News and Views

Seaside Rendezvous

13 September 2013
By Neil Maskell

Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Seperated by some 90 miles of M4, M25 and M23, Reading vs Brighton & Hove Albion would seem to be just another football match occurring in the South of England this weekend. An 'Andy Steggall Derby' if you will. For both sets of supporters cry out the name of another when chanting lustily of past grief. The two towns are very different. Brighton, the sea-side town beloved by the Prince Regent. Reading, Betjeman's “much maligned” market town deep in commuter belt, allegedly despised so much by Queen Victoria that her statue by the Town Hall faces away from the town. Brighton has Quadrophenia, Reading has Road Wars. Brighton has The Lanes, Reading has Smelly Alley. Brighton its Pier and its Vintage Car Race, Reading its asbestos raddled Hexagon and its Snooker Grand Prix. Brighton is cool. Reading has all the glamour of Sandi Toksvig.

The one common denominator is that both towns have mediocre football teams. When the two teams meet, Brighton supporters rather ludicrously like to remind Reading fans that their team is historically the more successful of the the tune of precisely one whole FA Cup semi final victory and one additional season in the top flight. The clubs first met 110 years ago. Southern League rivals, they joined Football League Division 3 together in 1920 and the clubs have competed against each for league points 84 times since then, only 7 clubs have we faced on more occasions. The only substantial gap in fixtures between the clubs occurred between 1977 and 1992 when Albion overtook us and then the best part of a decade following that when Reading mixed in higher circles. Like any old familiar routine, the detail of most of those matches were unmemorable and lost over time, only the bare stats consolidated in dusty old Rothmans or internet databases. For the record, Reading lead the series 33 wins to 28. Series? It's not the frigging Ashes.

That said, there is an element of Bodyline to this fixture these days. An irritation, a mutual antipathy bourne of poaching and familiarity of personnel. My own memory of the fixture stretches back nearly 2 decades to that glorious April day in 1994 when Mark McGhee (more of him later) and his team secured promotion and the Division 2 title with a comfortable win against the Albion. One of my main recollections of a dream afternoon was of swelled ranks of Brighton supporters at the Town End, gathered en masse as if to spoil our party by drinking all the Ginger Beer and snogging the girl we fancied. In denial perhaps that Reading - a peer they perhaps thought that they had largely left behind over 15 years or so of dabbling in the top two divisions while we floundered in the bottom tiers - were on the up, the Brighton fans displayed an aggressive arrogance before, during and after our big day. Watching that well-worn Year of the Royals footage, Jimmy Quinn belted in a penalty despite a missile being thrown in his general direction. After the game, a mate's dad - attending his first ever Reading game, having presumably wondered what the fuss was all about - was punched in the face on the Norfolk Road in an unprovoked attack by a not-so-friendly visitor. Won't be seeing you for a few years, Brighton.

Reading initially thrived in the higher division, Brighton fell into the basement, lost their ground due to the crooked incompetence of past owners and almost their league status. Brighton fans rallied and protested and invented Fans United; a worthy rallying call of course, but the 'saviours of football' self-insistent insufferableness on the part of Albion fans since then does rather grate. In terms of self-pitying, for many years Brighton fans made the citizens of Liverpool look stiff-upper-lipped by comparison, as if fans of other clubs haven't struggled with their own battles as Reading themselves can testify having nearly lost their Football League identity back in 1983 when Cap'n Bob tried to enforce the unthinkable. By the time Berkshire/Sussex hostilities recommenced in 2002, Reading were playing at a swanky modern venue, Brighton were playing at an athletics ground which made Palmer Park look like the San Siro. The two clubs finished first and second in the division, two fraught fixtures and the title itself were edged by Brighton and there was a tug-of-war over their Leicester asset, Junior Lewis. The following season, Reading almost broke the ceiling and headed for a second successive promotion while the Seagulls dived back into the third tier at the first attempt, via another battle over a Brighton loanee - this time Steve Sidwell - who chose the relative luxury of the Madejski and the potential that went with it over slumming it at the Withdean. The Brighton internet keyboard warriors seethed, Reading fans were spoiled with their new facilities and their supposed money-no-object owner. I well remember being invited along to a southern area meeting of football supporters groups held at the Madejski late in that 2002/03 season. A well-known, recognisable and genial STAR stalwart remarked cheerfully to me that their next regional meeting might clash with the play-offs. The Brighton delegate, face green with envy, overheard and scoffed “Huh, yeah good luck with that”.

Sidwell however was ultimately vindicated. Thanks to the appointment of Steve Coppell - Brighton's manager, natch - both he and the club saw their ambition fulfilled in 2006 with promotion to the top flight. Brighton were again relegated after a second successive double by Reading over the Albion. They should have known that appointing Mark McGhee would mean that the chances of beating us were minimal, given the Indian Sign we held over the FSB since his departure more than a decade before. Given McGhee's cited ambitions, Reading fans writhed in the warm glow of schadenfreude as we left our former manager to soak in the windswept Withdean while we entertained the Liverpools and Manchester United's in a league where he only ever did manage half a season himself. I recall the reception McGhee received during a routine midweek Reading win at the Withdean, where the players tunnel emptied out right next to the away enclosure. The strains of Daydream Believer, his fixed lingering stare back at us. Oh, what can it mean.

The latest chapter in a burgeoning enmity occurred two campaigns ago and resulted in another Reading double en route to another promotion. The victory on our inaugural visit to the Amex was jammier than the entire contents of a Robinsons factory, owing to a deflected freekick and a penalty save. What is worse for Brighton fans is that they didn't even have their usual ammunition of 'Plastics' to throw at us on their message boards, given that they now have a comfortable, cozy and atmosphere-free modern facility of their own after years of laudable lobbying. Indeed, their ex-manager (and one-time Reading target, naturally) Gus Poyet complained after their humiliating play-off loss to their bitterest rivals Palace, of the irritating din made by the free inflatables handed out by their club prior to that particular game at the Amex in a vain attempt to drum up some crowd passion at one of their biggest fixtures in 30 years. The Rumblestick is well and truly up the other nostril these days, Brighton. Our recent - albeit fleeting - top flight sojourns and historical enmity over managerial and playing recruitment obviously still rankles with the Seagulls given that according to their 'North Stand Chat' the team they most overwhelmingly want to get one over this season would seem to be our good selves. Well, I guess any team you have only managed to beat twice in 18 attempts dating back more than 35 years would infuriate. And now that we both have our own contemporary, soulless faciltites I guess we're not so different, Withdean and I. Like Windsor Davies and Donald Sinden in Never the Twain, familiarity and similarity breeds a degree of contempt. And an equal amount of inconsequential, juvenile one-upmanship on both sides.

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