If you’ll permit me to be a little self indulgent this week, I’d like to talk about a recent homecoming that involved several Royal Rendezvous. Living in Maine, USA has been and continues to be a fantastic experience, but it does make getting to Berkshire a little tricky.
The coronavirus pandemic has made traveling home to the UK an especially tricky thing in recent years. I’ve been lucky enough to spend about five weeks total in the south of England since the start of the pandemic, more than many have been able to do, but much of the first trip was spent in quarantine. International travel has certainly gotten harder in recent years.
All of that meant I hadn’t been to a Reading game in almost three years - by far the longest drought I’d ever endured! This time then, my wife and I hopped in the car twice during our short visit and made our way to Luton Town away and Preston North End at home.
Being in the UK during the season then was a situation that actually meant I missed watching matches for the first time in years! Luckily though there were enough highlights at just those two games (despite the overall scorelines!) to more than make up for it.
Luton Town away
My summary of this match must begin with an embarrassing admittance: I’ve been to 50+ games at our glorious Madejski Stadium but, despite this, having never been one for long trips, I’d never taken the time to get on the road and into an away end.
Luckily, living in the geographically expansive USA though has drastically skewed how far I’m willing to drive for an event, so with that in mind, my wife and I hopped in the car and drove from the Test Valley to “beautiful” Luton Town on a Tuesday night.
Some people espouse the saying “try everything once”. My report card would say that holds true for away games, but not for the town of Luton.
Still, boy how am I glad I went to this.
I’ve clearly been missing out. Berkshire Boys (and girls) poured into the cramped away end at Kenilworth Road and made themselves heard loud and proud all night. My wife and I crammed ourselves into the very bottom corner of the stand and could basically smell the players given how close the stands are to the pitch in Luton.
After this game, Paul Ince said that all he could hear all night was our fans, and I’m not surprised. The Royals crowd was fantastic, serenading players, themselves and the general direness of Luton. Songs rang around the away end all night and the occasional amused “shhh” to register the complete silence of the Luton fans.
A particular highlight was Shane Long’s walk around the pitch in front of the away fans as the second half began to a long chorus of “there’s only one Shane Long!” He looked a tad embarrassed by the time the chant got into its second minute.
Reading battled for a good point that night, but rued a lack of creativity in the final third. Despite that, if a few Andy Carroll headers had gone the right side of the post it could have been even more of a night to remember.
This was still a fantastic experience though, and definitely one to repeat at other away stadiums in future trips.
Preston North End at home
No trip to the UK in-season is complete without a trip to see the mighty Royals at home.
I did have some apprehensions as our opponents that night, Preston, had been one of the Championship’s stodgiest sides to that point: drawing countless games 0-0 and remaining even now the Championship’s second-lowest scorers. I certainly wasn’t going to turn down my only opportunity to get to the stadium though.
My wife and I met with a friend with whom I attended Reading’s 2012 Championship trophy presentation, and many discussions of teenage years inside the Madejski’s corrugated walls were had. We pointed out the many places around the stadium we had previously sat in for classic Reading games. We had particular fun recalling the 3-0 victory over West Ham that saw Kebe pull his socks off. A classic.
This game’s first half was not that. Reading managed just one shot on target: a weak Yakou Meite header on goal. Luckily, I was somewhat distracted by nerves about my upcoming performance…
The most awesomely surreal moment of my trip came at half time of that match, when TTE’s lovely Ben Thomas walked me around the SCL Stadium turf and onto the pitch for my big debut under the floodlights (thank you again, Ben).
I’ve always been a fan of the games played on the pitch at halftime, be they participated in by children or shameless adults. Being one of these shameless adults, I leaped at the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of thousands of people, and found myself lucky enough to be on the hallowed turf.
As we set up to play the dribbling game, Lucas Joao and Shane Long both noted their warm-up appeared to be taking place exactly where the halftime game had been set up. Making eye contact with a nearby person you’ve watched on a screen or on the pitch for years is a very weird experience for your brain. I thoroughly recommend looking into Lucas’ steely gaze.
As the whistle sounded for the game, I was just praying that I wouldn’t fall on my arse in the only pair of jeans I’d brought with me for the trip. Luckily, I didn’t have time to do that, touching the ball about three times (and probably taking one touch too many).
What an experience.
Unfortunately, when the second half came, Reading couldn’t replicate my stellar performance with their own. After watching three goalless halves of football, I said to my friend that I just wanted to see a goal from Reading, and thus the monkey paw curled.
Reading were tired and deflated that night, and while they did well to get themselves back into the game with Lucas Joao’s penalty after going behind, they never particularly looked like winning. I wasn’t going to let that stop my enjoyment of the night though, as we left the stadium in good spirits and headed down the hill with the crowd.
Being around the fans again in person really gave me a sense of the optimism that is slowly redeveloping at Reading. We’re less than a year removed from protests and many things at the club still need fixing. If there was no hope though, Reading fans wouldn’t have sold out the away end at Kenilworth Road on a Tuesday night and made themselves heard for 90 minutes.
There’s work to be done in Berkshire, but things are looking and feeling a lot rosier than they were this time last year.
All in all then, a fantastic trip. A relative glut of Reading-themed travel given the dearth since the pandemic. Hopefully it needn’t be so far removed from the next trip this time.