IN THIS WEEK

11 August

2001 – Reading won their first game of the season 2-0 at Blackpool and then went onto being 2nd in the then Division 2 table and being promoted. That season Reading’s home crowds averaged 14,115, the highest for 50 years and for the first time in their history this was the highest for their division.

A ROYAL HISTORY

Amateur days
(1871–95)

Reading Football Club was formed late in 1871 by a group of young townsmen meeting in Gun Street and the first match was played on 21 February 1872 at the Reading Recreation Ground (now King’s Meadow).

The club slowly grew in strength and in 1878 moved to an enclosed ground (Reading Cricket Ground). With two internationals in defence (John Morgan of Wales, Edgar Field of England) Reading won its first trophy, the Berks & Bucks Senior Cup, in March 1879. At this time the club was regarded as one of the strongest in the south outside London but severe decline set in during the 1880s after a move was made to Coley Park. While football boomed in the north the very amateur Reading were left behind, at times not even the best team in the town!

It took the determined leadership of former player Horace Walker from 1890 to revive the club from almost total ruin and put it on a more attractive and open footing. Now playing at Caversham Cricket Ground Reading regained the Berks & Bucks Cup in 1892 and became founder members of the Southern League in 1894. By now the club was regularly attracting crowds of 2,000 or more as it finished mid-table in its first league season. In June 1895 Reading turned professional, with an amateur section splitting away, to play as Reading Amateurs in Palmer Park.

HONOURS

Berks & Bucks Cup winners (1879, 1892); FA Amateur Cup quarter-final (1895)

RECORDS

0-18 defeat to Preston North End in FA Cup (1894)

BIGGEST HOME GATE

5,000 v Ilford (1894)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Brownlow Haygarth – Reading’s first England international (1875); Joint ferry-and-match ticket package to home matches at Caversham (1895)

FUN FACT

Reading had never played a game north of Oxfordshire until that unfortunate trip to Preston in 1894!

Southern comforts
(1895–1920)

Reading spent 22 seasons in the Southern League, all but one season in the top division. In order to progress as a professional club we built our own ground for the first time. Elm Park, in west Reading, opened in September 1896 and the following year the club became a limited company.

This era was one of the club’s most successful – although it also nearly went out of business a couple of times! The Southern League quickly became a competitive division, at the very least the equivalent in strength of Football League Division Two. Amongst the highlights were finishing Southern League Division One runners-up three times, winning the Southern League Division Two title (1911), reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals (1901), knocking Football League giants Bolton Wanderers (1901) and Aston Villa (1912) out of the FA Cup and holding Manchester United to a newsreel-filmed cup draw (1912). Reading toured Italy in 1913 beating AC Milan and the Italian national XI and were described as ‘without doubt the finest foreign team seen in Italy’. Johnny Holt and Herbert Smith won full caps for England. Smith (1908) and Ted Hanney (1912) played in Great Britain’s gold medal-winning Olympic teams.

The club was much weakened financially and by the loss of players during the First World War (1914–18). The most prominent casualty was star forward Allen Foster, who had been tipped for England honours. The Southern League resumed for one season (1919–20) while its management committee again sought admission to the Football League. In March 1920 it agreed their clubs could enter as Division Three, a lower status than they wanted or deserved.

HONOURS

Southern League Division One Runners-up (1903, 1905, 1915); Southern League Division Two Champions (1911)

RECORDS

Reached FA Cup quarter-final, but lost to Tottenham after replay (1901)

BIGGEST HOME GATE

24,069 v Manchester United (1912)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

England internationals, foreign tours, Cup giant-killing

FUN FACT

Elm Park staged the last-ever all non-league FA Cup semi-final, Millwall v Southampton (1900)

On the national stage
(1920–31)

Although Reading won its first Football League match 1-0 at Newport the early years of membership brought little joy. Indeed we were very close to having to apply for re-election in the first season.

In 1925–26 Reading won the Championship of Division Three (South). Promotion was assured on the last day with a thrilling 7-1 victory over Brentford. International honours were gained by Dai Evans (Wales), Billy McConnell and Hugh Davey (Northern Ireland). To keep with the higher status a new grandstand holding 4,000 was built on the Norfolk Road side (it lasted until 1998). In an amazing ten game FA Cup run in 1926–27 Reading reached the semi-finals for the first time, bowing out to eventual winners Cardiff at Molineux. The all-time attendance record for Elm Park of 33,042 was set in the 5th Round as the Biscuitmen beat Brentford while the average league gate was the highest yet at 13,389.

With our long football history and our solid Southern League pedigree it seemed as though the club had now arrived at a fitting level on the national stage. But it was a struggle to stay there. Reading was a relatively small town in Second Division terms then, up against the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton and Wolves. Only 10 away matches were won in 5 seasons. When inspirational skipper Alf Messer was sold in 1930 a struggle was certain. Reading never recovered from an atrocious start and were relegated back to Division Three (South) in 1931.

HONOURS

Division Three (South) Champions (1926); FA Cup semi-finalists (1927)

RECORDS

6 goals in a league game v Stoke City by Arthur Bacon (1931) – club record

BIGGEST HOME GATE

33,042 v Brentford (1927) – ground record

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

New grandstand; Supporters’ Club founded 1930

FUN FACT

Convinced that Reading would reach the final in 1927 Huntley & Palmers made FA Cup-shaped biscuit tins – but had to send them to India when we lost the semi-final!

Southern frustrations
(1931–52)

For the best part of two decades Reading banged on the door of Division Two but could not finish 1st and get back in. We finished 2nd four times, 3rd three times and never below halfway. Our home form in the 1930s was incredibly strong but the away form was still weak.

Reading enjoyed a run of good managerial appointments – Joe Smith, Billy Butler, Joe Edelston and Ted Drake – who each did their bit to entertain the fans and modernise the club. There was a stronger youth policy, better training facilities and foreign tours, with Holland being visited several times. Off the pitch the Supporters’ Club (founded 1930) raised funds for better facilities – a tannoy system and a roof over part of the south terrace. In 1938 the kit was changed from stripes back to hoops, our very first kit dating back to 1872.

Throughout the war Reading played regional football, with many famous guest players including Matt Busby, and we won the London War Cup in 1941. When league football resumed in 1946 we got off to a flying start with a record 10-2 win in our first home match. Attendances boomed for a while with almost 16,000 watching on average during the fabulous 1951–52 season. Despite breaking club (112) and individual (Ron Blackman, 39) goal-scoring records, winning 19 out of 20 games in one run and racking up 61 points we finished 2nd again. Manager Ted Drake left, chairman Bill Lee quit and a great team broke up.

HONOURS

Southern Section Challenge Cup (1938); London War Cup (1941)

RECORDS

New Football League record of 55 home matches unbeaten, April 1933 – Jan 1935, surpassed by Millwall in 1967

BIGGEST HOME GATE

30,621 v Arsenal (1935)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Hooped shirts with numbers (1938); covered terracing (1936)

FUN FACT

In the short, abandoned, 1939–40 season we beat Crystal Palace 5-0. When the fixture was re-played in 1946 we won 10-2. Edelston and MacPhee scored three in the first game and seven goals those seven years later!

Staying put
(1952–71)

When the 1970–71 season opened Reading were among the favourites for promotion from Division Three even though it had been a long 45 years since we last achieved the feat. After the near miss of 1952 the heart and the ambition rather went out of the club as it settled down to a mid-table existence.

There was no FA Cup glory, very few star signings and only a few vague sniffs of promotion – in 1958, 1967 and 1968. Football as a whole needed change as the 1960s approached. The league had become too routine. One welcome reform was the creation of national Divisions Three and Four to replace the regional variants from 1958–59. Reading comfortably made the cut into the ‘soon-to-be-dominated by southern clubs’ Third. Another was the introduction of floodlights (October 1954) which brought about exciting friendlies, floodlit competitions and later the League Cup.

Gates declined in the 1960s as the Reading public got fed up with Third Division football year after year. Attempts at modernisation – an all sky blue kit, a club song, a 4-2-4 system – failed. When new manager Jack Mansell took high-scoring Reading to the top of the table in March 1970, in front of large crowds, it looked as though the corner was finally being turned. It was – but it was the wrong corner. His stymied promotion bid was followed up by a shock relegation on goal average to Division Four in May 1971.

HONOURS

Football Combination Division Two Champions (1966); qualified for Watney Cup (1970)

RECORDS

Biggest home defeat (0-7) in FA Cup replay v Manchester City (1968)

BIGGEST HOME GATE

25,659 v Manchester City (1968)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Pylon floodlights (1969); pop concerts at Elm Park (1967)

FUN FACT

Goalkeeper Arthur Wilkie scored twice v Halifax in 1962. Injured, he played part of the game on the wing and set a Football League record for most goals scored in a game by a player starting in goal.

Fourth to the brink
(1971–83)

There was a lot wrong with football in the 1970s but the fans seemed to enjoy it nevertheless: more away trips, more media coverage, more involvement with the club. Reading’s first season in Division Four (1971–72) saw the club’s lowest league placing (16th) but also epic cup ties against Blyth Spartans and Arsenal.

It took manager Charlie Hurley four seasons to put together an experienced side capable of winning the club’s first promotion for 50 years (1975–76) and then the work was undone by an instant relegation. Club hero and manager Maurice Evans built his team in half the time and took the title in May 1979 with an attractive side. There had been a danger of getting too used to football at this level but it was brightened by entertaining players like Steve Death, Percy Freeman and the man who would become a lower division legend, Robin Friday.

Serious injuries and tight finances prevented the 1979 team from progressing despite the presence of youthful stars like Neil Webb, Lawrie Sanchez and Kerry Dixon. Persistent crowd trouble also forced down attendances, sometimes under 2,000 in 1982–83. The board of directors had run out of ideas and put the club up for sale. There was an offer from an unwelcome quarter, the chairman of Oxford United, who proposed a merger that looked more like an asset-stripping take-over. Our club was at the point of extinction in May 1983 and saved only by the actions of rebel directors, supporters’ protests, and the emergence of a new owner from the ranks of ex-players.

HONOURS

Division Four Champions (1979); promoted (1976)

RECORDS

1,103 minutes without conceding a goal (1979) – still a Football League record

BIGGEST HOME GATE

25,756 v Arsenal (1972)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Nickname changed from Biscuitmen to Royals (1976); away fans segregated to Town End (c1982)

FUN FACT

Robin Friday scored the greatest goal in the history of the world v Tranmere Rovers (1976) – so say 35,000 eye-witnesses, allegedly!

A blazing comet
(1983–90)

We may have been saved but we were back in Division Four. However new chairman Roger Smee set about changing everything – the manager, the kit, the business planning, even, he hoped, the stadium location. With Trevor Senior spearheading manager Ian Branfoot’s direct style of play Reading won promotion at the first time of asking in 1983–84 and then surprised the football world in 1985–86.

Unfancied in pre-season, record-breaking Reading won the first 13 league matches and built a massive lead by New Year’s Day. It was all done without the TV cameras who were boycotting football at the time and in front of restricted crowds following the Bradford Fire disaster. Reading took the title by a comfortable margin, exactly a mere 60 years after our first title at this third level. The following season a highest yet league placing of 13th in Division Two was achieved but then unfortunately the better players moved on and could not be adequately replaced.

The 1987–88 season brought relegation but with an unusual twist. The desperate bid to retain Division Two status saw record transfer buys who didn’t come off and who couldn’t play in a newish tournament restricted to the top two divisions, sponsored by an Italian sports-shoe company. Reading had already put Chelsea out of the League Cup when we embarked on the Simod Cup run which involved knocking out another five Division One sides and culminating in a Wembley victory, 4-1 over Luton. Like a comet we faded away and financial problems forced Smee’s resignation in November 1990.

HONOURS

Division Three Champions (1986); Division Four promoted (1984); Simod Cup winners (1988)

RECORDS

13 consecutive wins from start of season (1985) – still a Football League/Premier League record

BIGGEST HOME GATE

16,822 v Arsenal (1987)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Royals Rendezvous Social Club (1986)

FUN FACT

Our 2-1 win over Sunderland in 1990 was our first FA Cup triumph over top-flight opposition since 1929

Last years at Elm Park
(1990–98)

John Madejski (later Sir) began a long era of careful stewardship of the club in 1990, promising to put it on a more sustainable business-like footing. The key element in his plan, announced in 1993, was to move from the now out-of-date Elm Park to a purpose-built stadium on the southern edge of town. Rookie manager Mark McGhee was given time to put together a team which won the Division Two (third tier) title in an entertaining fashion in 1993–94, Jimmy Quinn’s goals to the fore.

Radical changes further improved the side as it made an unlikely bid for the one automatic promotion place to the top division. Though McGhee controversially left in mid-season a late burst of form saw Reading finish 2nd and enter the play-offs for the first time. In the most tragic of matches we surrendered a two goal half-time lead and lost in extra-time to Bolton Wanderers. The pattern of our stronger players leaving for bigger clubs continued and the next three seasons were a struggle to maintain second tier status, although punctuated by cup victories over Premier League sides and reaching the quarter-finals of the League Cup for the first time (1997–98).

Football as a whole was growing in popularity and these were mostly enjoyable seasons for Reading fans. But some poor managerial appointments in 1997–98 saw a spiralling loss of form and the club finishing last in its final season at Elm Park. It would be third tier football in the new stadium.

HONOURS

Division Two (3rd tier) Champions (1994); Division One (2nd tier) Runners-up (1995)

RECORDS

Reached League Cup quarter-final (1998) – club record

BIGGEST HOME GATE

14,817 v Norwich City (1998) – last match at Elm Park

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Return to blue and white hoops (1993)

FUN FACT

Reading’s last FA Cup tie at Elm Park was the first to go to a penalty shoot-out which we won, having been behind

Second wind
(1998–2005)

The comforts of the new stadium quickly attracted more supporters but it took 18 months before the team showed any consistency in results. In the background the club launched a more formally structured youth development programme known as the Academy, opened a new training ground at Hogwood while the Supporters Club became a Trust (STAR, 2002). As a town Reading was growing in size and prosperity.

Alan Pardew, another rookie manager took charge in late 1999, and with the motto ‘tenacity, spirit, flair’ brought a major change in attitude. Promotion was narrowly missed in 2001 and narrowly gained in 2002, with fewer points and only thanks to Jamie Cureton’s late goal at arch-rivals Brentford. Reading adapted well to the second tier, finishing 4th at the first attempt but losing in the play-off semi-final. Two years earlier we had lost in the third tier play-off final at the Millennium Stadium. It was becoming an unfortunate habit.

Pardew was enticed away in September 2003 with the club high in the table and replaced by the experienced Steve Coppell. It took the best part of two seasons and some astute wheeler-dealing in the transfer market to find the right blend. Reading were a challenger team near the top of the second tier but falling just outside the play-off zone. However Reading were now consistently looking up towards the top division rather than back towards the third tier and thus attracting a better class of player as well as many more fans.

HONOURS

Division Two (3rd tier) Runners-up / promoted (2002)

RECORDS

Slowest promotion finish ever (2002), Reading won only one of the last ten games of the season – we drew the other nine!

BIGGEST HOME GATE

24,107 v Chelsea (2003)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

New stadium with hotel and conference centre attached

FUN FACT

Of the 22 clubs that joined the League in 1920, Reading were the first to reach 5,000 league goals with a scrambled effort by Ady Williams (2001)

Glory days
(2005–13)

The 2005–06 season was epic. 106 points, 99 goals, 33 match unbeaten run, promoted before the clocks went back, Steve Coppell Manager of the Year and Football League (second tier admittedly) champions for the first time. The team was so strong it finished a highly creditable 8th in the Premier League in 2006–07, just a disallowed (rightly!) goal away from European qualification. The Madejski Stadium was packed almost to its 24,000 capacity every game to watch famous names like Spurs, West Ham and Manchester City well beaten.

It was a triumph for ‘the Reading Way’ and fans new and old gloried in the best times in the club’s history. But sadly they were short-lived. A desperately unlucky relegation on goal difference followed in 2007–08 and the 106 side began to break up. Promotion straight back looked to be on the cards in 2008–09 but the opportunity dribbled away into another play-off defeat and Coppell resigned.

Brian McDermott revived the club in 2010, reaching two FA Cup quarter-finals, the play-off final of 2011 and then enjoyed an extraordinary run of form – 15 wins in 17 games – to bring a second Football League title to Berkshire in 2011-12. During the season Madejski sold a controlling interest in the club to a Russian oligarch. Whilst the deal worked in the immediate short-term it turned into a disaster as money that didn’t exist was wasted on extravagant transfers and wages. Reading never looked like staying in the Premier League and came straight back down with a bump and a debt.

HONOURS

Football League Champions (2nd tier) (2006, 2012); FA Cup quarter-finals (2010, 2011)

RECORDS

Most points in a league season – 106 (2006); equal longest unbeaten run in 2nd tier – 33 games (2005–06); highest average attendance 23,862 (2012–13)

BIGGEST HOME GATE

24,184 v Everton (2012)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Reading play intercontinental opposition in Peace Cup, South Korea (2007)

FUN FACT

Nicky Shorey became the first Reading player to be picked for England (2007) in just over 100 years

Global business
(2013–20)

In the 25 years that Sir John Madejski was the figurehead of the club the finances of football changed beyond belief – largely driven by Premier League broadcast income of which Reading had now had a taste. Even the Championship was a demanding global business with clubs employing scores more people. Following the Russian came a consortium of Thai owners and then in 2017 Dai Yongge, a Chinese investor, the present owner.

Whilst the Academy was strengthened into a Category One operation and a state of the art training ground built at Bearwood, the main mission, sometimes impatiently pursued, was a return to the Premier League. Understandably therefore there was a procession of managers, 7 in 7 seasons, and a flood of signings, many on loan and from all over the world. This caused intermittent financial instability and near continuous dressing room instability. There were highlights. The play-off positions were just missed in 2014 but achieved in 2017. Jaap Stam’s cautious team reached the Wembley final but lost on penalties. The hangover was severe – three seasons fighting hard but successfully against relegation to the third tier.

Steve Clarke’s team of 2015 showed some promise before crumbling. However, it did reach the club’s second FA Cup semi-final, losing to Arsenal in extra-time at Wembley, after a winning run of four away ties. As the 2019–20 season closed the sport was faced with the fresh threat of Covid-19 and matches in empty stadiums, a bizarre echo of the club playing without crowds nearly 150 years ago.

HONOURS

FA Cup semi-finalists (2015); FA Cup quarter-final (2016)

RECORDS

Reading scored 7 goals at the Madejski Stadium for the first time v Bolton (2014)

BIGGEST HOME GATE

23,335 v Burnley (2014)

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Category One Academy status at Bearwood training ground; women’s team in Women’s Super League; FA People’s Cup-winning male disability team

FUN FACT

With the prospect of 20 consecutive seasons in the top two divisions, the club appears to be established at the level it promised just over a century ago

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