Reading 4 Wigan Athletic 0
Barclays League Division 2
19 September 1992
I have two nephews. Kieran lives and breathes football, but Michael has only ever been to one match in his life. This was it, and he was eight. 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. Rather surprisingly he went for the idea, despite none of us having any clue where the ground was.
After an hour or so aimlessly casting about in what looked like a Southern version of Wolverhampton, we eventually spotted some floodlights in the distance. Using traditional fans’ satnav (hanging out of the window trying to keep them in sight) we homed in on the general area of the ground, parked up in a handy side street, paid into the sparsely-populated Tilehurst End and a contest of sorts ensued. It was a beautiful afternoon and 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”. On a superficial level at least, “perhaps” was being rather kind.
So what had we? Firstly, a functional stand, built in 1926 and fronting Norfolk Road, 2500 seats in a single wooden tier. As Inglis pointed out, because the pitch was six feet higher than the road the players had to climb up steps from the dressing rooms to reach it.
Opposite, a substantial side terrace, the South Bank. This was the only covered terrace at the ground. The central part of the roof was built in the 40s, and its two wings in 1956. Despite having been 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, was more or less oblong but had a cutaway section towards the Norfolk Road corner. The Tilehurst opposite was bigger, and shaped like a slice of Edam. The former was the scene of some lively incidents in the Eighties and early Nineties. In 1984 Bristol City fans, irritable at a 2-0 defeat, reduced much of the terracing to rubble and hurled it onto the pitch. Nine years later an excitable Swansea support on an end of season spree relocated half the rear wall into the adjacent South Bank corner.
To be honest I don’t remember the first thing about the game. Reading were clearly a useful side and Wigan were clearly crap (a considered insight borne out 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. The home fans were only slightly more enthusiastic. But for all the sleepiness of that late-autumn Berkshire afternoon, 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 frankly brilliant “Biscuiteers”. When you’ve 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 managed by the 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 (as various hooligan firms had demonstrated, demolishing it was a far more straightforward proposition). So the club opted to sell the old place for housing and move to a completely new stadium. The decision was made easy for them by the competitive terms on offer – £1 for a site on the southern outskirts of town, in exchange for enabling hotel and retail developments and groundsharing with rugby. Elm Park staged the last League game against Norwich on 3 May 1998, 102 years after it opened. This was followed by a couple of testimonials and friendlies, and finally a reserve game watched by a mere handful of spectators.
Here, courtesy of www.royals.org , are a few fans’ memories of an emotional farewell:
“We had planned to take the old goalposts to the Madejski, but in one of the “last” matches some kids ran on at the end and snapped them. That rather scuppered the idea. For all the “last” games after that, we had to use a spare set that looked like they’d come free with a purchase of £60 of petrol at a garage.”
I think the very last “last game” was a reserve match, I believe v Barnet, when only the North Stand was open. Not many went.”
“The final football match at Elm Park was between the Internet Royals and a team of ex-Reading players, which was the last game of a 5 a side tournament. I can’t remember the score (which probably means we lost), but the very last action of the last game was my athletic penalty save.”
“I remember them announcing they didn’t want anyone on the pitch as they were auctioning some things off, then the masses charged on and ripped the place apart.”
“It was hilarious watching people grab anything they could after the Norwich game. I saw one person pick up a drain cover.”
“I wonder how well the gardens grow that are now under the bogs at the back of the South Bank.”
“They should have done a Highbury. Maybe turned the main stand into flats and the terracing into a Moroccan garden.”
Following our visit, Reading’s 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.