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Last Updated: Monday, 27 March 2006, 00:49 GMT 01:49 UK
Reading's rags to riches
By Stuart Roach
BBC Sport's resident Reading fan

The Royals' ascent to the Premiership has been a long and painful climb.

And, for most Reading fans, the Premiership feels like our pension plan after years of hard work supporting the club.

I have seen Reading play in 30 of their 135 seasons and have seen six promotions, three relegations and play-off defeats in two finals and a semi.

But never top-flight football.

Reading's old Elm Park ground
The crowds were often embarrassingly low at Elm Park
I saw my first game at Elm Park in 1976, when my dad took me to sit with him in Reading's rickety press box, an enclosed structure with perspex windows fogged by tobacco smoke.

It was the start of an addiction to journalism, smoking and Reading Football Club.

We had just been promoted from the Fourth Division but were immediately relegated again. I should have run a mile; instead I found myself hooked.

When I graduated to the terraces, they were often virtually empty.

Most fans my age supported their local club and a second glory team, and Elm Park's South Bank was decorated with the colours of Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs - a red, white and blue colour scheme in the Royals' enclosures.

The crowds were often embarrassingly low and the more easily distracted youngsters on the South Bank regularly had a kick-about on the terraces to pass the time.

In 1982, I went alone to a game against Preston and stood behind the goal fully 50 yards from my nearest fellow supporter - the two of us part of Reading's lowest-ever league crowd of 1,713.

So pathetic was our plight that Robert Maxwell attempted to merge us with Oxford and rename us Thames Valley Royals.

Reading saviour John Madejski
Madejski promised brighter years ahead
Roger Smee rescued us then, and when hard times bit again in 1990 it was the turn of John Madejski to bail the club out.

Madejski promised brighter years ahead. Not overnight, but brick-by-brick.

His arrival means I have witnessed two rollercoaster rides of Reading emotions.

The first, an old-fashioned rickety wooden ride at Elm Park, produced carefree and innocent climbs and dips driven by Maurice Evans, Ian Branfoot and Mark McGhee, with players like Neil Webb, Kerry Dixon and Lawrie Sanchez along for the ride.

The second has been a modern, shiny high-roller of a blue-and-white knuckle ride at Madejski Stadium - the Alton Towers of Berkshire football.

Curiously, I often miss the Elm Park days, but only in the affectionate way you remember your first car.

My first memory is of a team that went 11 games without conceding a goal, part of a 1,103-minute Football League record held by our tiny but brilliant goalkeeper Steve Death.

Conversely, I remember Kerry Dixon at his prolific best, banging in goals only to see us leak more at the other end.

He was the Third Division's top scorer in 1983 but we were still relegated, his four goals in a 7-5 defeat at Doncaster summing up our campaign.

After Webb, Sanchez and Dixon, my Reading heroes were barely household names in their own households - wingers David Crown and Michael Gilkes and striker Dean Horrix, tragically killed in a car crash in 1990.

I saw Reading win their first 13 games at the start of the 1985-86 season, then win the Simod Cup by thrashing Luton 4-1 at Wembley in 1988.

There were comedy figures too, most notably wig-wearing Bulgarian international goalkeeper Bobby Mihailov, who was sold on Reading when he saw a video of our 1995 play-off final against Bolton at Wembley - and thought we were playing at home.

Reading star Bobby Convey (right) with young Sam Roach
My seven-year-old son is enjoying his first season as a Reading fan
That play-off final defeat was the best and worst of memories, all rolled into one confusing laundry bag of emotions.

Two goals up through Lee Nogan and Adi Williams, Stuart Lovell missed a penalty before half-time and Reading ran out of steam to eventually lose 4-3 in extra-time.

I had travelled to Wembley with Stuart's brother and father and he later invited us to the players' party. More of a wake than a celebration, but the mood of the players that night suggested the champagne was only on ice.

Madejski unearthed another managerial gem to follow Alex Ferguson prodigy Mark McGhee when he appointed former reserve team manager Alan Pardew to replace the hapless Tommy Burns.

Pards made brilliant attacking signings to complement our free-flowing football, adding Martin Butler and Jamie Cureton to the speedy and prolific Nicky Forster.

It was Cureton's goal at Brentford that saw us beat Steve Coppell's side to promotion in 2003.

Ironic, then, that it was Coppell who eased the pain of Pardew's acrimonious departure to manage West Ham two seasons ago.

Understated and studious, Coppell has made shrewd signings but little noise as he has steered Reading from a side knocking at the promotion door to a front-foot outfit that has simply battered it down.

My seven-year-old son is enjoying his first season as a Reading fan.

He thinks it has always been like this - we hope it always will be.




SEE ALSO
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Royal seal of approval
24 Mar 06 |  Reading
Coppell pays tribute to players
25 Mar 06 |  Reading
Jason Roberts column
23 Mar 06 |  Football
History in the making for Downs
23 Mar 06 |  Reading
Royals ascent
21 Mar 06 |  Reading


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