Great Football League Teams 40: Reading 1985-6
Prior to 1985, Reading had spent only a handful of seasons in their history above the third tier of the English game. Since then, the impact of economic geography and demography, the emergence of John Madejski in classic sugar daddy mode and a cautious, realistic emphasis on slow, sustainable progress have allowed the Royals to establish themselves as a top ten Championship club (I’m not so naïve to claim that their current loftier status will last).
True, the club has subsequently experienced two further spells at its natural historical level of Tier 3 – but the periods between 1988 and 1994 and then 1998 to 2003 now have the feel of blips in an otherwise inexorable shift. White collar prosperity came to Berkshire just as the football team was getting to be good – and unlike Oxford, Luton, Oldham and others, the Reading glory years coincided with the football boom.
That 1985-6 team was a different animal from its descendants however. While Mark McGhee, Alan Pardew, Steve Coppell and Brian McDermott encouraged a more grassbound style to varying degrees, the mid eighties stewardship of Ian Branfoot was a full eighty yard hoof away from this. The Geordie had taken over from club legend Maurice Evans in 1984 and immediately installed a style of play that owed more to Barnes Wallis than John Barnes. Just as Graham Taylor’s Watford, Dave Bassett’s Wimbledon and Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland had enjoyed immense success deploying the methods of Wing Commander Charles Reep, the Royals were to prosper too.
It helped that the club possessed a lethal striker in Trevor Senior. A man with such an unruly mop of curls was never going to worry about putting his head in where it hurts and he had scored 41 times in all competitions as Reading exited Division 4 for the – touch wood – so far last time in 1984. A season of consolidation followed with Senior again netting regularly and he had already established himself as a lethal marksman at the level by the summer of 1985.
Senior was variously partnered by Dean Horrix, tragically killed in a car crash in 1990, and Kevin Bremner – the latter’s scrapping abilities providing the perfect foil for the Wessex man – while wingers were also very much part of the equation, perhaps unsurprisingly for a club that has always nurtured that breed. Hence, RFC stalwart Jerry Williams, Andy Rogers and the emerging Michael Gilkes were all a vital part of the game plan – Gilkes’ searing pace and accurate crossing supplying Senior with a steady supply of goals although the Hackney speedster was to play more of a role in the club’s next promotion season in 1993-4.
In central midfield, Mark White and the classy Stuart Beavon (father and namesake of the current Preston striker) did a smart job of cleaning up the knock downs while captain Martin Hicks was a towering presence at the back. He would go on to lift the Simod (Full Members Cup) at Wembley in 1988 after the Royals beat top flight Luton 4-1 in the final in front of 61,000 at Wembley and he was one of a number who saw this generation’s adventures all the way through.
Also critical was left back Steve Richardson – a squeaky voiced presence and enormously effective in negotiating the Em Park camber, and Hicks’ classier centre half partner, Steve Wood. Colin Bailie completed the back four picture – a man who was to later give up the game prematurely in order to become a policeman while Gary Westwood was an occasionally jittery presence between the sticks. A small squad was remarkably settled although the addition of Terry Hurlock in the Spring following a series of off key results stiffened up the midfield – to little avail given the future Millwall man’s disciplinary record – as one wag asked when arriving a minute late for one match – ‘Has Hurlock been booked yet?’
So it was a competent team that could be relied upon to be combative but few could have foreseen what was to come, especially after a 3-1 League Cup defeat to Bournemouth at a ramshackle Elm Park following a win over Blackpool in the first league encounter. But then, impressive away victories at Plymouth and Cardiff put the Royals top – sporting a lamentably untraditional Southampton style Patrick kit in pale blue and white.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Going into the fourteenth home game against a struggling Wolves on October 23, the Biscuitmen had astonishingly chalked up 13 successive victories. For a time, Manchester United had kept pace two divisions up but Ron Atkinson’s team failed to last the course – eventually losing a mammoth lead and watching crestfallen as Liverpool clinched the double. Reading were made of sterner stuff.
With Senior scoring freely, all comers were vanquished even if rarely by a large margin. A 3-2 win over a Bristol Rovers team whose right back Andy Spring was mercilessly taunted for his eighties model looks was typically hard fought while a lone Wood goal saw off Bolton. By the time of the other Wanderers’ visit, 39 points were in the bag and a huge advantage amassed.
That game ended the run and finished 2-2 – and in truth, much of the rest of the campaign was unlovely – a lithe Gillingham team inspired by Tony Cascarino won at Elm Park on Boxing Day while Walsall managed to put six past the Royals in the late winter. The exception was a never to be forgotten 4-3 win over Plymouth – the side that were eventually to finish as divisional runners up – 3-0 down at the break, Reading rallied to clinch the game – a memory that might cheer some fans given the recent capitulation in reverse to Arsenal. Senior was inevitably on the scoresheet twice although the unselfish Bremner notched the winner.
Come the Spring and the ship was steadied – a post clocks change 3-1 home win over Brentford was the moment when I knew it was in the bag. Derby County, the third promoted, were defeated in the penultimate home game and Senior made it 31 for the season with a brace in the final encounter with Doncaster.
The following year, a creditable thirteenth place was achieved but the Cup Final glory of 1988 was soured by relegation. Senior had by then decamped to unsuccessful spells at Watford and Middlesbrough and big money signings such as Steve Moran and Billy Whitehurst had failed to save a team woefully short on quality. Still, that 13 game start remains a record while Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce and Graham Westley continue to show that there is more than one way to skin a cat.