Reading 4 Wigan Athletic 0
Barclays League Division 2
19 September 1992
I have two nephews. Kieran lives and breathes football: Michael,on the other hand, has only ever been to one match in his life, and this was it. He was eight at the time, we were staying at my brother’s house in Basingstoke, and persuaded him (my brother) that he wanted to drive us to Reading in search of mid-table Third Division football. Being a lovely man, my brother went for it.
After an hour or so aimlessly casting about in what looked like a Southern version of Wolverhampton, we eventually spotted some floodlights, parked up in a handy sidestreet, paid into the sparsely-populated Tilehurst End and a game of sorts ensued. It was a beautiful afternoon. I think the crowd was around 3000.
Simon Inglis, who did so much to validate the cult of the football ground, once acidly described Elm Park as “perhaps the least interesting ground in the league”. To be fair, on a superficial level at least, “perhaps” was being rather kind.
So what had we? A stand, built in 1926, fronting Norfolk Road, 2500 seats in a single wooden tier. As Inglis pointed out, the pitch was actually six feet higher than the road, so the players had to climb up from the dressing rooms to reach it.
Opposite, a substantial terraced bank, the only covered terrace at the ground: the middle section of roof built in the 40s, the two wings in 1956. Despite their being constructed less than ten years apart, it was apparently beyond the builders to make the end sections match the middle.
Finally, two open end terraces. The erstwhile away enclosure, the Town End, more or less oblong: the Tilehurst, bigger and intriguingly wedge shaped. The former was the scene of some lively incidents in the Eighties and early Nineties, most notably in 1984 when Bristol City fans, miffed at a 3-0 defeat, reduced much of the terracing to rubble and hurled it onto the pitch.
Don’t remember the first thing about it, to be honest. Reading were clearly a useful side and Wigan were clearly crap (a considered insight validated at season’s end, when Reading finished 3 points off the playoffs and Wigan were relegated). Michael Gilkes probably scored. There was a tiny travelling support who watched in silence, and the home fans were only slightly more enthusiastic.
For all the sleepiness of that late-autumn Berkshire afternoon, however, times were a-changing for Reading.
Throughout much of their history the Royals were solid lower league citizens, their placid mundanity disturbed only by a right old hullabaloo in 1983 when Robert Maxwell tried to merge them with Oxford and rename them Thames Valley Royals. (Reading adopted the “Royals” nickname in 1976 when Huntley and Palmers ceased production in the town, doing away with the traditional “Biscuitmen” and the even more brilliant “Biscuiteers”. When you have been a biscuiteer, even being royal must feel a little bit of a comedown.)
Now, having spent a couple of years in the old Second Division in the Eighties under the pragmatic Ian Branfoot (a promotion facilitated by a record 13 straight wins at the start of 1985-86), followed by a couple more in the lower league under the frankly industrial Ian Porterfield, Mark McGhee was building a positive young team. The following year they won the league, a triumph that indirectly signalled the end for Elm Park.
John Madejski bought Reading out of receivership in 1990, paying 10p per share. Their renaissance under his chairmanship meant that in 1994, as a newly-promoted First Division side, they became subject to the all-seater requirements of the equally new Taylor Report.
Converting Elm Park to all-seater was never going to be easy, and so the club opted to move to a completely new stadium. The decision was made easy for them by the competitive terms on offer: £1 for the site, on the southern outskirts of town, in exchange for enabling hotel and retail developments and groundsharing with rugby. Elm Park celebrated its centenary in 1996. The first game at the Madejski took place two years later.
Following our visit, Reading’s non-stop upward trajectory saw them (after a few near misses) reach the Premiership in 2006, joining Wigan who – in a new stadium of their own since 1999 – had clinched promotion by beating the Royals 3-1 the previous year. Reading and Wigan in the top league? It would have seemed the stuff of fantasy on that hot afternoon 26 years ago, when Elm Park gave Michael his first – and last – taste of football.
Teams (from programme)
Reading: Hislop, Richardson, Hopkins, McPherson, Williams, Parkinson, Gilkes, Dillon, Quinn, Lovell, Jones.
Wigan: Adkins, Parkinson, Makin, Johnson, Doolan, Langley, Wilson, Robertson, Daley, Powell, Griffiths.