As Reading resume life as a Championship side, Roger Titford reflects on how two seasons in the Premier League changed both perceptions of his club and the expectations of their own fans
As a Reading fan, our relegation from the Premier League only really strikes home when you see the clubs passing in the opposite direction. Joyous city-centre parade in Hull; Dave Kitson leaving the returning Reading expedition to leap aboard the Stoke outing. Best of luck with the big beasts, chaps, you’ll need it.
Two years of elevated status for the Royals has suddenly ended and the one thing I won’t miss are the one-sided games where the one side in it isn’t yours. What I will miss most is the media limelight. After just one full appearance on Match of the Day in 40 years, it was a weekly treat to be part of the national picture. Hansen, Lawrenson and company had to have an opinion, even if it was not a very well informed one. “They’ll be all right” was the usual verdict, even when it was clear to the Berkshire cognoscenti by September that this was going to be “the difficult second season”. Sky’s Football First was great for the days we won – or couldn’t believe how we lost. Match reports in all the nationals were taken for granted. I shocked myself with my diminished level of TV interest in the Football League; a traitor to my own football upbringing.
Till I’d experienced it at my home ground, I just did not “get” the difference in the sense of occasion between the Premier League and the Championship. It was full houses virtually every game, masses of TV trucks, foreigners (Koreans especially) hanging around as if something important was about to happen, unfamiliar staff in club blazers and headsets trying to ensure it wouldn’t.
In terms of national and international profile, I guess our signature Premier League moment was the unfortunate Hunt-Cech incident, of which Petr Cech’s headgear is a seemingly constant reminder. We can but hope that some other memories have registered with the wider football public. We had the dour but respected Steve Coppell, a squad with virtually no Premier League experience that proved everybody wrong (for a year anyway), Nicky Shorey in the England team, Cilla and Parky in the directors’ box, River Plate and Lyon in the pre-season tournament, and planning permission to extend the stadium to an unlikely 38,000. All good stuff, but perhaps eclipsed by Kitson’s not giving two shits about the FA Cup, in case it distracted us from staying up.
With dreadful irony, that was the point at which a tricky campaign turned into a nose-dive. While all the other relegation rivals spent millions and/or changed managers, Reading were calm, patient, resolute, thrifty and maybe just too nice. Five clubs were worthy of going down. Only one point and three goals respectively separated the Royals from the escaping Bolton and Fulham. Just as we were beginning to get used to the Premier League, it was time to go. Home?
Like an incredibly expensive posh holiday, I’m glad we’ve been there, even if it was often not very comfortable viewing. But I’d recommend a trip to supporters of any club. Hull and Stoke are the 41st and 42nd sides to play in the Premier League, showing that it is still not, thankfully, a closed shop. Cardiff, Preston and Burnley are probably the biggest clubs never to have played there, while a few other traditionally lower-division teams, such as Reading, have made it.
Oldham actually voted for bringing the Premier League into being and famously escaped relegation in its first season by winning their final three games (to send Coppell’s Palace down on goal difference). The next year, 1993-94, the Latics were relegated with Swindon, whose only top-flight season saw them concede 100 goals and have John Moncur stamped on by Eric Cantona.
Barnsley’s one Premier season saw them hammered 6-0 in their second home game by Chelsea and take several other big beatings on the way to instant relegation. But they did briefly threaten Tottenham’s survival – and they employed a club poet. Bradford City survived in the last game of 1999-2000 but then notoriously acquired a much more expensive taste in employees – Petrescu, Collymore, Carbone – which went horribly wrong and relegation in 2001 became the least of all their subsequent woes.
All four of these clubs have fallen back to the third level of the League and two to the fourth level. Their supporters’ feelings about the Premier League experience must be ambivalent, too. Many would say Reading’s problem has been underspending rather than overspending, so we hope our fall will not be so precipitous.
Already, we have heard from the club the words “get back where we belong”. Two top-flight seasons out of 137 years’ history can have that distorting effect. Being “ex-Premier League” significantly changes the club’s and the supporters’ self-perception. The Championship season is about to start and Reading are the bookies’ second favourites to win the title. After decades of the Third Division, our long-standing fans ought to be happy enough with that level of status, but the Premier League spoils you, leaving you wanting more and forgetting to be careful what you wish for.
Watching your local team struggle in the world-renowned Premier League is a unique kind of football suffering. However bad we were in the old Third and Fourth, there was always the hope that somebody could hit a winner from 30 yards. Against Chelsea away there was one chance, at Arsenal none at all, despite being a reasonably competent, committed team. There was a hopelessness about some fixtures, like watching a bantamweight taking on a heavyweight. If football were boxing, Derby would have been led back to their corner in November.
Reading tried to evolve by sound and careful principles and slipped away. Wigan are the ones who’ve broken the mould for former lower-division clubs. Everything they do appears to be done with an unseemly desperation and oodles of unsustainable cash. And their fourth Premier League season beckons. We’ll miss the glory and the pain but at least we have a couple of Prem DVDs.
From WSC 259 September 2008