Brave new world

Somewhat to their own surprise, Reading fans have been presented with a big new ground. Roger Titford assesses early reactions to the Madejski Stadium

In terms of stadium comfort no English fans can have travelled so far so fast as Reading’s followers. Only 20 days after the final, final farewell to the rusting tin and crumbling concrete of Elm Park, last used for  a testimonial, we welcomed “the clarity of vision and handsomeness of space” (the Times) of the Madejski Stadium. It was like 40 years of ground improvements in a day.

Elm Park was famously unimproved. You would need to be 50 to remember a new roof going up and over 80 to have welcomed a new seat. Where I stood it was like peering through a letterbox. Now the view is double patio doors. Elm Park was a ground for the bicycle and the town; the Madejski is a stadium for the car and the region. If buildings do influence the life of institutions then we’re in for some changes.

On the opening day people were literally touching the walls and saying “this can’t be Reading” in a mixture of shock and delight. It looks big (ie you can’t kick the ball out of the ground), classy and has some of the better aspects of the Wembley model. It seats about 24,300, all seemingly with brilliant views of the pitch. Only six years ago we had a League crowd in the Sec-ond Division of just one-tenth of that capacity, so there is a big act of faith going on here.

The project as a whole is far from complete, with the concourse bars still to come, the crucial dual carriageway from the motorway not finished until next season and the on-site hotel to be built. In the meantime the press is full of stories of traffic chaos, and the first kick-offs have had to be delayed 15 minutes. But the fans, despite their fondness for the robust unpretentiousness of Elm Park, are loving it. Even the chips outside were tasty, although £1.50.

Part of the unreality for many supporters must come from their lack of involvement in the move. The new ground was not something we campaigned or raised money for, but something identified by the club as a business need. Chairman John Madejski worked hard with Labour-controlled Reading Borough Council and other big business interests to put the deal together. The total project costs are estimated at £40 million, although probably not much more than half of that has gone on the stadium itself. £10 million went on reclaiming and detoxifying the land that the Council sold for a token £1, and into which every person in Reading had probably made a very personal contribution on a daily basis for many years. The club was unable to get the right price for the stadium-naming rights, Reebok-style, so Madejski, with a degree of ambivalence, “let his name go forward”. And to be fair he had underwritten the financial shortfall.

So Reading FC move from homely West Reading to Smallmead, an area on the dark edge of town, the urban equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs, the place where the Council put things they don’t really want to see: the sewage treatment, the rubbish tip, the speedway stadium, the light industrial units. The new relief road, the Prudential Business Park and the Royal Berkshire Conference Centre, all with easy motorway access, will change that perception in time. The Madejski Stadium Complex is a project with a lot going for it, and one that doubtless leaves some our southern rivals fuming; Southampton (bloody residents), Portsmouth (bloody geese).

It all sounds to good to be true, and therein lies the worry for some Reading fans. It is unsettling to see a £20million-plus building go up without the name of its owner, Reading Football Club, on the outside, but there are assurances that this will happen. It is odd to hear the phone answered by “Madejski Stadium”, not “Reading FC”, but that is because we now ground share with Richmond RFC. Some supporters are not yet convinced that this is their territory, this is for real.

The other worry is we can no longer afford to entertain that visitor from the past, failure, in front of gates of 3000. I recall a man in a suit once saying that the Madejski Stadium needed “4000 inside to begin  to wash its face”. Even with  a crowd of 9000 for the second match, the atmosphere teetered between very good on the Popular Side  and echoey training ground elsewhere.

But this is a risk we have  to take. All the informed opinion in the game is that there will be some new fissures emerging, based on or determined by financial resources. The Madejski Stadium has given Reading a decent chance of playing on the right side of whatever divide might emerge in the domestic game. In the modern era players come and go every two years. To adapt the old American Express slogan, “your stadium says more about you than your players ever can”. New surroundings create fresh expectation and that expectation forces the results. In one sense Reading have promoted themselves. In stadium terms we are the equals of the likes of Bolton, West Brom and West Ham and ahead of Southampton, Leicester and Ipswich. Many of our more familiar points of comparison like Gillingham, Bournemouth and Colchester are still in the Tin and Brick Age (although presently above us in the table.)

The new stadium alters perceptions of the club and fans’ self-perceptions completely. Like Fulham, somehow, we are suddenly one of the big clubs in the division. There is surprise and envy for our “lavish stage” (Sunday Mirror), “out of place at this level” (Guardian). Supporters are unusually optimistic for this season, and there is a feeling that simply by the act of creating such a stadium Reading have taken the major step forward to becoming a much bigger club. There are no lessons to be learned: it’s simply down to the luck of having a very rich chairman and a co-operative Council at the right time. And, of course, there are no guarantees things will work out on the pitch…

From WSC 140 October 1998. What was happening this month