Hula hoops

Reading's fortunes have improved little in recent months, but the fans have taken the club by the scruff of the neck and shown unswerving support, says Roger Titford

When Scunthorpe took the lead against Reading on November 27 at the Madejski Stad­ium 1,000 home fans instantly stood up and sang “We’re shit and we’re sick of it”. Less than three months later, when Scunthorpe took the lead against Reading at Glanford Park, 1,000 travelling fans instantly stood up and sang “Come on, Reading”. With Reading in much the same place in the Second Division relegation battle, why the transformation in mood?

In some measure it has been down to the fans themselves taking a wretched situation by the scruff of the neck. Relegation in 1998 was followed by the move to the Madejski Stadium (known by some as the Mad House) and a season of aching dullness and frustration; watching players the fans couldn't identify with in an environment that didn’t yet work. This season started worse and even the renaissance after the sacking of Tommy Burns in September was hardly noticeable.

After the appalling home performance against Scunthorpe a small group of fans org­anised, largely via the internet, “Pants Day”‚ seen as part-protest and part-party. “Players Are Not Trying Sufficiently” was one interpretation. Many fans entered into the fun of it, first waving and then chucking used underwear, as Reading battled out a 2-2 draw with Wrexham.

The national publicity around “Pants” showed that a lot of fans cared and had the energy to get something organised. And, for the most part, the players’ efforts did pick up. But not sufficiently to avoid the more traditional protest of a (rather minor) pitch invasion in mid-January after 12 games without a win. The calls for new manager Alan Pardew’s head were beginning. The stadium built for the Premiership could have been welcoming Rushden and Diamonds in a few months’ time. The club was down to its two friends of last resort: chairman John Madejski and his open wallet, and the unswerving loyalty of the hardcore 5,000.

Inspired by the energy thrown into Pants Day the supporters club gathered together all the different fan groups for a meeting, symbolically held in the pub on the corner of what was Elm Park. Here it was decided to pool resources behind the twin aims of getting right behind the relegation-threatened team and of bringing some fun back to football in Reading. It’s an alliance of groups which now travels under the new banner of URZ (based on the old cry of “You Rs”).

It has been argued that football matches, particularly in the lower divisions, need to be “events” to work to attract a large crowd. If the football alone cannot justify this sense, and 19th-placed Scunthorpe versus 17th-placed Reading frankly struggles on its own merits, then it is down to the fans to create the event. With a bit of cyber-oomph and a local paper front page story, a big support went up to Glanford Park and cheered the team back from two down to get a draw. A point saved and a grateful club paid an unplanned draw bonus.

The next URZ theme day, scheduled for March 4, sees Reading attempting to “out-seaside” Bournemouth in a stadium full of Hawaiian shirts, shades and beach music. It’s not exactly the stuff that would delight JB Priestley or Arthur Hopcraft but look out for the gate figure – did it make a difference? Look out for the results: so far post-URZ it’s three wins and two draws from five, our best run of the season.

URZ works firstly through co-operation between all the different fan groups and the club, and secondly because ideas come from the bottom up and not top down (the club). Where it goes and how long it lasts is impossible to say but already fans outside the core group are developing their own ideas: how can you manage the madness at the Mad House?

From WSC 158 April 2000. What was happening this month