Unexpected Rivalries 3: Reading, Swindon, Oxford and London Irish
The police presence outside Oxford station on Wednesday night was illuminating. As a semicircle of rozzers stood to attention outside the entrance to Coco — a small citywide chain better known as a place for students to take mums and dads at the onset of the imminent academic year — Swindon Town fans began to pile off the trains and down the steps into enemy territory.
Leaving aside the extraordinary use of public money and resources on the prelude to a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy first round encounter and the likelihood that such posturing might actually encourage trouble rather than prevent it, the scene did emphasize to me what I had known all along as a fan of Reading Football Club — that the Swindon-Oxford rivalry is the chief one in the region.
It used to be said that to avoid argy-bargy on the way to a football match, one should either carry a loaf of bread or wear a Reading replica shirt. Aside from being labelled as ‘plastics’ on a regular basis and being subject to jealousy at the way the club has quietly repositioned itself in the pyramid over a twenty year period, the Royals don’t attract much venom. True, the response to a post I wrote on economic potential in May did provoke a few Oxford fans into apoplexy — and Reading are far from popular with the Robins either — but the Wiltshire-Oxfordshire border is the true front line.
A lack of truly significant, heckles-raising encounters is one reason — Swindon fans even hate distant Gillingham more after a series of controversial encounters back in the day. The direct transport links between Reading and Swindon, both M4 and Great Western Railway, might have stirred up bad blood if the clubs had been in opposition on a more regular basis — but Reading’s current lofty status has put space between the teams even if it is far from inconceivable that the teams could share a division in 2013-14.
Even the Thames Valley Royals fiasco has failed to provoke Oxford into despising Reading. At the time I was outraged and saw Oxford as the aggressors and instigators of the planned merger, stewarded as they were by the rotund publishing magnate behind the whole scheme.
However, it quickly became clear that the plan was no more welcomed in Headington than it was in Tilehurst and the outrage may even have done something to unite the fans closer together. Thirty years later, Robert Maxwell’s attempt to relocate affairs to Didcot are a fading memory and dislike has been fully restored — but again, Reading’s last visit to the Kassam was for a League Cup tie in 2004.
So who do Reading, with their Waitrose sponsorship and rumblestix, develop an antipathy for? Dark fourth tier days in the early eighties did reignite an historic rivalry with Aldershot and the Berkshire club do draw a good section of their support from North Hampshire. The Shots going into administration and taking their time to rejoin the Football League did halt things however — even if the editor of The Whiff fanzine did once choose to reproduce a bounced check from Aldershot Football Club amid its pages.
Brentford? Wycombe? Nah – check out Kerry Andrew’s previous entry into this series for a take on the Chairboys. For a time, I thought the Petr ÄŒech/Stephen Hunt incident might provoke a lasting rivalry with Chelsea and I’ve rarely spat bricks harder than when the Special One called into question the response time of the Royal Berkshire Ambulance Service. But no — even the snotty remarks and diving in that stormy 2006 encounter of Frank Lampard have failed to instil hate — Reading are as significant to the Blues as a buzzing wasp in summertime; the recent 4-2 win followed by praise for the pluckiness for the Premier League newcomers.
But Reading do have a rival
The Olympics saw the rise of that periodic national conceit — the opportunity to put the boot into football while extolling the virtues of another sport. Many a column inch was devoted to the superior behaviour of our athletes and the ‘Soccer is Dead’ argument was wheeled out once again, as it was in 2003 when Jonny Wilkinson won the Rugby World Cup for England and Freddie Flintoff recaptured the Ashes in 2005.
Similarly, on a local level, the pattern is repeated. Every once in a blue moon, the rugby club with which Reading share the Madejski Stadium, London Irish will attract a crowd of 20,000 or so to the arena. Before you can say ‘Andy Robinson’, the same old platitudes will be wheeled out — ‘isn’t this great? — 20,000 for a rugby match while the football team only had 14,000 for a League fixture with Barnsley — maybe football is less popular than rugby now?’
That’s ignoring the fact that a great number of those fans will have been attracted by special ticket deals, that a large proportion of them are totally unfamiliar with the labyrinthine rules and that a typical Premiership head to head will feature an entire raft of internationals — of course more people are going to want to watch Chris Ashton or Geordan Murphy than they are Scott Golbourne or Chris Dagnall. If Old Trafford were to stage a second tier rugby match the following day, would the same comparisons be made?
There’s a place for rugby and I myself do enjoy the odd match — I even played on the wing for my school team. It’s a good game…but…
…the media’s tendency to make specious comparisons has ignited a rivalry — in my breast at least. One of the chief annoyances is the treatment of football fans as those not to be trusted — as evidenced by the fact that you can enjoy a beer in your seat watching the rugby, while drinking is restricted to the concourse during soccer. People will tell you that the atmosphere at the oval ball game is more relaxed but how about treating fans of both sports equally as adults? You may be pleasantly surprised.
Of course one of the reasons for the quieter environment at rugby is that people simply care less, with the incomprehensible rules and lack of ties major factors.
And therein lies the chief objection. London Welsh’s relocation to Oxford, while a solution that has allowed them to compete in the top tier, is yet more evidence that the franchise system has permeated rugby, with none of the opprobrium that sees MK Dons disdained to this day in right thinking quarters.
Few remember that Richmond preceded the Irish as tenants at the Mad Stad but when the money ran out and the club went into administration — the exiles have been more successful establishing themselves as a top flight concern — but where are the Irishmen beyond the 5 measly reprsentatives of that nation currently on the books? And where, increasingly, are the Irish fans? I dislike the way that the population of Reading have been persuaded by marketers and money men to see London Irish as their club — we’ll never meet on the pitch unless someone comes up with a few creative ideas but in the absence of true contempt from Swindon and Oxford, I’ll divert most of mine to those egg chasers.