Two decades after another publishing tycoon tried to sell the club, John Madejski's Reading have finally made the top flight, to the delight of Roger Titford and the surprise of the bookmakers
We have been sitting on an ever-plumper cushion since December – of five points, 15 points, 25 points – at the top of the Championship, warmed by unprecedentedly kind words from the rest of football and marinating in our own smugness. Not only has our title-winning season been perfect, it has also been quite unexpected – a 25-1 shot at the bookies.
By the end of last season Reading felt more like a team at the start of a decline, consistently just missing out on the play-offs that we are cursed never to win anyway. Then, suddenly, we own and live in the Football League’s top spot with a clear view of all below. It was as if something great had been promised. The football world (starting with Luton’s Mike Newell in December) told us it was “in the post”: just bide our time and our passport to the top flight for the first time would arrive.
This is Reading, though, with a history of all manner of play-off tragedies. Supporters’ feelings veered between worrying about blowing the biggest lead of all time and triumphantly predicting the amazing number of points we might get. Even the anticipated, dreaded blip hit Sheffield United instead of us as we marched on towards a League record 106 points. As early as March 25 promotion was clinched and the title celebrated the following week with a delightfully cliched 5-0 home win and pitch invasion. We were feeling like kids with brilliant results before the rest had even taken their exams, nothing left to do but try to answer the impossible: “Have we broken the record for the number of records broken in a season?”
It is all based on “The Run”, of course, a 33-game unbeaten stretch, equalling a previously miscalculated Liverpool record for the second tier going back to 1895. The run may yet transform the whole history of the club. It started at Brighton in mid-August and ended at Luton six months later. In between all the pre-season favourites were vanquished by a team with a slick attack and a doughty defence. Sheffield United’s even better start kept the Royals three points behind, but still on title form averaging over two points a game, until the end of October. Then Reading actually improved, with ten straight wins, playing exquisite, incisive football, home wins assured in style, all melding into one generic “Yes!”
The rise of Reading should be a case history about stability off the pitch. John Madejski is in his 16th year as chairman, pursuing a plan to create a supportive infrastructure as well as a successful team, while about 90 per cent of the senior administrative management have been in place since the new stadium opened eight years ago – continuity that is rare in any organisation, let alone a football club.
This season, his third here, Steve Coppell appears to have used a simple, old-fashioned formula. Pick a First XI and stick to it. Pick a formation – classic 4-4-2 – and stick to it. Keep your mouth shut about what you’re doing and about your opponents, keep the discipline tight (no red cards, top of the fair-play league) and employ top physios and sports scientists to keep the players fit.
Every promotion side, certainly at Reading, is driven by a minimum of three players who suddenly raise their game to a new level. Bobby Convey, Glen Little and Ibrahima Sonko played like men transformed from the previous season. Kevin Doyle, the only new signing in the First XI, was the embodiment of the change and the season. Fresh from doing enough to win a League of Ireland championship medal with Cork City, Doyle grabbed his chance through injury to others and became Championship player of the year and a full international to boot. There were other new signings who stiffened the fringes of the team and added to, rather then detracted from, the team spirit. In the January window Coppell signed five players for cover, yet played none of them until the title was won.
Next August the Royals will be one of the few Premiership clubs to have worked their way up from Division Four. It has taken 22 years – starting in the season of Robert Maxwell’s failed bid to merge us with Oxford – but the bottom division loomed close as recently as 2000. The sudden realisation that the big time was at hand came in November, as the ticket office was overwhelmed with 9,500 applications for half-season tickets, many bought on the towel-on-the-beach-lounger principle for next year.
We were into a new world that had such things in it as the Reading manager being linked with the England job, international call-ups for two thirds of the team, mentions on the front pages of tabloids, the England team in various capacities (Under-18, Legends, B) appearing in our stadium and sour-faced souvenir sellers trading illegally outside it. Five years ago we were contesting the “Didcot Triangle” on equal terms with local rivals Swindon and Oxford.
For big occasions at Wembley and Cardiff, Reading can be trusted to sell 40,000 tickets, belying the “small club” image. Now heady speculation suggests that Premiership survival will lead to expansion of the stadium to 33,000. The 20,000-plus sell-out crowds, the highest of all time, have become the norm. Already new Reading merchandise is seen more frequently and further away than ever before, while the old stuff is determinedly worn by longer-term supporters anxious not to look like plastic Johnny-come-latelies.
Fans are enjoying it while they can, consciously living for the moment, knowing full well that for every Bolton there is a Bradford City. We may never be this happy with football again, certainly never to enjoy this type of success again for the first time.
At the end of a perfect season there is still a tiny suspicion it has been too good to be true, too painless on the nerves to be real, too many Christmases all at once. Reading FC: crowned Football League champions on April Fool’s Day. Thankfully after 12 o’clock.
From WSC 232 June 2006. What was happening this month