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📜 Reading Football Club | One hundred years as a League club

Some history and context behind a century as a League club...

28 August 2020

On 28 August 1920, one hundred years ago today, Reading’s first game in the Football League ended in a 2-1 win at Newport County. STAR's Roger Titford gives us the history and some context behind our journey over the last century...

How have we got on in the 4,155 matches over the hundred years since? And how does that compare with the 21 other southern clubs who kicked off League life in the new Division Three on the same day?

Looking back from 2020, many supporters might think that this was the moment our ‘real’ history as a club began and that getting into the League in 1920 was a cause of great celebration. They would be wrong on both counts.

From 1894-95 to 1919-20 the Biscuitmen were members of the Southern League which was a strong, and now under-estimated, competition.

During that period we reached the FA Cup quarter-finals, beat several Division One sides in the Cup, staged an FA Cup semi-final at Elm Park, saw two of our players picked for England and others in the Great Britain Olympic gold medal team, toured Italy successfully with a comprehensive win over AC Milan to boot and, in terms of the bread and butter, finishing runners-up three times and in our only season in SL Division Two, taking the title.

If you divided Reading’s near 150 year history into six equal 25 year slices this would be our second most successful. Recent statistical work by University of Reading suggests that, on the playing side, we were at times at the level of Football League Division One before the first World War.

Yet during this period there was never any question of Reading applying for Football League membership and joining its Division Two. Indeed as late as 1919 the Reading directors were reportedly against it.

There was a strong northern bias against teams from smaller southern towns, like Reading. We knew our place! The Southern League as a whole tried several times to negotiate accession to the Football League, usually as a kind of Division Two (South) but were continually knocked back and relations between the two bodies worsened.

Finally, after the 1914-18 war, the Football League agreed to admit the Southern League Division One clubs en masse in a new Division Three but the terms were harsh. They were to be associate members only (that’s where the term ‘lower divisions’ comes from) with paltry voting rights and worse still there was to be only one promotion place available, an arrangement that persisted until 1958.

So as Reading lined up for the start of the 1920-21 season there was not much joy or celebration to be found in the local press.

Admission prices were unchanged – the most expensive season ticket was £4.20. Reading would be playing exactly the same teams as before the war in a tough division we’d never won and for a one in 22 chance of promotion.

It might have looked like we were worse off than before! However five years later, in 1925-26, we won Division Three (South) and took our place as full members of the Football League for the first time in 1926 – the same year that the Norfolk Road (north stand) was built at Elm Park.

For five more seasons we had a good and glamorous time in Division Two (and reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1927) before a tragic relegation in 1931.

It was back to the lower divisions for the next 55 years. We finished second four times and third three times but could never quite get that one promotion place on offer from Division Three (South).

Ironically, in 1995 there was also only one automatic promotion place on offer from the second tier. We finished second that year too and lost in the play-off final.

We had twenty seasons in a row in Division Three (South) followed by thirteen in Division Three (1958-71) before going down to Division Four for the first time, just as our club centenary happened in 1971. It was this long period in the wilderness that did so much to shape the image of Reading as a ‘typical Third Division’ club.

The drift in the lower divisions continued with a third relegation to Division Four in 1983. But the thwarted ‘merger’ with Oxford United in that year acted as a catalyst for success.

Two promotions in three years brought us back to Division Two (a short-lived stint, 1986-88), an era that also brought triumph at Wembley in the Simod (full members) Cup in 1988.

A financial crisis in 1990 led to Sir John Madejski assuming the ownership of the club, the move to the Madejski Stadium in 1998 and the most successful 25 year slice in the club’s long history.

Promotions in 2002 and 2006 brought Reading to the top division for the first time, the second tier title (now called the Football League championship) was won again in 2012 and the FA Cup semi-final reached in 2015. Reading have now been above ‘the lower divisions’ for a club record 18 consecutive seasons.

Of the 22 clubs joining the League 100 years ago Reading presently stand tenth highest in the league tables. Two of our oldest rivals, of similar stature, are Swindon and Millwall.

We played them in friendlies before the Southern League was founded in 1894 and throughout the Southern League days, with all three clubs starting League football on the same day in 1920. Here’s the comparative record of how many seasons we have spent in each division.

Division / Tier

Reading

Swindon

Millwall

First

3

1

2

Second

26

18

42

Third

30

34

22

Third South

26

31

22

Fourth

8

9

5

War time

7

7

7


Each club has had short spells in the top division (all since 1988) and the bottom division. Of the 22 new entrants to Division Three in 1920 Southampton and Portsmouth have been the most successful.

Fifteen of the class of 1920 have reached the top flight and only one (Merthyr) is now outside the League. By contrast, none of the nineteen clubs coming in as Third Division (North) in 1921 has achieved this and only six are still in the League. Division Three between 1921 and 1958 was a division of two unequal north and south halves.

Unlike, say, Bristol Rovers or Newport County, Reading’s membership of the League (or Premier League) has been continuous. Though it was close once or twice the club has never finished so low that it has had to apply for re-election to the League (a process replaced by automatic relegation in 1987).

Well, almost continuous: Reading were once expelled from the Football League! It happened in 1941 as a consequence of a dispute between the League and London and southern clubs about war-time fixtures.

Fifteen were chucked out but re-instated a few months later, all forgotten about now. Mathematically our lowest finish was 16th in Division Four in 1971-72 though we came closer to needing to seek re-election a couple of times in Division Three (South) in the early 1920s and mid-1950s.

On the brighter side we have won every Football League division we’ve competed in – the Premier League is sadly another matter, our best finish there being 8th in 2006-07.

In total we have two second tier titles, three third tier titles, one fourth tier title and one Division Three (South) title. To this trophy haul can be added two more promotions from Division Four and another from the third tier, a total of ten promotions in 93 playing seasons.

Amongst our other notable achievements at a League level is of course the record of 106 points in a season (2005-06) – though on a points per game basis a few other clubs could happily dispute this!

Nevertheless we managed 34 games unbeaten, still a second tier record. Indisputably we have the longest 100% record from the start of the season – 13 matches in 1985-86.

For thirty years we held the longest unbeaten home record of 55 matches, set in the mid-1930s, and we were the first of the new Division Three clubs to score 5,000 League goals (a scrambled effort by Ady Williams in 2002).

It has taken the best part of a century of League membership to re-gain the position which we held in the football world of the early 20th century.

For the first sixty years or so the Football League gave us status if not as much joy as we might have had under a different promotion system.

But we end this century of league membership, like many of our southern class-mates of 1920, as clubs well-established in the top half of the national structure.

Our complete playing record (excludes play-offs and curtailed 1939-40 season):

Played | 4,156

Home wins | 1,146
Home draws | 479
Home losses | 453
Home goals for | 3,740
Home goals against | 2,144

Away wins | 516
Away draws | 559
Away losses | 1,003
Away goals for | 2,404
Away goals against | 3,555

Total: W1,662 D1,038 L1,456 GF6,144 GA5,699 GD+445

We passed 5,000 league points early in the 2019-20 season and our total now stands at 5,052.


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