My Second Team: Reading

Posted by on Dec 18, 2016 in My Second Team | No Comments
My Second Team: Reading
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Pablo Nick

The latest in our My Second Team series of posts sees us welcome Tim Redmayne. Tim is a Lincoln fan/Reading season ticket holder and former award-winning motorsports journalist, writing for such titles as Autosport and Motorsport News. He now is Omnisport’s Senior Product Owner for sports editorial. He is in no way related to Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, but he thanks you for asking. @timredmayne

Transfers, transfers, transfers. Football is utterly obsessed with transfers. Mostly of its players, and occasionally of its managers.

But never fans. Oh no. Fans, football social etiquette decrees, MUST support their one team through whatever. Through promotions and relegations, through wealthy owners and financial crises. Supporters must never waiver.

Some will occasionally admit to being fond of another team, but never should you actually change your mind. Because that’s simply not how football works. Change your team and you’re accused of being fake or plastic at worst, a glory-hunter at best.

But I’ve bucked that trend. I’ve transferred my allegiance. And not as a fickle child either – nor is it some kind of political statement against the commercialism of modern football.

Put simply, after 19 years being signed up with Lincoln City FC, I ‘transferred’ and signed a season-ticket contract with Reading.

And it’s good to get this out in the open. Because I shall live a lie no more.

The Red Imps

It was September 1993 and I was getting into football a little later than most. Being just into my early teens, most of my friends had long since fallen in love with the game during the late Eighties – but not me. My way into football was not just the advent of the Premier League, but the joy of local competition involved in playing Fantasy Football. With the advent of the early fantasy games, the audience for football widened. Suddenly, this included non-athletic football-fearing folk like me. I now had an in.

I could set up a team, and I could watch as my players scored goals and kept clean sheets. And, as a result, I got drawn into the whole drama of the entire football narrative. The Premier League was ace. I didn’t have Sky, but I had Radio 5, and that meant I could escape to my room to ‘watch’ everything unfold.

One of my good friends at the time, Chris, supported Crystal Palace (and a quick Twitter search suggests he very much still does). While perusing the latest fantasy player scores in The Daily Telegraph (we had to manually work out our league standings), he was telling me how easy it would be for Palace to roll over their opponents, Lincoln City FC, in the Coca Cola Cup; matches within which I was annoyed to learn were ineligible for fantasy league points. The League Cup had two-legged ties back then and frankly was a much bigger deal than it is now. I didn’t think much of Chris’s bravado, until the match actually took place.

And given Chris’s boasting in geography class the day before, how I laughed when Lincoln managed to grab a 1-0 first-leg lead. This was better than being fantasy manager of the week in terms of sheer entertainment value. So, to turn the screw of this inevitable knock-out even further, I made it my mission over the next week for Lincoln to become “my team”. To this point, I still didn’t have a team other than Dynamo Redders FC. But now I did. And a real one too.

Radio 5 even carried second-half commentary of the second leg. The Palace team, containing Nigel Martyn, Chris Armstrong and future England manager Gareth Southgate were unable to penetrate Andy Leaning’s Lincoln goal until the fifth minute of injury time, when a John Salako cross was headed in by Dean Gordon to bring the tie level.

Lincoln capitulated in extra time, conceding a further brace and losing 3-1 on aggregate. I no longer had the opportunity to rub salt into Chris’s wound. But the seed was sown. Lincoln was my team from now on. I told everyone in class. They laughed, but I saw it as a challenge. I made sure I proved my fandom.

I lived in Maidstone, in Kent. That’s a long way away from Lincoln as it turned out – and as you can imagine, most 13-year-olds tend not to have access to their own form of transport.

So, in this pre-internet age, Ceefax updates were all I could use to follow The Red Imps until I managed to convince my father to take me to my first match; an away trip to Gillingham’s Priestfield for an Endsleigh League Division 3 encounter. Despite faced with the fan-unfriendly, view-limiting fencing on the terraces even as late as 1993, I was hooked. A drab 0-0 wasn’t exactly the fairy tale start to football supporting one could have hoped for, but it was enough for me.

Still being at school restricted to me to occasional annual outings such as defeats to Gillingham and even watching being thrashed 7-1 at Colchester’s Layer Road (thanks to a lift from my fantastic mother who had no reason to go to drive as far as Colchester other than to please her son). But this thrashing still did not deter me from my new found team. After all, I had at least seen them score one goal now…

My first victory in the flesh was to come four years after I started this journey, also at Gillingham’s Priestfield stadium. However, the fallen that day were Brighton and Hove Albion, who were sharing the ground at the time. Having just passed my driving test two weeks’ prior, my best friend Paul and I had pencilled this to get to see the mighty Lincoln. It was an amazing experience — we were technically the away team, but so sparse was the Brighton crowd (1,036 all in), it was hardly an intimidating atmosphere. Lee Thorpe scored a 76-minute winner which I will remember to this day. That season even ended in promotion to Division 2.

Football was allowing a way for me to bond with my father. We went to the first game up a level, losing 2-0 away at Bournemouth and both realising that this was going to be a tough step up. Regulation inevitably followed, though not before beating Manchester City 2-1 at home. But until then I had only been to away games.

My first visit to Lincoln’s Sincil Bank was when I was studying away at the University of Bath — when my father took it upon himself to get tickets for an FA Cup third-round tie against Sunderland. Even though we lost 1-0 to a team with Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn in the side, it was a narrow victory and we had given it a good go. But for me this was a new football experience — football away from the snare of a majority of opposing fans. This was new. This was football… at Home.

Over the years I would make the 380-mile round trip to Sincil Bank to watch more than 40 home games against a variety of teams who have gone on to better things, including Bournemouth, Manchester City, Swansea, Cardiff, Huddersfield and Hull. A quick bit of basic maths and I reckon I spent more than £5,000 following Lincoln.

But really, my best chance of getting to see anything was the away games, having no family, friends or any other reason whatsoever to go anywhere near Lincoln. But going only to away matches meant I saw a far lower proportion of wins than a standard season-ticket holder.

Combined with my ownership of a car and modest disposable income of an essentially single-man in his mid-twenties I was able to increase my game visiting. Lincoln often played closer to me — either in term time at Bath (Exeter, Bristol Rovers, Cheltenham, Swindon) or holidays back in Kent (Rushden and Diamonds, Southend, Northampton, Orient). And since I had now graduated and was occasionally working away at weekends I was able to crowbar in visits to further flung grounds such as an opening day clash against Shrewsbury on my way to Carlisle. A League Cup game at Premier League Fulham was a real highlight — we finished on the wrong end of a 5-4 score line, and despite letting in 5 goals our keeper Alan Marriott still had a stupendously good game.

The real obsession kicked in during the years when the late Keith Alexander managed the club — 2002 to 2006. My favourite ever Lincoln manager, Alexander had a way of picking up a team which seemed to get results against all expectation.

Alexander, a former Lincoln player and manager, had re-joined the club as assistant to Alan Buckley in 2001. But ITV Digital collapsed, financial troubles hit, and Buckley was relieved of his duties. Alexander was promoted to manager and told to get rid of all the high earners, while having to find some bargain basement buys to field a team. Meanwhile, the supporters rallied round with fundraising drives to help administrators put the club back on the straight and narrow.

But Alexander found absolute gems who did the job for him time-after-time in the division. In particular, former soldier Simon Yeo was signed after scoring a ridiculous 77 goals in 130 appearances for Hyde, and was a particular cult hero in mine and many other’s eyes. He scored 42 times for the Imps.

It was during the Alexander years I moved and settled in Reading (because a uni mate had a room spare in his house), who themselves were on the run of becoming a record-breaking Championship team before two seasons of Premier League glory.

I attended just one Royals game in that period, and spent a random free Saturday afternoon watching a 1-0 Reading victory over Rotherham. I remember thinking as I left the stadium how little I cared about Reading and any other team, and I was much more concerned about how Lincoln were getting on away at Chester (3-3 btw). I didn’t return to watch Reading for nearly eight years, because, at that point at least, I didn’t care a jot and thought I couldn’t.

I was wrong, but more of that later.

Four consecutive play-off appearances followed for Alexander’s Imps. This resulted in two trips to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, only one of which I could attend due to work commitments. But my father and I managed to watch the first one, in a pub near Sunderland where I was working that weekend, an absolute heart-breaker of a 5-2 smashing against Bournemouth. Lincoln were never in the game at all.

(It should be said at this point that my father is a Middlesbrough fan, but he would be dragged to anything by me if I asked him to. Last week for example, he came to Elland Road with me to watch Reading. Dads are great like that.)

The other Millennium Stadium appearance my father and I did make came round – but Steve Tilson’s Southend had too much for us in extra time and were promoted with two late goals.

Another former player, John Schofield, guided Lincoln to one-more playoff campaign after Alexander left — his stock very high — for Peterborough. But he only extended the record even further — Lincoln had now upped the record of consecutive playoff campaign defeats from four to five. Peter Jackson and Chris Sutton had separate spells in charge of the team which always promised much and delivered little, but it was former nemesis Tilson who did the most damage to the club, and by association, me.

With Lincoln, he could never recreate the form of Southend, who he had taken into the Championship after that Millennium Stadium win. Just a single victory in any one of the final ten games of the season would have been enough to keep Lincoln in the Football League, but Tilson’s team had a dreadful run to end up out of the Football League, un-unthinkable not three months prior.

And aligned with this, my personal situation was starting to change.

I had just got married, and the desire to travel long distances around the country to watch a team who were not performing anywhere near their potential was getting less and less. Yes, I still supported Lincoln and pretty much followed them in the same way as I always had, albeit with the new-fangled Internet thing being much more useful than Ceefax in recent years. But the spark had gone. They had dropped into non-league, and my heart wasn’t in it to make the effort in the same way. They were going through off-field repercussions, transfer-listing all but three of the squad to balance the books.

I looked at local away games in non-league — Aldershot stood out — but other priorities always got in the way. They were in real trouble, were not getting to grips with life in non-league and I fell out of love with them. It’s just I hadn’t really admitted this to myself that.

A guy I shared student digs with ended up living so ridiculously close to Sincil Bank, it made sense to make a joint-motive visit, sleeping on his sofa after catching an early conference game against Stockport. That was my last match.

I was slowly caring less and less about a team who I felt were being mismanaged on many levels, while the importance of things other than football in my life was ramping up. The effort required to watch simply wasn’t justified in my eyes any longer. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but with my wife and I were now starting a family, and I simply had other things on my mind.

Come on you Royals

And while my love of Lincoln and travelling was waning, my local team Reading were riding high; winning a battle with Southampton to win the Championship and get promoted to the Premier League for the second time in a handful of years.

And then, suddenly, an opportunity came my way for a season ticket at Reading. A Premier League season ticket. A free season ticket. A local season ticket.

Due to my wife’s cousin needing to work on Saturdays, my wife’s uncle had a spare one to Reading home games on a Saturday, and I was offered the chance, for nothing, to bag a ringside seat at the newly-promoted Royals.

I didn’t immediately say yes. I somehow felt this was cheating on Lincoln, who I still believed I supported and could one day come good. I felt so guilty.

I asked around at work, and a guy Andrew made me feel of a lot better about it, stating I would be mad to turn down that free opportunity, just from a pure football spectacle point of view. Premier League football meant some big names were coming to my town, and I’d be mad to miss that, especially if as I didn’t have to pay.

So I started going, week-in week-out. And, by going week-in, week-out, I became hooked.

My love of Lincoln had been from a far. Only a handful of games a season, far from home, and lacking a deep understanding of the intricacies of the latest formation experiment or the more recent injury crisis. But being at Reading in the Premier League I was involved .

Reading were relegated after a frankly pitiful season, but I was asked if I was thinking of renewing. Oh hell yes, this was brilliant. I’ll even pay this time. Football every week, same team, same time (occasionally).

And my love for Reading grew. My wife bought me the kit as a birthday present, and I’d keep going every other Saturday.

This was absolutely for myself. I was realising that Lincoln were fading into the distance in my mind and in the unlikely eventuality that Reading and Lincoln were ever to be drawn together in a cup match, I would ever more likely choose to sit with Reading fans rather than my lifelong Lincoln supporters.

I had transferred. I had to admit it to myself.

And with that realisation came shame. I felt shameful I had transferred because it just wasn’t acceptable in football. I had once even ridiculed a Northampton supporter who bought a Blackburn season-ticket. What a hypocrite I now was.

My kept my new love and devotion for Reading very secret. While my work colleagues and friends knew about the season-ticket arrangement, they will still be asking about my opinion on Lincoln’s results each week. I didn’t care. I felt a liar. I felt a fraud. My heart was only really on one team, but social football norms dictated that I couldn’t just leave them in their hour of need and still support Reading. Only Paul (who pretty much tolerates all of my craziness) and my family knew about who I was prior and who I am now.

Changing employers in 2013 allowed me a way out. A chance at freedom. Suddenly, my work colleagues would have none of the Lincoln baggage associated with me, and I could finally be a born-again Royal.

So, at the first day of my new job in sports data I would carefully choose my words when questioned to the team I supported.

“I’m a Reading season-ticket holder” I replied, which were exact words I’ve stuck to ever since. Because I wasn’t technically lying, it meant I was able to rationalise my actions to myself while hiding my Lincoln-supporting past.

Thankfully, I was never pressed as to why I why I was a Reading supporter. Because I was a season ticket holder, and happened (at this moment) to live close to Reading, everyone just put the two together, made five and were happy with their own conclusion.

A colleague at my current work went to University in Lincoln, yet I have never had the courage to explain how well I know the city and its football club. Another guy supports Shrewsbury, and although I have said I once went to Gay Meadow, I was too afraid to admit why.

But a chance chat over a beer at a work conference with a few football-mad friends forced me to reveal all. Going through the list of football grounds one had watched a game at, I was able to quote a respectable 37. I was trotting out how I had crossed off grounds such as Adams Park, The Memorial Stadium, Swindon’s County Ground, Priestfield, the Kassam, St James’ Park (Exeter) etc. on my football-bucket list, and someone put two and two together and asked how that was possible if I supported Championship-stalwarts Reading.

I had no answer. Not even saying cup ties or pre-season friendlies was going to get me out of this one.

Busted.

I owned up. I explained the whole damn story.

And to my absolute and genuine astonishment, nobody really cared. This genuinely surprised me. It came as a massive relief. Turns out, perhaps my peers were not now going to despise me, after all.

One of the members of that chat was Ryan Keaney, part of the team on the excellent Football Fives Podcast. I pushed social conventions further by having a related listeners’ question read out on the podcast (Is it “ok” to transfer from one team to another) and yet again, the response was broadly positive, although they were discussing the concept rather than my specific story (you can listen on episode “Karl-Heinz Rummenigge”, August 26 2016) .

This led to this very blog getting in touch, and me realising it would an extremely cathartic experience to get all of this down and out there in the public domain, and no longer live this lie.

Genuinely, this has been hanging over my head for more than five years and it’s great to get this out in the open.

I was an Imp, but no longer. I now look at Lincoln as one might look at early girlfriends of the past — fond of remembering some fun times, but long since moved on. I am genuinely happy for Lincoln that they have likewise moved on from me too, and are finding some success this season. They look a reasonable bet for promotion. And, just like that old girlfriend now getting married, while I wish them the very best, I definitely won’t be attending the ceremony.

Supporting Reading in this period has not had many highs — a few ultimately disappointing Championship seasons, peppered with a few FA Cup scalps along the way. I loved the quarter final against Palace last season, even though the defeat was somehow inevitable. I enjoyed the optimism with new owners and many of the new signings Steve Clarke made, even if that fell apart after a 4-2 defeat to Fulham, and Clarke himself effectively ruining his relationship with supporters when he spoke to Fulham about their managerial vacancy.

Being a Championship team, it’s easier to stay in touch with things going at Reading than it ever was at Lincoln. There is generally more interest and more stuff written on the internet, including the absolute excellent The Tilehurst End and its weekly podcast, which is must-listen for me. Plenty of non-Reading fans apparently listen to it too, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.

This season, with Jaap Stam in charge, things are looking really promising for Reading. The team finally has a real identity in the way they (we) play out from the back and keep possession at all costs. We are flying high in the play-off places as I write, though I would be elated with a top-ten finish considering where the season started.

A final thought

I’m sure some Reading fans will have read this and think I’m not a proper fan and never can be. I have no issue with that opinion. I know how much I have been bitten by the bug, enough to trudge to Huddersfield to witness a dead-rubber 3-0 defeat three days before a much more important FA Cup quarter-final against Palace. I know I have shivered in Rotherham and Leeds away on winter Tuesday nights – and I know I’m currently in possession of my fifth season ticket.

Now, I didn’t choose this path by trying to make some sort of statement. But by writing these words and speaking to people I have come to realise there is nothing sinister in behaving like a football ‘consumer’, even if it’s not the accepted norm.

I can think of no other relationship in the world, where people pay money for a product and a service, often anonymously, and expect to be treated as something more than just a customer.

For example, I’ve recently changed brands of washing machine, because I was unhappy with the most recent products from one well-known brand. Sure, some people stay always loyal, but I also I doubt anyone sees anything morally wrong with switching to a new make that has had better reviews.

I don’t see why football should be any different, especially with modern football clubs treating their fans more and more like consumers, albeit very loyal ones.

I really admire fans who pledge lifelong, unwavering regardless-of-whatever-happens devotion to one club, and vow to support through thick and thin. But I don’t understand football fans tolerating repeatedly being treated badly by their clubs. I really don’t.

And if you are annoyed at being treated like a consumer at your club, you don’t automatically have to rebel on actually acting like one too. That’s playing into their hands. It’s ok to change your brand if it is not bringing you happiness anymore. You would do it with anything else, wouldn’t you?

If ever I feel I am having a bad experience at Reading, or I feel the way the club is being run against my values, then I probably won’t go any more. Because it’s my choice.

I’m sure there are many others who have similar stories. Sure, if a person changed their club every season, football would lose its appeal, because you need to have the threat of failure to ultimately really enjoy the taste of victory. But I would defend their absolute right to do so.

And we could all win here. Surely the benefit of promoting a culture tolerant of this attitude, even if it’s not for everyone, would mean more and more than clubs would less and less be able to risk taking their fans for granted — otherwise they will walk away and vote with their feet.

And that would be a good thing for every fan, whether they have pledge lifelong allegiance or not.

A supporters transfer window wouldn’t even need a deadline day.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League

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