They f**k you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
This Be the Verse, Philip Larkin
On the face of it, not the most uplifting sentiment to start a piece about the football club that saved my life, Reading FC. However, just recently as I take my seat in the Upper West or squeeze through the turnstile behind my 18-year-old son at the Hawthorns and St Andrews, I find Philip Larkin’s famous words ringing in my ears.
So what on earth am I talking about? Let’s start with the life-saving part… (I can hear my wife now: “Nick you are such a bloody drama queen”). I was educated in Berkshire in the 1980s at a boarding school in Crowthorne. After school I attended university in the north-east and then returned to London to build a career.
By 2009 I was in my late 30s, married with two young children, working too hard and in the destructive grip of severe alcoholism. Multiple blackouts a month, erratic and spiteful behaviour and a haywire moral compass were my symptoms and I had no clue as to the cure. ‘Spiralling out of control’ is an overused phrase but it resonates for me. If it had carried on it was going to end very badly indeed.
After a trip to The Priory and an ultimatum from my wife, I realised I had to leave London and make a change. We moved to Burghfield. My son was six and my daughter three. I took Henry to join Burghfield FC and was bursting with pride as he was awarded the under-7s Bears player of the season in 2010. The next natural thing to do for a footy-mad six-year-old was to go to a professional game… enter: Reading FC.
Reading vs Coventry City, Saturday December 11 2010. 0-0. However, we were both absolutely hooked. The speed and skill level were higher than I was expecting (I really was naïve) and my son Henry was spellbound, unable to wipe the smile off his face or stop talking about the experience. We were definitely coming back…
Ian Harte and Shane Long’s destruction of Middlesborough followed shortly afterwards. Jimmy Kebe literally ran riot against Leicester City, a breathless away game at Nottingham Forest and suddenly we were booking our seats for Wembley... well, that escalated quickly as they say.
Before the play-off final I was so caught up in the excitement of something entirely new to me bringing so much joy, I hadn’t even noticed that Harte had no pace. The moment when Jem Karacan hit the post, so nearly completing the comeback, will stay with me for ever. We left the game exhilarated rather than disappointed and itching for the following season. As new fans I remember sitting on the train back from Wembley, mystified at the despair that others were feeling and the mention of past play-off failures and the inevitability of defeat. At that stage I just didn’t get it...
Alcoholics and addicts will tell you that getting sober leaves a big gap and it is important to find other, safer interests to commit to. In Reading FC, aged 39, I had found mine…
And the love affair continued. Shane Long’s departure after hitting the bar against Millwall the following August made us sad but just when the play-off final hangover threatened to kick in, along came Kaspars and Alfie and performances started to pick up.
Mrs Zingarevich (remember her?) and The Big Bad Wolf, Jason Roberts, added some Christmas glamour and then the run of all runs started… 50 odd points from the next 18 games and on Friday April 13 2012, almost three years to the day since my last drink, I experienced a high so superior to anything produced by the grape or grain as Adam Le Fondre dispatched Southampton right in front of us. You know the rest.
To this point our Reading FC experience had been extraordinarily (and unsustainably) positive. For me, the club, Brian, Jobi et al had been a big part of not only my recovery but my bond with and shared experience with my first born, so this is where Larkin starts to resonate. I remember standing in the Upper West that Tuesday night watching as the pitch was swallowed up by a tidal wave of fans and Ledge was hoisted high in the air, when an intrusive thought flashed into my head: would this prove to be the high point for Henry aged seven? Surely not!
That 16-month period from December 2010 until April 17 2012 is when I, the responsible adult, exposed and indoctrinated my young son into Reading FC. Since then we have barely missed a game, holidays have been rearranged around fixture lists, family gatherings postponed and we have explored the north of England and network of motorway service stations together.
Our moods are inextricably linked to the actions of a group of men we have never met, clad in blue and white, on a weekly basis. We have chanted, laughed, cried, screamed and shouted, turned to each other with ecstatic disbelief (Pog vs WBA) and also gut-wrenching despair (Liam’s pen). There have been some huge highs and many lows but neither of us have managed to shake our obsession.
On Twitter recently, in the fug of another away defeat, I described the last decade at Reading FC as a chronology of pain. It was an unfair and uncalled-for comment but illustrates the grip the club has on my psyche. There is also an element of truth in it:
The Zingarevich idiot, Lady Sasima’a song, Clarke’s treachery, Clement, Gomes, the ineptitude and profligacy of Mr Dai - apparently aided and abetted by Kia, embargoes hard and soft, Velko “apart from the four goals we played well” Paunovic, the points deduction.
Now while that list is far too long to be healthy, there have been highs that Henry and I have witnessed too: GMac’s goal at Wembley, Jaap Stam’s first season, Yann Kermogant’s third at Bristol City, Yaks’ goal against Wigan, Josh at Oakwell and TMac at Sheff United are just a few that spring to mind. The club’s efforts to be family-friendly, take leadership positions on issues such as climate change and employing a black manager are also to be celebrated.
The fact is that Reading FC will forever be a part of my son’s life and that is my fault… I was in charge and I consciously exposed him to it - indeed I encouraged it. Does he deserve this rollercoaster of emotions, this mania of intense highs followed by deep lows? He is 18 now but probably incapable of freeing himself.
Philip, I really didn’t mean it.