Reading FC Staring into the Abyss as Asset Strippers Hover

Posted on November 1, 2023

As I write this, Reading FC have received their latest HMRC winding up order. Fans of the club are waiting, hoping for a resolution. Over the last few days, there have been interested parties hovering around. Mike Ashley’s helicopter swirled above the stadium like a red kite swooping around mortally injured prey. Other asset strippers are also rumoured to be keen. Some of them, bizarrely, are merely attention seeking fantasists.

To many, the sight of Ashley at the club is not good news. A bit like a dying elderly patient discovering the only person with the drugs to save them is Dr Harold Shipman. That may be the case but people like Ashley are experts at coming in when all other options have evaporated, and beggars are beginning to realise they can’t be choosers.

My First Live Game

Reading was the first team I ever watched live. I can remember going into the South Bank with my elder brother, Bruce, and being awestruck. That first time at a professional game never leaves a fan. The smell of beer, burgers and cigarettes and the singing in unison is hedonistic to a small child. It was the 1978 League Cup and a 1-0 victory over Rotherham. Technically, it was a shock, as Reading were in Division 4, Rotherham in the 3rd Tier.

At that time I didn’t really support Reading though. I supported Manchester United and had done since 1975. I can remember crying when United lost to Southampton in the FA Cup Final, then jumping for joy when they beat Liverpool a year later. United stayed my team for a few years but I turned to Chelsea after the same brother took me to Stamford Bridge in 1979.

A Chelsea Fan

It was almost a year to the day after my first Reading game and was a 2-0 defeat v Fulham in Division 2. I can only remember how tough and run down it was at ‘The Bridge’. It was a place far more sinister than the leafy terrace streets around Elm Park. That made ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Shed’ more exciting and edgy.

After that game v Fulham, I continued to go to Reading games but supported Chelsea. I clearly remember seeing Chelsea beat Liverpool 2-0 in the FA Cup on a brutal and bloody afternoon that could have easily turned into Hillsborough. I went to several games thereafter, particular in 84-85 in the days of Nevin, Dixon and Speedie. Ironically, Kerry Dixon had joined Chelsea after being a local star at Reading.

Dumping the Blues for the Record Breaking Hoops

I can’t remember when I dumped Chelsea for the less glamorous Royals. I don’t think it was a decision made on one single day. It was almost certainly during the unbeaten run at the start of the 85-86 season. Third Division Reading were going toe to toe with Manchester United on a winning start. With both teams on 10 straight wins, United drew at Luton. Reading kept going with the small but vocal crowds singing merrily, ‘Who the fuck are Man United, as The Royals go Marching on’.

Loads of us from my hometown of Tadley travelled down to Newport to see Reading win 2-0 and take them to a record-breaking 13th win (the run ended with a 2-2 draw at home to Wolves). It is still the longest winning streak by any league club from the first day of the season. If I wasn’t hooked then, I was a couple of months later. Reading, torn apart and 3-0 down at home to Plymouth, staged a remarkable comeback to score 4 times in the final 25 minutes. It was an amazing feeling to be part of it. Reading went on to win Division 3 at a canter. Manchester United finished 4th in a 1 horse race. Haha.

A Saturday Habit and Simod Sunday

Thereafter, I didn’t look back. Reading became part of my Saturday afternoons. They were useless most of the time but that made the fleeting moments of glory taste better. The Simod Cup was not a great tournament by any means. It was there in a bid to replace lost games due to a European ban and largely taken lightly. Still, Reading won it at a packed Wembley, beating First Division Luton 4-1 in a rousing game. It was a day to remember, and we celebrated long and hard.

As a reminder of what it is like to be a football fan, Reading were relegated to the third tier a few weeks later. Fluctuating fortunes followed but during this time, we travelled the country, visiting towns we would not otherwise go near. Bury, Mansfield, Darlington, Rotherham, and Swansea to name a few. It was grim but fun, often sleeping in cars in places such as Nottingham, where we were informed there was 3 women to 1 man. We still failed to pull. Who wouldn’t want a night in the back of an Austin Maxi?

A 90’s Change and Stylish Football

The early 90’s brought about slow change. A new local owner (John Madejkski) promised things that supporters didn’t think was possible. However, the recruitment (on the recommendation of Alex Ferguson) of Mark Mcghee, brought a brand of football that was alien to us. Rather than hoofing and hoping, Reading played with confidence and style as they waltzed to promotion off the back of Jimmy Quinn’s prolific goalscoring. McGhee then infuriated the faithful by exiting to Leicester. The team remained the same though and took the First Division (Now the Championship) by storm. A heartbreaking Play-off loss to Bolton was hard to take but an indication Reading were going places.

Then another slow decline in the mid to late 90’s. After the departure of joint managers, Gooding and Quinn, Terry Bullivant (who played for Fulham in my first ever Chelsea game) was utterly hopeless, as was Tommy Burns. By then, Reading had moved into a first-class stadium and ambition remained high. Alan Pardew was given his chance and took it, guiding Reading back to the second-tier courtesy of a hefty chequebook. Cureton, Forster, Butler, Caskey and Salako were all class acts. A Cureton goal secured promotion at Brentford; a team managed by some bloke called Steve Coppell.

The Promised Land

With a decent chequebook and a good side, Pardew looked like he might take Reading to the promised land in 2003/04. However, he did a McGhee, departing to West Ham with Reading off to a flier and in second place. In came that bloke, Coppell. It initially felt uninspiring, but Coppell slowly built what became known as ‘The Reading Way’.

After a competent first season, Reading were ready for 2005/06. A dispiriting home defeat on the first day was followed by a long unbeaten run. Playing vibrant and attacking football, Coppell’s players grew in stature with every week and raced to promotion and a record points tally (106). Reading were in the big time for the first time in their history.

Joy, Despair, Joy, then an Unwise Takeover

A widely expected relegation didn’t materialise. Reading took on all comers, taking big scalps like Spurs and Liverpool and registering honourable draws versus the proper big guns of the time, Chelsea and Manchester United. West Ham were battered 6-0 on Boxing Day. Heady times indeed. Reading were widely regarded as a team for the modern era. However, an 8th place finish wasn’t backed up with investment required. After a solid start to the following season, Reading faded as 2007 turned to 2008, resulting in a painful relegation on goal difference.

Still, Reading remained a force in the Championship. After a failed mission with Brendan Rodgers, they nearly returned in 2011 under Brian McDermott (another deflating play-off loss). Then they did so after a rousing unbeaten run in 2012, courtesy of the astute signing of Jason Roberts and the heroic goals of Le Fondre. The Roberts signing was funded by new Russian owners who promised the world but delivered a quick-fire relegation and no money. It was a hasty and ill-advised sale by Madejski. No due diligence had been done on the deal and it felt wrong. The rot had started.

The Steady Decline

From then on, it’s all a bit vague after that relegation in May 2013. An awful play-off Final in 2017 was followed by relegation scrapes and financial concerns as wages and overheads outstripped income. Reading was rapidly turning into a basket case under several managers such as Jaap Stam and faceless owner’s alien to a club that was rapidly losing its identity. The writing was on the wall as financial penalties and points deductions flowed. Reading fell away on the pitch as manager, Paul Ince, lost the plot and Championship status. It had been coming after several narrow escapes.

And here we are. Staring into the abyss, watching on as the vultures wait for Reading to go into administration to see what they can strip out of it. Any real hopes of a decent owner turning up have all but faded into oblivion. After all the pain, the joy, the commiserations, and celebrations, this is Reading FC’s darkest hour. League 2 Football next season is almost becoming a fantasy; it may be even worse than that.

Winding up Petitions

The HMRC winding up order is in place. If granted, Reading will be liquidated. The more likely outcome is the directors will cave in and appoint administrators. The administrators will sell every asset to pay off debts and someone may buy it for a nominal one pound. Whether Reading can rise from the rubble, remains to be seen but it’s a long way back.

Reading FC have been part of my life. Some of my best memories come from watching them. The pain, the glory, the beer, and the laughs you have with your friends, then bringing your kids into it all. However, I am one of the lucky ones. Reading isn’t my life. I have other hobbies such as cricket, walking my dog, photography, and occasionally running my small business. It’s the fans whose life is Reading FC, I feel for. The harmless geeks who live and work for the weekend, and support their club home and away, whatever the circumstances.

Without their football club to support, you have to worry for them and their well-being.

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