Elm Park Days
It was over fifty years ago in January 1972 that I attended my first ever Reading game at the age of nine, for a Fourth Division clash with Barrow. Admittedly not the most glamourous start to my supporting career, but as I remember we went as a family to get tickets for the Arsenal cup-tie. I've been thinking back to things that have stuck in my mind from the Elm Park days.
I'm lucky enough to have seen the man later dubbed 'The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw', our very own maverick Robin Friday, who sprinkled stardust that was way beyond the level he played at in the Fourth Division. I was behind the Tilehurst goal one night in 1976 when he controlled beautifully on his chest, turned and smashed in an incredible volley. The Tranmere defenders were stunned as was World Cup referee Clive Thomas, who described the goal as the best he'd ever seen – Robin told him he should come down more often as he did it every week in training! In the eighties we had Dixon and Senior, in the nineties it was Quinn – we seemed to be blessed with great centre-forwards.
To this day I cannot hear certain songs without being transported back to the Tilehurst End and South Bank terraces. 'Mouldy Old Dough' seemed to be played every week for what seemed like years, though I do realise that's not at all likely. Whenever I hear 'Mississippi' or 'Power To All Our Friends' or 'Little Does She Know' I'm immediately taken back, and I can almost smell those fragrant urinals. When that stench mixed not so sweetly with the smell of burgers and dog rolls, my nostrils were filled with a mouldy old something else.
There was always something special about watching games under the lights at Elm Park, and the Division One clash against Bolton in 1995 stands out as one of the best. My father-in-law Bill, who was originally from Bolton, had driven me up to reverse fixture on New Year's Day that year, and I returned the compliment (though admittedly a trip from Woodley via Caversham Park Village doesn't quite compare). Both teams were pushing for promotion to the Premiership, and the atmosphere that night was electric. The sides were locked at 1-1 going into the final stages when Lee Nogan scored a brilliant late winner, and it seemed like the roof of the South Bank was blown off. Bill sadly died a few years ago, and whenever I think of this game it's always tinged with poignancy.
A decade earlier the Royals were also on a promotion quest, this time in Division Three, and having gained a maximum 39 points from their first 13 games it would have been difficult not to succeed. So when Reading faced Plymouth at Elm Park a week before Christmas in 1985, we did so well clear at the top. We knew the visitors were decent – they went on to finish runners-up to us – but with less than twenty minutes left they looked like world beaters with the score standing at 0-3. When we pulled a goal back I thought at least it made the score a bit more respectable, though I was convinced it was merely a consolation. All of a sudden it was 2-3 and everyone was looking at each other saying we can get something here. Soon enough we'd equalised and the place went ballistic, but it went even more ballistic (if that's actually possible) when man of the match Kevin Bremner completed the comeback for an epic win.
The Simod Cup wouldn't be high on the list of many teams' achievements, but when Reading won that competition in 1988 it could have been the FA Cup, the European Cup or the World Cup, it didn't matter, the joy couldn't have been greater; for our little club to win at Wembley it was a dream come true. Reading were a real Jeckyll and Hyde team that season, heading towards relegation from the Second Division whilst beating a host of top-flight teams in cup competitions. So we fancied our chances against First Division Coventry City in the semi-final at Elm Park, and after Michael Gilkes scored the winning penalty in the shoot-out the joy was unconfined. The scenes outside the ground on the Tilehurst Road were amazing and are something I'll never forget. Would we have traded that special night and our Wembley win for safety in the League? Maybe the fans' answer would be different than the club's.
It would be fair to say the final season at Elm Park in 1997-98 was a let down as the Royals finished rock-bottom of the First Division. What should have been a celebration of the old ground ended in a damp squib as we fell to a limp final day defeat against Norwich. The 3-3 draw against Nottingham Forest earlier that season provided plenty of entertainment though, with James Lambert's wonderful solo goal raising the roof. But those cheers were eclipsed by the laughter that came when the unfortunate Steve Stone missed the easiest of open goals for the visitors, surely the funniest moment seen at the old ground.
I was part of two Elm Park crowds to top 25,000, the FA Cup clash with Arsenal in 1972 and a League Cup tie against Southampton six years later. Fourth Division Reading more than matched their top-flight opponents on both occasions, and were unfortunate not to win either. The Gunners ran out 2-1 winners despite the fact that we scored all three goals (well almost, theirs came courtesy of an own goal and a deflection) whilst The Saints were indebted to their keeper as they escaped with a 0-0 draw. I'll never forget the sight of a Southampton fan being led around the pitch by a police officer, who was holding his false leg which had fallen off! Coincidentally, 1966 World Cup winner Alan Ball played against us in both games.
On New Year's Day 1986, Gillingham shocked Division Three leaders Reading with a 2-1 win at Elm Park. The Royals went behind early on but were soon level after one of the best goals I saw at the old ground. Winger Andy Rogers sent in a cross which was met first time by the great Dean Horrix, who executed an unbelievable shoulder-high volley that flew in from the edge of the area. The nearest equivalent I can think of would be Garath McCleary's stunner against Burnley at the Mad Stad in 2014. Although we went on to lose and I got soaked, that one magic moment from Deano made it all worthwhile.
A few minutes before a League Cup tie against perennial bogey team Bury in the mid-nineties, a stroll towards the ground became a sprint as an absolute deluge began. I got under cover soaked to the skin and looked out onto a pitch covered with pools of water. The game kicked off anyway and to no one's surprise Bury – who we always seemed to lose to – took a 2-0 lead. The deluge hadn't stopped, however, leading to the match being abandoned at half-time. My abiding memory is of groundsman 'Fred' Neate gamely prodding the turf in vain with his garden fork.
I didn't miss a home game for many years and it wasn't because of the standard of football. I got into a routine of meeting my brothers and mates, having a pre-match pint and strolling to the ground, which for a low-key game was often two minutes before kick-off. After taking our usual spot just to the right of the halfway line on the South Bank, we played guess the crowd – 'I reckon about 3,500' – and were often able to count the number of away fans. Sometimes we had a moan about the game, sometimes we were shocked by a wonder goal – Billy Whitehurst from the half-way line anyone? – but whatever happened we always had a laugh, and I wouldn't have missed the next one for the world. Some people reckoned Elm Park was a dump... maybe it was, but it was OUR dump.