Today marks 100 years since a key moment in Reading’s history: the club’s first ever match in the Football League. On the day, Joe Bailey struck midway through the first half to give the Biscuitmen a 1-0 win at Newport County - who were themselves also playing in the Football League for the first time.
Although we’d been a professional side playing league fixtures for a quarter of a century by that point, entering the Football League was a key forwards step that set Reading on its way to being the club it is today. It also brought Reading up to speed with many other clubs, as the Football League had been in existence since 1888. Although not all of its founder members were as old as Reading, who had been in existence for 17 years by that point, they beat us in entering the Football League,
The Reading Football Club of 1920
Before this point, Reading had played in the Southern League, in fact being founder members in 1894. That original roster included recognisable faces like current professional sides Southampton, Millwall, Luton Town and Swindon Town, non-league sides Maidenhead United and Bromley, and some now-defunct clubs like Royal Ordnance Factories and Old St Stephen’s.
A year later in 1895 came professionalism. The move was controversial at the time, and had been rejected a year earlier, but with high attendances came the realisation that the club’s future was as a business - paying players from gate receipts and transfer fees. Reading also became a limited liability company in 1895, before moving to Elm Park the following year.
After the “finest foreign team ever seen in Italy” won plaudits in 1913, the First World War brought football to a halt between 1915 and 1919. It also claimed the lives of nine of the 44 Reading players to fight in that conflict: Joe Dickenson, Edward Mitchell, Allen Foster, Jack Huggins, Ben Butler, Freddie Wheatcroft, Heber Slatter, Len Hawes and James Comrie.
There would be just one more season for Reading between World War One and entry into the Football League, the 1919/20 campaign, in which Reading finished seventh in the Southern Football League Division One. Plans then soon started to be made for a reorganisation of the league system.
At a meeting of Southern League clubs on May 18 1920, it was decided that a new ‘Third Division’ of the Football League, split into southern and northern sections, should be formed. Representatives from six clubs (Millwall, Southampton, Portsmouth, Queen’s Park Rangers, Bristol Rovers and Swansea) were to meet their northern counterparts to take the idea further.
Just over a month later, at the Southern League’s annual general meeting on June 21, clubs decided to continue with the competition into next season - regardless of the potential formation of a new Third Division of the Football League. Reading were joined by a number of other clubs in committing to entering reserve sides into the Southern League in 1920/21: Brighton and Hove, Gillingham, Luton Town, Millwall, Norwich City, Portsmouth, Southampton, Southend United and Watford.
And on July 10, at an FA meeting in Llandudno, the creation of a Third Division was ratified, paving the way for Reading’s entry, although incoming clubs were denied voting rights in the Football League’s operations. However, the incoming clubs were overwhelmingly southern. This Third Division was largely an absorption of the old Southern League Division One, with potential northern entrants initially staying out of the Football League due to worries they were ill-prepared for doing so in 1920/21. They would though join in 1921/22, at which point the Third Division split into southern and northern sections.
A new season
Reading’s prospects for the 1920/21 campaign were mostly positive. Assessing the squad on August 14, The Reading Observer said the club’s directors and secretary manager were well satisfied with the team that had been put together, adding that it was “hardly possible not to admire the spirit of optimism that prevails”.
An author for the same publication had a somewhat different assessment in a column published a week earlier. Writing under the byline ‘An Optimist’, he highlighted the team’s goalkeepers, backs and half-backs as the side’s strongest departments, but was less impressed by options up front:
“One has heard a lot of talk of late to the effect that Reading has not enlisted the services of any well-known and crack goal-getters with awe-inspiring names, and consequently the outlook is a gloomy one.”
Some things never change, do they?
Two friendly matches before the trip to Newport County, on August 14 and 21, gave The Reading Observer some more details to analyse. On each occasion the squad was split up into teams that faced off against one another: the ‘Colours’ and the ‘Whites’, as you can see in this photo from the first of those games but published a week later:
They may have been friendlies, but there was plenty of excitement around them - so much so that a few thousand fans packed into Elm Park on a particularly hot Saturday afternoon, with gate receipts going to charity. The Reading Observer went so far as to praise an “extraordinary feat” of enthusiastic home support.
The Elm Park crowd were treated to an impressive display of attacking football that ended in a 3-0 win for the Colours. Yarnell came in for praise for his all-round performance up front, showing pace, skill and supply for the wingers, and scoring his side’s third of the afternoon. That display seemed to earn Yarnell his place as Reading’s starting centre forward for the trip to Newport two weeks later.
However, the goal of the game went to half-back Getgood, who rifled home from 25 yards. The Reading Observer recalled the goal in predictably eloquent fashion:
“Receiving the ball from Mavin, Getgood wasted not a second before he put his foot behind it. Although he was quite twenty-five yards out when he shot, scarcely a soul saw the manner of the ball’s going. It was a little later discovered resting in the back of the net.”
The Colours and Whites were back in action a week later, again at Elm Park, ending in a “rude surprise” 2-1 win for the Whites. The story this time however was a battle between Reading’s two left wingers, Carr and Andrews, who were on opposing sides in this match and were competing to be named in the starting XI at Newport.
Both ended up on the score sheet, Carr netting twice for the Whites and Andrews responding with a “characteristic screw drive”. It left Reading with a tricky selection conundrum going into the new season. Although there was little to choose between the two, The Reading Observer edged towards Andrews for his penalty taking.
It was another story on the other flank though, where Reading had a clear starter: Spence. The right winger had contributed to four of the five goals scored in the club’s two warm-up matches and, in that second game, delivered “some of the prettiest and most accurate centres one could wish to see” - although most were missed by the central strikers.
Some things never change, do they?
There were in fact two games for Reading that day. Although the first team faced Newport in South Wales, another side hosted Gillingham in the Southern League, with both fixtures kicking off at 3.30pm. The less said about the Gillingham game the better though; the last hour of football was “one of the most so-so affairs” the Reading Observer’s reporter had witnessed.
At Newport, Reading’s first team would likely have lined up in the customary 2-3-5 formation, which had been in wide circulation since the 1880s. It consisted of two ‘backs’, three ‘half backs’ and five forwards - very different to modern formations based around a back three, four or five. Here’s how it would have looked in Reading’s case at Newport, with Andrews preferred to Carr on the left wing:
The decision to include Andrews on the left paid dividends. It was from his pass that inside-left forward Joe “Bubbles” Bailey scored the only goal of the game, Reading’s first ever in the Football League, midway through the first half.
It was fitting that Bailey was the one to get on the score sheet. The Thame-born forward had been with Reading since 1911 and scored in every game of the club’s famous trip to Italy, including wins over Milan and the Italian national side. It was on the Western Front where Bailey truly distinguished himself however, earning the Military Cross with two bars and the Distinguished Service Order for various acts of heroism while under machine-gun fire. To quote just one mention of Bailey in despatches, “his utter disregard of danger was magnificent”.
After Bailey’s opener, it was a mostly defensive performance that earned Reading the points. The Reading Observer summed the match up pretty succinctly:
“The game can be briefly but accurately summarised thus: Reading scored the first and only goal of the match in the middle of the first half, and then made up their minds to maintain the lead by playing a strong defensive game. They succeeded.”
Post-match reports picked out two players in the Reading team as being particularly key to the victory: goalkeeper Crawford and captain Jack Smith. The former already had a strong reputation at the club, and made good on that at Newport by being “credited with many fine saves, one of which is said to have been the cleverest seen on that ground”.
Smith was also a key defensive player for Reading, admired for his experience and knowledge of the game, and those qualities paid off at Newport. According to a spectator quoted by The Reading Observer, the side’s victory was “a tribute to the prowess and masterly skill of Jack Smith, who marshalled his forces in such a way as to completely nonplus the opposing attack”.
It wasn’t simply a rearguard action though. To misquote Jose Mourinho, Reading didn’t park the Model T Ford. In fact, The Reading Observer took issue with the depiction of their side’s performance in the “London press”, who had apparently been giving the impression that Reading hadn’t had any sniffs of goal after Bailey’s opener. They quote Smith, who provided a different interpretation of events:
“We played a strong defence, and let the Newport men run about as much as they liked. We took it cool and steady.”
Either way, Reading’s resilience was enough to earn them all two points on the road - three points for a victory wasn’t introduced until the 1980s. They were one of just two sides in 11 third-division matches that day to win away from home.
Reading went on to complete the double over Newport on September 4 in a 4-0 thrashing at Elm Park. Fresh off scoring the club’s first ever Football League goal in South Wales, Bailey followed that feat up with Reading’s first hat-trick, netting all three goals in an impressive performance that The Reading Observer described like so:
“Each one of his goals were characteristically ‘Baileyish’. The first he headed into the net from Spence’s centre, the second he shot in was the reward of his opportunism, and the third was the gem of the trio - he hacked his way through the Newport defence in a marvellous manner and then placed the ball in the net out of Cooper’s reach.”
However, the early-season double over Newport wasn’t the prelude to a successful season. Reading would win just three more times on the road and seven times at home across the course of 1920/21, finishing 20th out of 22 clubs. They were reelected to the league though, and would spend the next five seasons in Division Three South before becoming champions in 1925/26, winning promotion to the second tier and reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1926/27.
Reading’s fortunes in the century following that game at Newport have very much been up and down, bouncing between the divisions. That’s always been as a Football League club though, and it all started at Newport 100 years ago.