Some moments feel like game-changers, even as they’re happening right in front of you in real time. The announcement of multiple EFL charges against Dai Yongge on June 16 was one such moment, a crucial catalyst in the birth of the Sell Before We Dai movement. Saturday’s mass protest in the 16th minute of the Bolton Wanderers match was another.
In the days leading up to the game it was difficult to know what quite to expect. Reading being deducted three points on Wednesday - the second such penalty this season after one point was removed on August 16 - meant emotions were undoubtedly running high at the end of the working week. Anger, frustration, exasperation, desperation - you name it, it was all there.
Certainly there was a sense that something had to be done and something would happen. How that would all translate into concrete action - and how well - was far from clear. But, in the end, things couldn’t have much better.
As expected, and as teased on social media beforehand, the game was halted in the 16th minute when hundreds of tennis balls started raining down onto the pitch. For something done at short notice it was a particularly impressive demonstration.
Just as impressive was the reaction of the packed-out away end. Bolton Wanderers have of course been through their own fair share of difficulty off the pitch in recent years. Perhaps because of that, perhaps simply out of solidarity with beleaguered fans going through a tough time, they got right behind the tennis-ball protest themselves and joined in with a hearty rendition of “f*ck the EFL”.
Less expected though was what came after the tennis balls (not a sentence I ever expected to write about a Reading game). With the game halted, cue thousands of fans around the ground rising to their feet and chanting in unison: “Stand up if you hate Dai Yongge.”
Now, noisy home support is nothing new at the Mad Stad (despite what opposition fans may have you believe), but this was something else. You couldn’t have asked for a more vocal, more passionate or more united mass demonstration against Dai Yongge and his mismanagement of Reading Football Club.
Disrupting the game by covering the pitch with tennis balls and forcing the teams off it set the stage, but the subsequent mass demonstration was the star turn. It was a powerful, unambiguous signal that an overwhelming number of supporters now want the same thing: an end to Dai’s ownership, will protest to that effect and won’t stop until he’s gone.
The game was back underway about three minutes after the opening serve. Though the visitors took the lead immediately after (maybe helped by the disruption, maybe not), it didn’t cow the Royals on the pitch or in the stands. The support was still there, with fans still behind the players, who themselves responded commendably too. Though we weren’t at our best in the first half, the fight was still there and Reading had their moments before the break.
Late on, Reading went not one but two better. Getting back to parity against one of the strongest sides in the division even without the circumstances of the day would have been impressive enough, but snatching all three points - deservedly - demonstrated what this side is truly made of.
The bigger picture wasn’t forgotten though: the tense closing minutes of the game played out to the soundtrack of “we want Dai Yongge out!” being belted from the stands. The home support’s pride in what this talented, tenacious side had pulled off was matched by its defiance towards Dai. Not only were those two elements not mutually exclusive, but they went hand in hand. Get behind the best of this club, oppose the worst. Back the team, not the regime.
I’ll be honest, I had my reservations about the tennis-ball protest before the game, although I’d come round to it by kick-off. Disruption like that runs the risk of hurting the team’s chances while having little impact, but then again, Reading’s situation has now got so desperate as to require drastic appeals for wider media attention. I shouldn’t have had them though: the execution and impact of the disruption itself and what followed were better than I could have hoped for.
A template’s been created for how to move the ‘Dai Out’ campaign forwards - a mass, united, positive push for change. Hopefully it won’t be required for much longer.