“Who do you support mate?”
I can’t tell you exactly how many times I’ve had this exchange, but it’s a lot. The look on people’s faces as if to say “you’re giving me nothing to work with here”. They want me to say Manchester United so they can make some riff about Cristiano Ronaldo or for me to reveal I’m an Arsenal fan so they can joke about Mikel Arteta. No, I support Reading. Founded in 1871. Blue and white hoops. The Royals.
It never bothers me that people think Reading are uninteresting or unfashionable. In fact, it only strengthens the bond I have with the football club. My football club. It is punching above our weight. It is being part of something meaningful. It is a source of pride and hope.
It makes what is happening now absolutely gut-wrenching. Because we are seeing our football club torn apart right in front of our eyes. That pride and hope is decimating.
I have always been conscious of the fact that football fandom can turn into a competition about who has suffered the most; as if you are a more worthy supporter if your club has endured more hardship. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but there are fans – and I’m not exclusively talking about Reading here – who are not truly fulfilled unless they are rallying against something: whether that is owners, managers, players, the media, governing bodies or a combination of these things.
Supporters come into their own when they are defending the honour of their club against those who have wronged them. Every micro issue is homed in on and handled with a mixture of frothy-mouthed anger and excessive self-pity, as fanbases cry ‘look at how bad we’ve got it’ in a desperate plea for validation and attention.
Consequently, I have always been hesitant about the idea that we have suffered as Reading fans. As a supporter of a middling Championship club, you accept that you are going to have plenty of bad days. Suffering is not losing five games in a row, finishing in the bottom half of consecutive seasons or hiring a couple of bad managers.
If you want to know about suffering then ask fans of Bolton Wanderers, Derby County or Wigan Athletic whose teams have gone into administration, or even worse – fans of Bury or Macclesfield who have seen their clubs cease to exist. What has made me rethink our own situation is I worry how close we are to that.
I maintain that I have seen worse Reading teams than this, with a worse manager and worse players. Paul Clement’s woeful side in the first half of 2018/19 will take some beating (ironically). But in terms of the club’s environment, culture and stability, I’m not sure we have ever been in this much trouble.
There are problems everywhere you look and they just keep coming. First there was the transfer embargo. Then there was the points deduction. Now, the club captain has asked to leave and the owner has publicly hung him out to dry. 15 first team players are out of contract at the end of the season. As is the manager, who has lost all goodwill with supporters but will reportedly stay for the rest of the campaign. It is a club in a state of complete disarray.
When I interviewed former director of football Brian Tevreden in 2020, one quote really stuck with me: “When there is calm upstairs, you’ll see calm downstairs as well”. So much anarchy behind the scenes is bound to affect what happens on the pitch. It is no surprise that in the last 10 days we have seen a cup exit to a non-league side, the club’s record home defeat in the Football League and a game thrown away in the 95th minute.
What’s happening feels like an apocalypse movie. It doesn’t quite feel real. Because it felt like this would never happen to Reading, who were for a long time the bastion of stability and unity. I would always look at clubs in chaos off the field - with points deductions, lawless owners and disruptive players - with empathy, but largely relief that it wasn’t us. Now we are that club in crisis. Now we are the team where people are gradually sitting up and thinking ‘what the hell is going on there?’.
It says a lot when ex-players are expressing such concern on social media. Stephen Hunt, Ian Harte and Jamie Cureton are among those to have tweeted their worry. These are players who have been part of some of Reading’s most successful teams, but who, like the rest of us, no longer recognise the club and now fear for its future.
And this is the thing. The last couple of weeks and months have been disheartening and soul-destroying, but it feels like we might not yet have reached the lowest point. The club is a ticking time bomb. Even if we survive relegation this season, the 2022/23 campaign seems almost certain to be even more of a struggle given that almost a whole new playing squad will be need to be recruited while still trying to cut costs.
I will always support the club. They are part of who I am. I will be there on Wednesday night against Luton and I would be there if they were playing in the Combined Counties League. I just want the Reading I know back.