Playing at the Madejski
I approached getting the chance to play a game at the Madejski Stadium this week with some trepidation. Not only was there the usual possibility of embarrassing myself in a competitive match, the worry about breaking something valuable in the dressing room, and the fear that I might somehow get glued to the subs bench and not actually get to play on that sumptuous surface, but also a sense that I might be about to enter the holy of holies – and be disappointed about what I found.
As a fan, I value the mystique that separates the life of the professional sportsman from the rest of us plebs. I like to imagine that every halftime dressing room is filled with Churchillian oratory or Napoleonic tactical wizardry. I want the barrier between players and fans to be high enough that I feel awestruck when I see them on the street, and too embarrassed to ask them for an autograph. I really didn’t want any element of that myth busted. Above all, I didn’t want to get that feeling that… well…. it was all a bit prosaic.
The stadium itself did nothing to shatter my illusions. Having been there a couple of times to watch games as a neutral, I already had an appreciation for its simplicity and fantastic sight lines – and for its noise. Its slick hotel and directors’ sections – complete with Zurab Khisinashvili and agent (pleading for a second chance?) and Brian McDermott (“isn’t that Brendan Rodgers?” asked one teammate, in an inventive attempt at suicide) lounging on the concierge desk – didn’t dispel the aura.
We crowded into the home dressing room, and took in the wooden stalls, the showers, the ice bath, and were surprised that there was only one mirror for them all to crowd round to fix their hair. The magnetic tactics board had an appreciably complex cluster of red and blue buttons arranged near the penalty area. So far, so good. But then we found “the ten Reading commandments”, and it all started to turn a bit Sunday league. On a large poster between the shower room and the changing area were plastered the central tenets of the Reading tactical masterplan.
“Get Tight” – ah, so press relentlessly, in the Barcelona mould, good one boss….. “Get the Ball Wide!” – ok, I can see that with McAnuff and Kébé you’d want to…. “Win Your Headers!” – right, yes, that’s important but….. “Win Your Tackles!”- I’ll forget that plan I had to wave them all through then. Was that all there was to it? Did these professionals really have to be told to try to win their challenges? I’ve always wanted to believe that the stories of managers just telling their players to “get on the pitch and play” were rubbish. That coaches planned their team’s positioning and carefully managed their formations to counter the opponents. That the players, their brains crammed with video info on their opponents, would be at least trying to choreograph their moves and set plays.
With these Bassett-isms ringing in our ears we made our way onto the pitch for the game. It took roughly as long as it takes to miscontrol your first pass for the wall of awe and respect to rebuild itself. The sheer scale of the pitch combined with the stands is terrifying, even with no-one sat in them. It feels like you might need a cannon to hit a crossfield pass. Even the grass itself was intimidating. As players more used to dodgy bounces off uneven ground, excuses for failing to trap the ball disappeared. Decent Saturday and Sunday league players (plus a couple of amateurs) pressed as best they could and somehow it felt like you had no time at all on the ball, even on that huge field.
We did our best to get it wide, to win our tackles, to win our headers and get tight. With a couple of exceptions we looked pretty pathetic trying to do it. I’m still sure that Brian McDermott, and all the other league managers give their players more than just the ten commandments – but actually it doesn’t matter. Just doing those ten in that huge space, in front of those people, is more than good enough for me.