Victorian Football

The Reading Football Club was founded in the winter of 1871-72. No-one can be exactly sure when or where though the likely location was Gun Street in the town centre. At first the club struggled to get fixtures and be fully conversant with the rules and relied heavily on its star back Brownlow Haygarth who was capped for England in 1875.

In 1878-79 the club moved to its first enclosed ground at Reading Cricket Club, won its first trophy (the Berks & Bucks Cup) and had fielded several international players. In 1880 it was thought worthy by FA Secretary Charles Alcock of including in his list of the ‘twenty principal clubs’ in the land.

But it was at this exact point that the game in the north began to take a very different path to that in the south. The Reading committee was resolutely pro-amateur and uninterested in gate money and spectator facilities. Frequent flooding of their Thames-side ground led to a move to Coley Park, an enclosed ‘stately’ home some distance to the south of the town. There the club quietly faded away, making little progress in any competition. By the late 1880s Reading were no longer even the strongest club in the town and in 1889 were evicted from Coley Park and faced with the resignation of all their senior officers and a severe shortage of players.

The club almost went under but were saved by the efforts of a long-standing player Horace Walker who became Secretary/Treasurer in 1889. He pursued a more pragmatic recruitment policy, drawing in talent from other clubs in the town like Earley, South Reading and Reading Albions and from the wider region, including many soldiers playing as guests.

In the early 1890s the rival clubs in the town rapidly folded and Walker’s ‘Biscuit Boys’ (nicknamed after the local giant biscuit enterprise Huntley & Palmers) began to attract regular crowds of 2,000 plus at their new home of Caversham Cricket Ground. The Berks & Bucks Cup was re-gained in 1892. Walker tried to put the club back into the mainstream of football through organising prestigious matches against the likes of Corinthians, Everton and Newton Heath who all played at Caversham.

In 1894 Reading reached the FA Cup 1st Round Proper for the first time in many years, broke away from the Berks & Bucks FA and joined the Southern League in its launch season. Despite finishing half-way up the table the club members decided amateurism had had its day and voted to turn professional in 1895. The decision split the club and a minority amateur faction broke away and continued to 1914. These more influential folk played down the achievements of the Walker years.

However progress was now unstoppable. Reading moved to their first purpose-built ground at Elm Park in 1896 (home until 1998), reached the FA Cup Quarter Finals in 1901 and provided England with a couple more internationals. The club may not have the most glorious history but it’s certainly long: the oldest League club south of the banks of the Trent, no League club has entered the FA Cup earlier than Reading (1877) and very few have played continuously under the same name and in the same basic colours (blue and white) since foundation.

Roger Titford

Condensed from The Lost Years of Reading FC by Roger Titford, available via the When Saturday Comes shop.

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