Manchester City.

(L-R) Mark Bradley, Simon Heggie, Craig Mortimer and Andy West

During the Premier League seasons, he had to look after the media, because that was the main area that differed. We had for example Seol Ki-hyeon which meant we had the Korean media always around. My job had changed also a lot. But that began already before. Of course, it was not just about writing the programme and doing the website. Suddenly, I was running a five-person-team.

TTE: After the relegation in 2008 and the missed promotion in 2009 it seems that you had the same idea like Manager Steve Coppell as you also decided to end your time at the club after 11 years. Was it difficult to leave?

Andy West: It was in a way because I loved my work. I was really lucky to be working in that department during a time when the internet took off. And also, because the club was so successful. I was just completely fortunate. But I decided quite early in that season that I would leave, even if we would have won promotion. I always wanted to freelance, I also wanted to do other things and I felt, I’ve done it. Everything I could have dreamed to achieve at Reading I had done. So, it was just the right time for me to go.

TTE: Over the years you have interviewed so many players that wore the blue and white shirt. With whom did you get along especially well?

Andy West: Phil Parkinson would be the first I’d say. I remember when I started at Reading, I was young and nervous to talk to all these professional football players. The first time I met Parky, I must have been only two or three days in the job, he was so welcoming. He was really nice to me and made me feel directly part of the squad. It also surprises me a bit that he hasn’t become a Reading manager yet. He has done really well, has won a couple of promotions. I think he would fit in perfectly as the club means so much to him. I can only say about Parky that there couldn’t have been a better person to work with.

In general, I had most to do with the captains, mainly because of the captain’s page in the programme. Whenever there was anything to talk about, you would go to the captain and the manager obviously. So apart from Parky I can mention Murts and Ady Williams for example. I got along also very well with Fozzy. Maybe these four would stand out a bit. But in general, I can´t say a bad word about any player, they were all great.

TTE: Since 2012 you are working as a freelance sports PR in Barcelona, where you write and commentate for BBC and La Liga TV among others. How much do you enjoy your new life under the Spanish sun?

Andy West: It’s really nice. We actually came here because of my wife’s job. I didn’t have work when we arrived. But I thought, Barcelona… it’s not a bad place to find a job in football media. Through the contacts I’ve made at Reading I was able to start picking up work and that allowed me to get accreditations, to go to Camp Nou and watch Barca’s games, to report on Spanish football. In recent years, I also started doing the TV commentary here. It’s just great watching football in one of the best leagues in the world and being paid to talk about it.

There is something I would like to mention. None of what I’m doing now would have been possible without John Madejski. Firstly, I wouldn’t have got the job at Reading without him. He was the one who had the ambition, who had also the money to build the Madejski Stadium. Without the stadium and of course, without John Madejski Reading would have probably remained a lower-league club and I wouldn’t have had the fantastic job I enjoyed so much for 11 years.

But there’s even more beyond that. Most of my work now is commentary. Back in 2000, John Madejski decided that he wanted to have his own radio station. He built one in one corner of the stadium. His plans were of course to give the commentary rights of Reading’s matches to his new radio station. The day before the first game they realised they didn’t have a commentator.

So, they asked me to do the job. I had never commentated a match before. I remember that night at home. I searched for the first football match I could find on the TV and turned off the sound to practice. Coincidentally Barcelona was playing which is a bit weird saying it now. The following day I did the commentary at the Madejski. It went well, we won 4-1, Curo scored a hat trick and they liked what I did. In the end, they asked me to do the job at all the games. That is the reason why I got into commentary. Without John Madejski, all this wouldn’t have been possible. He has made an enormous impact on my life and I’ll be always very thankful for that.

TTE: During your time at Reading, you wrote together with the current Head of Communication, Mark Bradley, a book about the club and its time at the Madejski (“A Decade of Dreams”). In 2018 you published another one called “Lionel Messi and the Art of Living”, offering interesting insights into the career of the Argentinian. What was most important for you when you realised the idea of writing both books?

Andy West: Honestly, I can’t remember exactly where the idea for the Reading book about the first ten years at the Madejski came from. In the end, we decided that I would write it with Mark and split the chapters. I did the first five years and he the last. I remember enjoying the process of writing very much because all the memories came back. It is a very nice record of a really momentous time in the club’s history. It was a great feeling to publish it, to have a book about Reading with my name on it as I always wanted to be a writer. We even did some signing sessions with Murts in the Megastore.

Then, when we moved to Barcelona, I had the idea after some years to write another one. I approached a publisher and they liked the plan of a Messi book. That was a process in some way maybe harder than I thought, especially structuring everything at first. It’s also impossible to speak to Messi directly. He doesn’t want to get involved in anything like that. But at least I was lucky to get in touch with his agent who helped me with some inside information.

People told me the highest achievement would be that they don’t try to block me because it means they are ok with it. So, to get in touch with Messi’s agent was the best I could hope for. I also spoke to Argentinian national player Pablo Zabaleta, as well as to Brendan Rodgers, someone who could give me an outside perspective. It was an interesting experience to write this book.