The Imps and Elm Park, Reading

Reading FC were founded in December 1871 at a meeting of young businessmen, shop-keepers and students who had a desire to emulate the interest stimulated by the game in nearby Maidenhead, Henley and Marlow. The club’s first match took place on 21 February 1872 on the open fields of Reading Recreation Ground against Reading School and resulted in a 0-0 draw.

In its first year the club played only six matches, but after the formation of a rival club, Reading Hornets in 1873, matches became more frequent and better organised, usually played against neighbouring town teams. With little or no facilities at the Recreation Ground and with spectators frequently encroaching on the pitch the club decided in 1878 to switch to nearby Reading Cricket Club. This literally saw an improvement in the club’s fortunes as an admission charge could now be made.

In 1878/79 the club enjoyed its most successful season to date, losing in the FA Cup to the eventual winners Old Etonians by a single goal and claiming the inaugural Berks & Bucks Challenge Cup trophy with a victory over local rivals Marlow.

For a brief period in the early 1880s Reading were regarded as one of the strongest teams in the south outside London, but one factor that held the club back was the frequency with which fixtures were lost due to the nearby River Thames flooding. In 1882 therefore it was decided to play home matches in Coley Park, an enclosed estate to the south of the town. They remained there for seven years but there was a lack of facilities and the local squire, citing ‘rowdyism by rougher elements’ wanted them out. So, in 1889 Reading were on the move again.

The next home was Caversham Cricket Club – despite it being another ground prone to flooding – although this meant it moved the club out of Berkshire and into Oxfordshire. Meanwhile a lack of success saw interest in the team decline with rivals such as Reading Albions, South Reading and Earley growing in strength. There was a threat that these three might combine to form a Reading United club that would eclipse the original club. However, a change of management saw Reading revive to become the most important club in the town again.

In 1891 the pavilion at the Cricket Club ground was burned down by local youths but things slowly improved and a stand with seating for 500 was added before the 1894/95 season in which the club became a founder member of the Southern League. In 1895 the club turned professional, and by now regularly attracting crowds of 2,000 or more leased some land in the west of the town that had previously been a gravel pit. £800 was spent on laying out a level pitch and £500 on a wooden main stand on the north or Norfolk Road side. The first game at Elm Park was held on 5 September 1896 between Reading and a scratch team called A. Roston Bourke’s XI named after the honorary secretary of the Referees’ Association. The match was played in front of an attendance of around 2,500 but abandoned due to torrential rain when Reading were leading 7–1.  £44 was taken on the gate but as the visitors were not registered with the Football Association Reading were later fined £5 for playing against an unregistered team.

The ground played host to the last ever all non-league FA Cup semi-final, contested between Millwall and Southampton (both then in the Southern League) in 1900.

In 1908, the club’s annual general meeting proposed moving to a new ground near Reading railway station. A board meeting the following year decided that the move would not be possible, “due to the actions of the Great Western Railway”.

In 1913 Elm Park staged the FA Amateur Cup Final between north-eastern club South Bank and Oxford City.

Before the start of the 1914/15 season full cover was added along the South Bank or Tilehurst Road side of the ground with accommodation for 6,000 spectators. This, together with other roofing already in place allowed 10,000 to watch matches under cover.

After the First World War the Southern League resumed for one season and then for the 1920/21 season its First Division became the new Third Division of the Football League.

At this time the seats in the north stand were upholstered and at the same time, the railings on the south stand were moved forward three yards to allow a further 2,500 spectators in the ground.

After struggling in their early years as a League club Reading won the championship of Division Three (South) in 1926. In that year a new grandstand was built on the north side of the ground after the 1895-built stand had been blown down in a gale. This would eventually hold 4,000 seats and would also be where the club offices (originally located in the centre of town) would be situated. On the opposite side of the pitch was the South Bank terrace and behind one goal was the Tilehurst End which would become where the more vociferous home fans would congregate with away fans gathering at the Town End.

The 1926/27 season saw Reading reach the FA Cup semi-finals for the first time, losing to eventual winners Cardiff City. Along the way Elm Park’s record attendance was set when 33,042 spectators saw a 1-0 victory against Brentford in the Fifth Round. However, five otherwise undistinguished Second Division seasons came to an end with relegation in 1931. At this time the Town End terrace was improved with funds raised by the newly-formed Supporters’ Club, while the central section of the South Bank was roofed in 1936.

The lowest ever attendance recorded at Elm Park came in October 1938 when just 801 people bothered to turn out to watch Reading play Watford in the Division Three Cup.

The Supporters’ Club were also responsible for funding a public address system which was installed in 1946, and the roofing of the uncovered parts of the South Bank which was done in two stages in 1949 and 1956.

In 1949 the club built new turnstiles, access routes, dressing rooms, office space and bathing facilities. New terracing was laid down at the Town End but plans to cover this and the building of a new double-decker stand over the South Bank never progressed due to post-World War II regulations restricting the club’s ability to obtain building materials. The club installed rather basic floodlights which were first used on 6th October 1954 against Racing Club de Paris in a friendly match in front of a crowd of 13,000.

The Tilehurst End was rebuilt in 1957 as the existing railway sleepers which formed the terracing had become rotten and weed-infested and were replaced with concrete steps. The capacity of the ground was roughly 30,000 at this time.

In the post-Second World War period attendances had boomed for a while as Reading came close to returning to the Second Division but they remained in the third tier to become founder members of the new national Division Three for the 1958/59 season.

Having avoided each other so far due mainly to being in different regionalised Third Divisions a first visit to Elm Park by Lincoln City came towards the end of April 1962 during the Imps’ one-season stay in the Third Division on their way down from the Second to the Fourth. Still fighting to avoid relegation City went down to what was to be their heaviest-ever defeat on the ground, losing 4-0.

1969 saw improved floodlights on corner pylons added and talk of a two-tiered south stand re-emerged as crowds briefly topped 15,000, but relegation to Division Four after a run of only two wins in the last 16 games of the 1970/71 season prevented this from happening. Joining Lincoln City in the basement division the longest series of meetings between the two clubs now began.

City had survived their latest re-election plea, and under manager David Herd were looking well set for promotion at the time of their visit to Elm Park towards the end of March in 1972. Second in the table after beating Scunthorpe at home the Imps had slipped to third following a defeat at Chester. However, the only goal of the match scored by Derek Trevis making a by then rare appearance in midfield was enough to move them back up to second. But too many drawn games in the remainder of the season saw the Imps miss out on promotion by a single point and they were back at Elm Park again the following September. After a poor opening to the season the Imps had improved, and thanks to a goal from summer signing from Ireland Brendan Bradley who scored for the fifth game in a row, a 1-1 draw saw them up to fourth in the table.

City’s early-season promotion challenge in the 1972/73 season did not last long and a slump led to the replacement of David Herd by the 28-year-old Graham Taylor as manager. One of Taylor’s early actions had been to sell legendary striker Percy Freeman to Reading, and ‘The Big Fella’ was in the home side’s lineup for the next meeting at Elm Park in October 1973. Neither Big Percy nor anyone else was able to score as the Imps earned a decent point against a Reading side then in second place. They were not able to sustain their promotion challenge and finished sixth with City in mid-table.

The increase of football hooliganism in the 1970s led to the club erecting fencing at the end of the South Bank, completely separating each of the four stands for the first time but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the club officially designated the Town End to away supporters.

It was City who were making a serious challenge for promotion on their next visit to play a mid-table Reading at Elm Park in January 1975. Percy Freeman had now been bought back from Reading and made his second Imps debut against them in this game. However, the Imps went down to a 1-0 defeat thanks to a wonder strike by Reading midfielder John Murray in a game which saw Phil Neale make his Football League debut, coming off the bench as a replacement for the injured Colin Symm.

Once again, City narrowly missed out on promotion this time by a fraction of a goal, but it had already been achieved with seven games to go by the time of their game at Elm Park in April 1976. Reading themselves were well in the running for promotion in third place and were in fact the only team who could still pip City for the championship of the division. Consequently, the match drew an attendance of 15,900, the highest ever for a meeting of the two clubs at the ground. In a close game an equalising goal from John Ward saw the game finish 1-1.

Promoted along with City, after doing well in the early part of the 1976/77 season Reading then struggled and were next to bottom of the Third Division just under a year later. Things seemed very different at Elm Park compared to the previous match, with the crowd down to a third of that which had seen the two clubs on their way to promotion. On their seventh visit to the ground City scored more than one goal for the first time although one of these came from a Reading player. The other was that rarity, a goal from full back Dennis Leigh to give City a 2-1 win.

Reading’s relegation was confirmed at the end of the 1976/77 season and the two clubs went their separate ways for a few years. After two seasons in the Fourth Division the Royals as they were now known – their original nickname of the Biscuitmen having lapsed after the closure of the town’s Huntley & Palmers factory – won the championship to return to the third tier, passing City who were heading the other way after Colin Murphy had been unable to save them from relegation.

Having emulated Reading in returning to the Third Division after two years the next meeting at Elm Park came in early December 1981. It was City’s fourth game in eight days and this arguably contributed to a 3-2 defeat in a game which saw a penalty for either side. After Steve Cammack had equalised Reading’s early lead the home side went ahead again with a penalty scored by future England midfielder Neil Webb. They then made it 3-1 before a late penalty from City’s George Shipley made the scoreline no more than respectable.

Once again, City just missed out on a promotion by a single point so were back again in January 1983 this time hanging on to top place in the table to face a Reading side struggling in the bottom four. The attendance of 2,683 was to be the lowest ever for a game between the sides and saw an Imps debut for on-loan striker Steve White. A 1-1 draw thanks to a late goal from Steve Thompson was not what the Imps wanted though, and they gradually slipped out of the promotion places while once again Reading found themselves back in the Fourth Division.

Low attendances were also being blamed on persistent crowd trouble but whatever the reason it seemed the board of directors had run out of ideas and they put the club up for sale. An unwelcome offer came from controversial businessman and owner of Oxford United Robert Maxwell who proposed a merger of the two clubs which would become known as Thames Valley Royals playing at a new stadium to be built 20 miles away at Didcot with Elm Park sold for redevelopment. However, amid protests and the actions of rebel directors the club was saved with former player and now property tycoon Roger Smee taking over as chairman. Smee in fact had ambitions of his own to move the club to a new ground with the idea of a 10,000 capacity all-seater stadium in the Smallmead area in the south of the town which would be linked to commercial use and incorporate a leisure complex. However, it would be several years later and under Smee’s successor before anything came of this.

Reading were back in Division Four for only one season as they bounced straight back under the management of ex-Imp Ian Branfoot for the next visit of the Imps to take place at the beginning of March 1985. In Colin Murphy’s last season City were just about keeping out of the bottom four and were glad of a point in another 1-1 draw thanks to an own goal when Reading defender Martin Hicks headed into his own net for an equaliser after prolific scorer Trevor Senior had given them the lead.

The aftermath of the Bradford City fire then had implications for Elm Park, especially the 1926-built wooden grandstand. Smoking was banned in seated areas, the gangways were widened and some seats were deemed unusable due to being too far from the fire exits. As these were at the back of the stand, they were replaced with twelve executive boxes. In total, around a thousand seats were lost and Elm Park’s capacity was initially reduced to 8,000 ahead of the 1985/86 season. This saw Reading set a record for the number of wins from the start of a season and by the end of October, efforts had been made to increase the usable capacity of the ground. Officially 13,000 watched a game with Wolves, although it was later reported by the then-managing director that the crowd was actually 17,500.

The last ever visit to Elm Park by a City side then came in March 1986 and against all the odds the Imps, now managed by George Kerr and next to bottom of the division achieved their best win on the ground by 2-0 with goals from Neil Redfearn and Willie Gamble. But City couldn’t sustain such results for the remainder of the season and returned to Division Four as Reading went the other way. The clubs’ paths diverged with a vengeance then as City sank out of the league while Reading spent several season in the second tier and their next meeting was to be over 12 years later at their new ground.

With the club back in the Second Division for the first time since 1931 minor changes to the ground were required. These saw a new fire exit added for egress onto Norfolk Road, the Tilehurst Road turnstiles demolished and replaced with a new block towards the South Bank and a bar constructed behind the South Bank. Also, fences were introduced at the front of the stands to prevent home and away supporters from entering the field of play.

Relegated back to the third tier after two seasons Reading won promotion again in 1994 at the time when the Taylor Report had made an all-seater stadium compulsory in the top two divisions with this required within three seasons. Converting Elm Park to all-seater would have seen an estimated capacity of around 9,000 with constraints related to parking and office space.

In 1995 Reading missed out on promotion to the top flight losing in the playoff final. It was unclear whether Elm Park would have been allowed to host Premiership matches if the Royals had gone up, with possible ground shares in London being suggested.

The location for a new ground in Smallmead was therefore looked at again. A former council landfill site was bought for just £1, with conditions that the development of the stadium would include part-funding of the A33 relief road. The new home would also allow alternative commercial ventures (particularly leisure facilities) and shared use with other teams (such as rugby union clubs Richmond and London Irish). Due to the club’s progression at this time the planned capacity for the new ground was increased from 15,000 to 25,000. The plans for Elm Park were to demolish the ground and build 128 dwellings on the site.

The last competitive match at Elm Park took place on 3 May 1998 against Norwich City, with Reading losing 1–0. The ground was maintained over the summer so that it could be used in case the new stadium wasn’t finished in time for the new season. The last action at Elm Park saw two testimonial matches and an over-35s tournament, featuring a Supporters’ Club team, before the contents of the ground were auctioned off.

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The move was then made to the new 24,200 all-seater Madejski Stadium, named after the club chairman John Madejski and costing more than £50 million to build. A pre-season friendly against Sheffield Wednesday was played in front of a crowd of 7,500 before the first competitive match on 22 August 1998 when Luton Town were beaten 3–0. In 2021, the ground became known as the Select Car Leasing Stadium for sponsorship reasons.

Elm Park must rank as one of City’s better away grounds for results albeit they only played 11 games there of which just three were lost. The commonest scoreline was 1-1 which made up four of the five draws and goals were at a premium with only 11 scored in 11 games. In fact, the Imps never managed more than two goals in a game but conversely only twice conceded more than one. Of the nine City players to score on the ground none did so more than once with the top ‘scorer’ being own goals with two.


Photo Credits:

North Stand:

South Bank:

Tilehurst End in 1968:

Looking towards Town End in 1900:

Site of the ground today:

Town End:

North Stand c1905:

The Football Grounds of England & Wales by Simon Inglis