Coming Over Here, Running Our Clubs

And to think that up until this weekend, I didn’t have anything to write about.

I didn’t panic.  In the end, something always presents itself: if you can only hold your nerve, then the cosmos will surely provide.  You’ve just got to be patient.

So pour yourself a refreshing glass of Carabao Energy Drink (you’ll want one, soon enough), get your headphones on, and feast your eyes on this little beauty:

Let’s get this out of the way, before we begin: I don’t like Reading.

I’m not especially keen on any football club that isn’t Forest, but of the few that I actively dislike, Reading are up there.  Not on the same thermonuclear level as Sheffield United… but they’re up there.

I lived with a Reading fan, about sixteen years ago.  I’ll never forget the first conversation that we had.  I’d told him that I supported Forest; he’d told me that he supported Reading.  No problems there—no quarter to be won.  A shared comfort, in the shite that we’d been lumbered with.

But then he asked me—very casually, as he was unpacking some CDs—who my ‘Premier League club’ was.

And I can remember the silence.  That meaty, confused silence.

He said that his was Spurs.

And he carried on calmly unpacking his CDs.  Didn’t qualify it—didn’t explain it.

It was a question I’d never encountered; an idea that I’d never even entertained.  More than that, it seemed like an appalling breach of etiquette—like asking someone who they shag when their wife’s busy.

That’s what Reading were though, as recently as 1999… and that’s what they’ve forgotten (or rather, what they’ve chosen to forget).  It’s what I don’t like about them.  They’re a New Money football club, in the most crass and objectionable of ways.  I think of Reading, and I think immediately of fake tan.  Of shiny suits; of sovereigns, squeezed over sausage knuckles; of Beamers, parked on council estates.  In the amorphous blob of football teams that didn’t seem to exist before the 21st century—Wigan, Hull, Portsmouth, the MK Dons—Reading are by far the most prominent.

I’ve no issue with football clubs rising above their historical station (I’m a Forest fan, after all), and I don’t begrudge them their success.  The key, though, is in knowing and retaining your roots—not so rigidly that they’d ever limit you, but so they’d at least grant the perspective to keep you honest.  And the problem I have with Reading is how quickly and how emphatically they’ve shed that sense of everything they ever were.  A club that’s spent 140 of its 144 years in a state of down-mouthed obscurity, suddenly now shouting the odds—talking on phone-ins and forums about “getting back to where we belong”,   about where a club like Reading “deserves” to be.

And in that sense, ‘They Call Us the Royals’ is completely on-brand with Reading FC in 2015 (even if it’d be more at home in an episode of Brass Eye).  Khunying Sasima Svrikorn, the 76 year-old chairwoman of Reading, explains it thus:

I, along with my friends, wrote it as a gift for Reading Football Club.  We have made a music video together with it, so it will be an opening show, before every game.  This is British rock.  I was in the studio for many days doing it.  I shared my idea, my concept.  It’s so meaningful for us… to feel the spirit and the emotion of the fans.  They have to be inside us.  So we wrote the song, which I’m pretty proud of.  We tried to do it in a trendy way.”

As ‘trendy gifts’ go, it’s like a Christmas jumper made from skin grafts.  Ignoring the fact that a 76 year-old woman has just invited 15,000 Reading fans inside her, let’s have a look at that first verse:

We started when all the odds defied us

Through passion and dreams we reached new heights

We were marching proudly from Elm Park into the stadium

We forced our rivals to make way

Straight away, it’s raising more questions than it answers.  Like, why doesn’t it rhyme?

What exactly were these odds, defying them?  And who were these rivals, making way?  Oxford?

Isn’t Elm Park a B&Q now?

It’s a tale of pilgrims, beating their path to Utopia, but this isn’t the Maracana—it’s Reading.  A football stadium where:

“There aren’t really any pubs or shops in the immediate vicinity.  There’s a Holiday Inn about 15 minutes away, with SKY, but it can get quite busy on a match day.”

And yet somehow, somehow, it gets worse.  In the second verse, there’s talk of fighting butterflies.  There’s lingering shots of Jamie Mackie and Pavel Pogrebnyak, neither of whom play for Reading anymore.  There’s an old woman, with her walking stick, marooned in the centre circle: confused and alone, she clutches at her brand new Reading shirt, awaiting instruction from her new Thai overlords.

And the questions keep coming.

What exactly is “the smell of fame”?

Since when was “learn” the opposite of “win”?

Is “the glory of Reading” the biggest oxymoron in the history or recorded music?

If you can get through the rap at the end, you too might find yourself wondering—as one YouTube commenter asked—“how a music video can give you cancer and AIDS at the same time”.

It wasn’t their intention, but in the senseless lyrics, and the non-sequiturs, and the rattling pot-shots in front of 8,000 empty seats, it shows Reading for exactly what they are.  A club with fuck all history, and fuck all meaning, drawing their heart and soul from a caliphate of rootless commuter towns, stretched along a motorway.  Playing their football in a pop-up stadium, with a sewage works on one side, a KFC on the other, and an address that starts ‘Junction 11, M4’.

This song wouldn’t have survived the preliminaries for Eurovision.  How it’s been bolted onto the branding strategy for a professional football club is anyone’s guess.

Or is it?

Because—and I’m speaking from bitter experience, here—this is how it usually starts.

There’s the excitement, and the promise, and the conspicuous gestures.  Expensive loan signings like Matej Vydra and Orlando Sa, mitigating for these moments of gratuitous ego.  Because when you’re Reading, or Blackburn, or even Forest, and you’ve flung yourself onto the charity of a passing millionaire, you can’t really question the grounds on which that charity’s provided.

“Can’t fault them,” the Reading fans are already saying.  “At least they’re getting into the spirit of the club.”

And a lot of them will believe that, if only because they need to.  Of course they’re legit.  The alternatives—the Venkys, and the Muntos, and the Gaydamaks—are too unpleasant and too proliferate to consider.

But there comes a point when the person who insists that you play their music video before each match is the same person who’s making decisions about your manager… and probably with the same amount of grace, perspective, and self-awareness.

And as the decisions get more and more abstract, and less and less reasonable, you’ve no choice but to keep on taking it up the arse.  What else can you do?  Ultimately, they know that you’re not going anywhere.  When glossy brochures of your football club were being passed around Conference Room B in the Nonthaburi Hilton, and the ceiling fans were thumping overhead, every graph and every chart pointed to one ineluctable thing: the inelasticity of demand.

Do what you want, and they’ll still turn up.  That’s the true beauty of football fans.

That’s how Cardiff ended up playing in red.  It’s how Hull City will turn into The Hull Tigers.  How Portsmouth were flung from the palms of one shyster to another; how guns were drawn in the boardroom at QPR.  It’s the price of thin and passing success.

Foreign ownership isn’t necessarily the problem here, because for every Carson Yeung, there’s a Ridsdale, and a Richardson, and a Reynolds.  Simply, these characters wouldn’t exist without the climate and the opportunities to exploit a club like Reading, or Pompey: clubs with a sudden and weird premium on success, but without any of the historical requisites to expect it.  It’s a dull and grabby sense of need; a need so narrow, and so permissive, that any loony could fill it.

We’ve had this with Fawaz.  We’ve cycled through every iteration of his vanity project—the bold talk of iconic managers and third stars, the tours of his palace and his luxury car hangar, that whole ‘any club in the world’ nonsense, his mum wheeled out onto the pitch at half time, the big screens, the pouting Tweets, the ‘spontaneous’ Happy Birthday banners unfurled in the Bridgford End, him listening to no one, him listening to everyone, populist appointments and ruthless sackings, the apparent purge of anyone who’s ever dared to ask a question, the spiralling debts…

And now, suddenly, silence.  Silence—as we extricate ourselves from the hole that we dug and designed for ourselves.  And it wasn’t just Fawaz.  Every year, we—as fans—demanded that money be spent on something; on anything.  We wanted the managers out, and we wanted the players replaced.  We were the ones who always wanted new, and more.

Silence… and in Fawaz’ three plus years, it’s the best it’s ever been.

Suddenly, it’s not about the owner, or the CEO, or the financial manager.  It’s not about the scouts, or the scandals.  There’s no crises, and no confusion: just a shared appreciation of where we’re at.

Simply, it’s about the football.  And I like that.

Because God knows, it’s been a while.

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