I never got to go to Elm Park. Being a tad too young for it, my first Reading match came six years too late: a 2-0 home defeat to Sunderland in March 2004. So I can’t fully appreciate what it was like to live through the end of that era, to walk out of Elm Park at the end of a matchday for the last time, to know I’ll never set foot inside it again.
There’s a great photo from the final game at Elm Park, a 1-0 defeat to Norwich City, which acts as a window into the emotions of that day. It’s a photo of a solitary supporter, adorned in Reading paraphernalia, sitting disconsolate and alone. Behind him is a metal blue fence, reinforcing the point that he’s now been shut out of a place that conjured up so many memories.
I don’t know who that Reading fan is; it could have been anyone. His silent sadness speaks for how so many others felt.
That photo also feels grimly appropriate for the road this beleaguered, imperilled club may now be on, a glimpse into what could come to pass. It’s a vision of how any of us would feel if we were the ones coming away from a Reading game knowing it was the last we’d ever watch. Or, for that matter, if we simply didn’t know. What a horrid, despondent feeling that would be.
No club should ever have an asterisk set against its long-term existence. No fan should ever have to make contingency plans for what to do with their Saturday afternoons and Tuesday evenings if 46+ entries into their annual schedule were to be erased.
For me, this is the club that’s been in my family for generations, even though none of us are from Reading itself. It’s the club my gramp introduced my mum to, back in the Elm Park days, before she introduced me to it on that Saturday afternoon in March 2004. Years later it was my turn, introducing my best mate to this club: something I hope to do again if I ever have kids. It’s the same club that was there on a difficult Saturday just over two years ago, a few days after my grandma passed. She never went to a game, but she always looked out for how we got on.
But this is where Reading fans in 2023 find themselves: in a state of fear for the future, standing side by side with fans of other suffering clubs (Southend United and Scunthorpe United, we’re with you all the way), envious of the clubs who’ve trod this path before and made it out the other side. Cognisant of those that haven’t.
Is all of this hyperbole? Maybe. I hope so.
I have absolutely no idea exactly how likely it is that Reading Football Club ends up in administration or consigned to the history books. But I know for a fact that this club is a hell of a lot closer to the cliff edge than it ever should have been.
Is anyone on their way to drag us away from that cliff edge, or even to provide any comfort in these troubling times? It’s sure as hell not Dai Yongge or for that matter non-entity CEO Dayong Pang, who has seemingly disappeared without a trace. He wouldn’t communicate with fans when times were (comparatively) good, so don’t expect to hear from him any time soon.
Neither is it the EFL, an organisation that’s been toothless and powerless throughout this entire sorry saga to intervene in any substantial, constructive way. The system’s been long broken; an independent regulator with real muscle is desperately required, just as it was desperately required before it was recommended in the Fan-Led Review of Football Governance almost two years ago.
A shadow form of that regulator could arrive before the end of the year though, with the government being urged on September 26 to act with haste by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The next day, Brackell MP James Sunderland - who’s fought Reading’s corner with commendable doggedness - wrote to Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer, calling for the club to be used as a test case. That letter was co-signed by fellow Conservative MPs Sir Alok Sharma (who represents Reading West), Damian Green and Sir Oliver Heald, both of whom are Reading fans.
@ReadingFC is a fantastic local club and needs our support as MPs. I have today written with colleagues to @lucyfrazermp to ask that further action is taken by @DCMS and @EFL. Our fans deserve better! #SellBeforeWeDai #SaveReadingFC @FA @CazParker1871 @AlokSharma_RDG @MattRodda pic.twitter.com/JvkfFtuxU9— James Sunderland MP (@JamesSunderl) September 27, 2023
A few hours later, Sunderland and co gained cross-party support from Labour MP for Reading East Matt Rodda, who wrote a similar letter, also to the Culture Secretary.
I am extremely concerned about the situation at Reading FC, where 16 points have been deducted within the last two years. I have written to the culture secretary with four requests for the future of the club.— Matt Rodda (@MattRodda) September 27, 2023
Read the full letter below , and summary in the thread.
However, as if to remind us just how slowly the machinery of this country’s state can move, when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was questioned about Reading’s plight by BBC Berks’ Andrew Peach on Thursday morning, he gave a complete non-answer. “I would urge everyone to go online, Google it and you will be able to read our plans,” he stressed, with all the reassurance of the captain of the Titanic urging passengers to go over the safety information.
Genuinely substantial action actually being taken by the government is far from a given. Even then, it might come too late for Reading, not to mention Southend and Scunthorpe.
The EFL themselves have been more than happy to make the situation worse. “The EFL continues to acknowledge the negative impact sporting sanctions are having on the Football Club,” they forlornly proclaimed a few weeks ago... at the same time as imposing Reading’s second points deduction of the season, bringing our total penalty up to four points (an initial one plus three suspended).
Remember though: if the EFL had gotten its way, Reading wouldn’t have had four points deducted from their tally, they’d have been deducted eight: four initially with another four suspended. On top of that, this club has been hit with a three-window transfer embargo that will presumably remain in place irrespective of any takeover, although Reading are appealing the last of those windows.
How exactly does any of this help Reading Football Club? Well, it doesn’t. But at least the EFL can say it’s done something in response to Dai Yongge’s mismanagement... even if it hurts a club that’s already suffering, even if it’s little more than kicking a club while it’s down. At what point does the EFL face up to the “negative impact” its own sporting sanctions are having?
As owner, Dai Yongge bears full responsibility for dragging Reading Football Club into the mess it’s in. So too must the EFL bear full responsibility for the impact of its response.
In lieu of anyone in authority providing help or solace, as fans we’re left praying for a saviour to ride in and save the day. Tuesday’s report in The Daily Telegraph that one party is “advanced in negotiations” to buy the club is a ray of hope in the darkness, but at present no more than that.
Until a takeover is confirmed though, we as fans must do all we realistically, productively and legally can to draw attention to our plight and make a sale that bit more likely. Out of desperation, and for the sake of Reading Football Club’s long-term future.
That happened during the Bolton Wanderers game when hundreds of tennis balls were thrown onto the pitch in the 16th minute - signifying the 16 points deducted in the Dai Yongge era. That, in conjunction with chanting both during and after the disruption, was a powerful demonstration that fans have had enough - and it did a great deal to attract the attention of the wider footballing world.
Reading are now frequently mentioned in the news alongside Southend and Scunthorpe. It’s bleak that we need to be mentioned alongside them at all, but attention must be drawn to our plight. Attention leads to sympathy, sympathy leads to support, support leads to action, action leads to results.
Protests will continue when Burton Albion visit on Saturday - not because anyone enjoys organising or taking part in them, but because they must. Protests will continue when Reading take on Portsmouth at the end of October. Because they must.
The goal couldn’t be more modest: to ensure we have a club to support in the years to come.
Reading Football Club isn’t just a name on a league table, it’s an inheritance handed down by those who came before. By those who brought the club into existence 152 years ago, professionalised it in 1895, led it to Elm Park in 1896, saw it enter the Football League in 1920, fought for its survival in 1983 and watched it soar into the Premier League in 2006.
The story of Reading Football Club is a long and proud one. That story must continue.