Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten - Elm Park, Reading

This week our host is Rob Langham (or Lanterne Rouge as you might know him) of The Two Unfortunates you can also follow him on Twitter @twounfortunates

In Simon Inglis’s seminal study of stadia, The Football Grounds of England and Wales (later republished as The Football Grounds of Britain), he describes Elm Park as perhaps the least interesting ground in the league. For sure, among fans who are forced to choose between the pluses and minuses of the new and the old, Royals supporters are perhaps less wistful for the olden days than many.

The move to the shiny Madejski Stadium provided the impetus for a decade of success unheralded in the experience of the club and if the latter years at Elm Park also witnessed occasional highs, few of the faithful would choose to return.

Gone but not forgotten
One aspect that links the two arenas is the way the nature of the old ground mirrors the new. Just as at Elm Park, the rowdier support station themselves along the touchline: at Elm Park, it was the South Bank; at the Mad Stad, the East Stand.

Equally, the uncovered Tilehurst End had a peacefulness equalled by the current North Stand and the hoi polloi are quartered in the West Stand at the new building; an echo of their roots in the old Norfolk Road Stand.

Elm Park was ramshackle and altered little between the days my father first attended matches in the 1950s and its closure in 1998. That May afternoon saw the club’s miserable relegation under Tommy Burns confirmed – a youthful Craig Bellamy pouncing in a 1-0 win for Norwich City.

Nevertheless, the South Bank rose to the occasion by singing old favourites in honour of departed heroes – Trevor Senior, Michael Gilkes and the late Dean Horrix – an almost unbearably sad but fitting tribute to the past.

There were many highlights over the 102 years – Martin Hicks' thundering free kick against Chelsea in a League Cup tie, Robin Friday achieving cult hero status, Graham Poll being upbraided by Graeme Souness as Southampton tumbled to an FA Cup giant killing, Stuart “Archie” Lovell scoring twice in injury time against Wolves to preserve second tier status, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane majestic in a 1996 FA Cup tie and Ian Branfoot’s side chalking up a 13-match winning start to the season in 1985.

Reading’s record attendance still stands at 33,042 for a knock out tie against Brentford in 1927 and the ground even featured in the film of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, as well as providing the setting for Eighties drama, The Manageress.

Elm Park
Long-standing groundsman and ex-player Gordon Neate lacing the turf with neat weed killer provides a hint as to the homespun nature of the operation and following John Madejski’s saving of the club in the early Nineties, change was inevitable. As a newly prosperous small city with a large white-collar population thirsting for football, Reading was well placed to take advantage of the game’s changing demographics. They would need an upgraded home to suit this intended blueprint.

But the memories will remain – seemingly the biggest steward in football, moustachioed and nicknamed Magnum by my Dad and I; kids perched atop the crumbling stone walls; the local adverts – “Over 16? Think Army”…”Nino’s Wine Bar”; dug outs as foxholes, wooden seating tailor made for amateur percussion; pre-match drinks in Oxford Road’s Hobgoblin pub and Terry Hurlock’s studded assaults.

With another play off campaign beckoning and the Welshman who brought down the goal scoring curtain on Elm Park potentially lying in wait, it seems a very different Reading Football Club now.

Last Gone But Not Forgotten: The Den, Millwall

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