The next in our series on the lost homes of British football comes from Reading, where Reading FC left Elm Park for The Madejski Stadium in 1998. Our thanks go to Rob Langham from the excellent The Two Unfortunates, for this story of the history and memories from Elm Park. We are still very much looking out for submissions on this subject, by the way. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a complete base of tributes, written by fans, to grounds that we have lost? If you are interested, there is a list of the clubs that we have already covered here – drop us a line if you would like to add your club.
In the first edition of Simon Inglis’s seminal study of football stadia, The Football Grounds of England and Wales (later republished as The Football Grounds of Britain), he describes Elm Park as “perhaps the least interesting ground in the league”. By the second, and based largely on the judicious application of a lick or two of paint, he had revised this opinion. While there remain some that wish that time had stood still in football (and this is usually when they were twenty or thirty years younger than they are now), this doesn’t apply to all of us. For sure, among fans who are forced to choose between the pluses and minuses of the new and the old, Royals supporters are perhaps less wistful for the olden days than many. The move to the shiny Madejski Stadium provided the impetus for a decade of success unheralded in the experience of the club and if the latter years at Elm Park also witnessed some highs, few would choose to return.
One aspect that links the two arenas is the way in which the habits of the old ground mirror the new. As at Elm Park, the rowdier support station themselves along the touchline: at Elm Park, it was the South Bank; at the Mad Stad, the East Stand. Equally, the uncovered Tilehurst End had a peacefulness equalled by the current North Stand and the hoi-polloi are quartered in the West Stand at the new building; an echo of their roots in the old Norfolk Road Stand. Yet for all the similarities in the habits of those that go to the Madejski Stadium, these were two football grounds from clearly different eras. The Madejski Stadium, with its white steel columns, sweeping curves, a video screen and being completely enclosed, is very much a product of its time – a vision of what English football would look like in the twenty-first century.
Elm Park, on the other hand, was representative of a very different time. It opened in 1896, during the middle of another period of rapid transition in the English game. It had two open terraces, one at each end of the ground, which over time became hemmed in and cluttered with fences, to separate the supporters from both the pitch and each other. Running the length of one side of the ground was the vast Tilehurst Terrace (which was better known by its nickname of the South Bank), and on the other was the Norfolk Road Stand, which offered the only seating in the ground (with, of course, many of the restricted views that older grounds offered). It was clear by the start of the 1990s that it would need to be either replaced altogether or renovated beyond recognition, and the arrival of John Madejski at the club granted the opportunity. By the middle of the decade, Reading were knocking at the door of a place in the Premier League and, despite the occasional lick of paint, Elm Park didn’t fit with this vision.
So, Elm Park was ramshackle and altered little between the days my father first attended matches in the 1950s and its closure in 1998, after one hundred and two years. That May day saw the club’s miserable relegation under Tommy Burns confirmed – a youthful Craig Bellamy pouncing in a 1-0 win for Norwich City. Nevertheless, the South Bank rose to the occasion by singing old favourites in honour of departed heroes – Trevor Senior, Michael Gilkes and, perhaps most fittingly of all, to the late Dean Horrix, who was killed in a car crash in 1990 – an almost unbearably sad but fitting tribute to the past. Yet the new home seemed to fit the club and, eight years after that relegation and the club’s departure from Elm Park, Reading and the Madejski Stadium were in the Premier League.
There were many highlights – Martin Hicks thundering in a free kick against Chelsea in a League Cup tie, Robin Friday achieving cult hero status, Graham Poll being upbraided by Graeme Souness as Southampton tumbled to an FA Cup giantkilling, Stuart “Archie” Lovell scoring twice in injury time against Wolves to preserve second tier status, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane majesty in a 1996 FA Cup tie and Ian Branfoot’s side chalking up a thirteen match winning start to the season in 1985. Reading’s record attendance still stands at 35,000 for a knock out tie against Brentford in 1927 and the ground even featured in the film of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch as well as providing the setting for long forgotten drama, The Manageress. None of these glories – and “glory” can probably be best described as a subjective word in these cases – meant a great deal in the history of football, but they mean a lot to those of us that follow Reading.
Long standing groundsman and ex-player Gordon Neate lacing the turf with neat weed killer (Inglis describes the result as “a very brown, very dead expanse of turf”) provides a hint as to the homespun nature of the operation during the club’s more fallow years and following John Madejski’s saving of the club in the early nineties, change was inevitable. But the memories will remain – seemingly the biggest steward in football, moustachioed and nicknamed Magnum by my Dad and I; kids perched atop the crumbling stone walls; the local adverts, amongst the most memorable of which read, “Over 16? Think Army” and ”Nino’s Wine Bar”; dug-outs as foxholes, wooden seating tailor-made for amateur percussion; pre-match drinks in Oxford Road’s Hobgoblin pub and Terry Hurlock’s assaults. As 40,000 disappointed punters trailed away from Wembley recently after a play-off defeat at the hands of Swansea City, it seems a very different Reading Football Club now.
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