Update, 2017: This post was written in May, 2014, and is largely unchanged. Leicester City are still in the Premier League, and Reading are still in the Championship after losing the (dreadful) 2017 Playoff Final to Huddersfield Town.
I have always referred to the first day of any trip to England or Europe as my Zombie Day. That’s because I arrive at about 7 a.m., but my body thinks it’s actually 11 p.m., and it begins to seek any opportunity to fall asleep. I, of course, know that I must stay awake, lest all sense of timing be lost, and the resulting interior battle produces a sort of brainless shuffling which, short of gruesome injuries, would make me hard to distinguish from an extra on The Walking Dead.
So started the most recent installment of my English Soccer Tour, the research stage of a guide to English football I plan to publish next year. The idea is simple: get to every ground in the Premier League, as well as all the Championship and League One grounds around London and other major cities, then write it all up, including what words like ground mean as well as why the second tier is called the Championship and the third is called League One.
For this trip, timing called me out to Reading, less than an hour west of London. They are in the Championship, and on this night they were trying to get into a playoff spot to aim for the “Prem.” There were plenty of tickets available for the visit of Leicester City, which for you Yanks is pronounced “Lestah” in the local accent. Indeed, to speak proper UK English, one must ignore r’s at the end of words and entire batches of letters within them. (Note: Now that the season is ended, I can reveal that Leicester won the Championship and will be in the Premier League for the 2014-15 season; Reading stayed down.)
Before I could even clear customs, I re-upped a budding tradition from these trips: talking footy with the customs control guy. Last time it was a QPR fan, and this time a Liverpool guy. He wasn’t as chatty or snarky, which was too bad, but he was considerably happier with his team.
I grabbed a bus from Heathrow Bus Terminal, which is about like every other bus station I’ve been in: cramped, uncomfortable, and crowded with moderately stressed-out people who really want to be somewhere else. Luckily, I shared the Reading bus with only six other people, and I enjoyed the trip into the semi-countryside. Just on the edge of town, I noticed a football ground, Thames Valley, which made think I should look it up on my now-favorite blog in the world, 100 Football Grounds. (Apparently, he’s not been there!)
I checked into the very cool Ibis Hotel (minutes from the station, and I pre-paid for a 45-pound rate) in the very cool downtown, and walked over to take care of some errands. (I always seem to leave the US in total chaos). I found Broad Street Mall, a converted pedestrian mall, as well as a beautiful old church with a couple of great trees and blue wildflowers, then ducked into the Oracle Mall, strangely familiar with its H&M, Starbucks, etc. I got set up at Vodafone, bought shoelaces, and otherwise kept myself busy and awake. I had a gourmet lamb hamburger from Handmade Burger Co., which touted its British beef so much I thought I might be in an episode of Readinglandia.
Still with time to kill, I walked along the Kennet and Avon Canal, which is really cool. It was built as part of the Industrial Revolution, when Reading had had many iron works and breweries during the 18th Century. Today the canal fronts houses on one side and this walkway on the other, and along my walk I saw birds, barges, and beautiful willow trees.
The barges are really cool; you can travel all over England in them, and they look quite comfy. I don’t suppose they require too much boating skill, and in fact this guy was munching a sandwich as he went by.
By about 3 I was passing Zombie Status into Zombie Actuality, so I broke a longstanding rule: I went back to the hotel and took a nap. Along the way I saw a cool pub name and a funny street name:
I slept for about three hours, then hopped a bus downtown out to the game. I asked for directions but also relied on another longstanding Rule of Footy Travel: when looking for the ground, follow the home colors.
The bus was only four pounds roundtrip, and it wasn’t too crowded. In fact, there was only one family in the upper section with me, and they were American! I waited til we got off the bus, then asked where they were from. They said Virginia, then the Dad added they were having a trip to London and decided to come out to catch a game. Ever seeking self, I said, “I’m writing a book about soccer, and you’re my target audience.” He looked at me and said, “I wrote a book about soccer, too. Two of them!”
Well, a couple of questions more and I learned I was talking to Beau Dure, who did indeed write two books about soccer, and was also the soccer editor for USA Today for 10 years. What are the odds!?!? He did a book called Long-Range Goals, about the early history of MLS, and Enduring Spirit on the Washington DC women’s team. We didn’t chat anymore, since he was with his family, but it was a goofy moment, indeed.
Another tradition of mine, which I now took up, is to walk around the stadium on arrival. I like to see everything and check out the visiting fans, who are usually the most enthusiastic ones. Generally, only the real “nutters” will go hundreds of miles to see heir team play, so one of the rules I’ll suggest in the book is “Don’t Sit With the Away Fans Unless You’re One of Them.”
In this case they were especially happy because Leicester had already assured themselves of being promoted to the Premier League for next season. Reading had even put up a sign to congratulate them, which was a nice gesture. Leicester fans already had banners and capes with Premier League and “Promotion Season” on them, so it must be a mighty happy time for them.
I “popped in” at the Megastore and bought a pen and paper pad (I had forgotten these, being quite the modern writer) and the the attendant there said (whispered, actually) that he was actually a Man U fan. He said he’d lost everything in real estate and is now doing this. He said he would work the last four games for Arsenal, so maybe he’s some kind of itinerant steward. I asked about the food and he said it’s all fast food, then I said “There’s not a vegetable in sight.” And he said, “Well there’s onions, right?”
Reading has one Yank, Danny Williams, who confuses people by being a black man with a German accent. Dad was in the Army, and mom is German, and he has (bleached?) blond hair and a semi-mohawk. He has played for both the German and US national youth teams, and one fan told me he’s a pretty valuable midfielder for them.
The Madejski Stadium is the most sterile I’ve been to in two trips. There’s naught but parking and a hotel next to it, and the usual food trucks offering the usual crap. They do have a little mini “fan zone” where kids can try to win prizes and whatnot. I choked down some pretty awful fish and chips and headed for my seats.
Here are some random sights and sounds both outside and inside the ground:
- “That coffee was positively awful”
- “Fancy our chances tonight?”
- “What do you fancy tonight?” Response: “5-4 them.”
- Away fans being frisked by security, looking annoyed
- Mascot clowning around with kids outside, and at one point went down after minimal contact. The folks around held up their hands like a card, yelling “diving.”
- The program hawkers always have an (English) accent I can hardly pick up
- “Fancy some chips before we go in?”
- Folks leaning against wall, eating or drinking
- Old lady with a cane and an RFC shirt. Wonder how many games she’s seen?
- Dad to son at a food cart: “If we get that, we are going to split it!”
- Inside, pockets of people, mainly men, gathered in hallways with beers.
- Dude walks up to another group of dues, and one of them says, “Ere e is!”
- Young kid reading the lineup out loud from his phone, older guy doing same from a printed sheet.
As I go in, I always pick a woman usher because I think it’ll be easier to get my camcorder in. Then I walk the corridors, taking in the sights and checking for interesting food specials. Nothing in Reading. I go to my seats about 30 minutes before kickoff to take in the atmosphere. I always marvel at how empty the seats are just before kickoff – they’re drinking down below, since in England you can’t drink in your seats. They’re just as amazed we can drink in our seats as we are that they can’t.
After I sat, an older couple came by to their seats, him first, and when she walked by she said “After all these years you think he’d remember our seats!”
I was making some notes when something whacked me pretty hard on my left shoulder. I looked down and saw it was a tee shirt, fired from a cannon on the field, and at that moment I heard a kid behind me make a sad “aww” sound. So I gave it to him. Then I said hello to his Dad, and it turns out Dad (a copywriter for The Times of London – what a journalistic crowd!) has been coming for 30 years. Son is 6 and just getting into it.
When the PA guy introduced the lineups, he called the refs “Mister” whatever, which I thought was quaint.
The music (which Dad behind me said is a new development) played for the teams coming out, and when it ended the home crowd yelled “You Rs!” That’s short for Royals, the team’s nickname. Aparently Reading is a royal city, which I’m sure means something.
Dad said the old stadium, in the middle of town, was filled with atmosphere, and it had people sitting together for years, and he clearly missed it. Then he said “It was a ramshackle dump.” Said this place is nice and clean, but then kind of shrugged and said it’s got no atmosphere. This longing for the old while knowing the appeal of the new is universal in English football.
The PA guy announced congratulations to Leicester for promotion, and the Reading fans applauded, some standing. I thought this was really nice, and Dad behind me said that’s probably because when Reading first went up years ago they clinched at Leicester, and some of the Leicester fans stayed after to applaud them. So this was a sort of return courtesy. Can you imagine this happening in America?
Actually, it’s nice that Leicester is going up, since this happened to them in the playoff semifinals a couple years go:
The Leicester fans were in a much better mood on this evening, and they sang about their promotion all night long:
- Leicester is going up!
- We … are … Premier League … we are Premier League!
- My favorite: (with arms up and down, vaguely to Yellow Submarine): Going up, staying down!” Reading’s response: “Going up, going down,” taunting them that they will be back in the Championship next season.
And here is the kickoff:
Leicester scored early and their fans erupted, then everyone realized he was offside, and immediately Reading fans erupted in mock cheer, held up their arms, and shook their fists at the visitors. This is also universal in English football, as in this video from my visit to West Bromwich Albion, when it looked like Everton had won it at the death:
Reading scored to lead, 1-0, and their fans started singing “How shit must you be, we’re kicking your ass.” Another universal truth of English football: self-deprecating fans.
Reading was all fired up early, but Leicester got into the game and scored late in the half, a nice goal on a blast through a crowd. At halftime there was much analysis of Reading’s play on the break and how they’d “better not sit back and go for the point.”
Reading hit the post one time, and another time they got a breakaway and he seemed sure to score, but he missed, looked disgusted … then decided to appeal for a corner! Yeah, right, buddy. You just screwed it up.
Other random notes from the game:
- A Leicester player went down hurt and the crowd gave it a big “awwww.”
- Reading’s chant of “Blue army” sounds like “Blarmey,” which is appropriate.
- Reading’s fans do a common thing on opposing goalkicks: when he kicks it, they yell “You’re shit!” and then do a pirate-like “ aaaarrrrr.” But they kept doing it for a minute or two, which was a twist … and kinda weird.
- My seats were so close to the pitch I could hear the Leicester captain (a fullback) shouting “win the header!” at his teammates on throw-ins along the touch line.
Both teams nearly scored again, and it’s really amazing it ended 1-1 with all the chances and near misses. It was a very entertaining game. Leicester mostly sang about going up and winning the league. A Reading response: “One hundred and six, one hundred and SIX! We have the record, one hundred and six.” That’s because they got a record 106 points in the 2005-06 Championship season, losing only twice in 46 games!
Back at the hotel, I recognized another Yank from the ticket office. He was from New York (Long Island) and seemed annoyed that somebody didn’t hold an elevator for him, or something. He said he had been in London, as well, tried to get FA Cup tickets, couldn’t, and decided to come out here. He said this had made his trip, and I said it had started mine very well.