Reading is a small town to the west of London. It’s not a particularly special or interesting place, although that’s based only on what I’ve been told about it. I’ve never been there myself, and my mother, who was born there, emigrated to California with her family when she was five years old, and so can’t tell you much about it, either. While they were alive I never heard my grandparents mention football of any kind, let alone Reading Football Club.
There is no good reason for me to support the Championship League team from the city of my mother’s birth. A cursory Google search done while trying to decide what English soccer team I would follow doesn’t quite count. That my mother lived there for five forgotten years doesn’t much count, either.
The decision only started to seem strange when I reviewed Reading’s schedule for the upcoming season to find there were no Manchesters, United or otherwise, on the docket. No Everton, no Liverpool, no Arsenal, either. I had, it emerged, thrown my weight behind a Championship team without even knowing what the Championship was. And so it was in August of 2010 that I came to understand the promotion and relegation system in the English Football League.
Reading is the sort of team that will make you learn this. Reading earned their second promotion from the Championship that first season and were sent packing just as quickly. This was the season prior to the beginning of NBC Sports excellent coverage of the Premier League, which in hindsight makes the club’s immediate relegation all the more painful. I was just a year away from Arlo White and Rebecca Lowe at the least mentioning Reading on national television. Instead, it was a televised heartbreaker at the hands of Arsenal in the League cup that I remember most from that season. Also a lot of losses. A lot.
It wasn’t until I started regularly following the club in 2011 that I really understood what it meant to support a Championship side. With the exception of a televised game here or there, most matches can be found only on the radio. So for $7.56 a month I tune in to hear the sultry sounds of Tim Dellor and Mick Gooding on BBC Berkshire -- a service provided by the club’s website. That is not even the hardest part of it.
This is what a typical Saturday morning looks like during football season: get up at 6am, make a pot of coffee, shower, and put on my Reading shirt. I may be sitting on an Ikea couch with a cup of store-brand coffee -- I am, as it turns out -- but it’s the little things that make the experience more authentic. Or as authentic as listening to a football game on the Internet at 7am from 5,426 miles away can be, anyway. I delay my Twitter feed a couple of minutes so I can keep up with the half-dozen Reading fans and media members I follow without exposing myself to spoilers.
Beyond listening to the matches live, I read post-match reports from both a fan site and in the local media. Soccer on the radio is a strange and foggy thing, and even more so early on a Saturday morning. The work, after the match, is all about filling in the gaps left by not getting to see these players on a regular basis; it’s incredible to think that not all that long ago this is how most fans followed their local sports teams. It’s not just that the internet has spoiled us in this regard, although it has. If it’s just hard to get used to not having access to live video of any game you’re willing to pay for, it’s doubly strange to basically never see a team I care about.
And it’s not a question of a price being too high. There is no price. I can watch the third-tier American team Sacramento Republic live (and for free) on YouTube. As a displaced San Franciscan in greater Los Angeles, I can watch any Giants game I want, provided I cough up the money for it. But a second-tier team in a football-mad country? No sir; there is no one I could pay for this dubious privilege, those broadcasts are not out there to find. I’m out there by myself.
Where we’re from dictates the teams we care about; this is the first and maybe purest way of making this sort of decision, which is simultaneously so trivial and so decidedly not. Choosing a team as my own, from a country that is not my own, made for a difficult task. It felt unnatural, in a way, to shop for a team in this way. I have the family connection with Reading, but I don’t have a single family member that still lives within an hour of the place and my mom left when she was five. To stick with this team -- to believe in that connection and set that alarm for Saturday morning -- there needed to be something else.
For all the other things it is, following sports is inherently social. It’s something to talk about with your sister and your barber and your friends and strangers. I don’t get that with Reading. When I tell someone about Bobby Convey or Shane Long, it’s necessarily a one-way conversation that ends with us talking about Arsenal or Liverpool again. (I’m also describing players that, despite being important to me and the team I care about, I’ve only rarely seen play.) When Reading was relegated (again) I had every opportunity to set them on the back burner in favor of a squad I could watch on TV every week. I’m not really sure I can tell you why I didn’t.
I was thrust into a San Francisco Giants onesie at birth, I dressed up as Steve Young for Halloween and I grew up going to San Jose Sharks games. I had 20 years of memories to digest in order to become an independent fan of those teams. With Reading, as a cynical pseudo-adult, it only took three. Last season cemented me as a Loyal Royal -- in part because of a stubborn, strange and probably misplaced feeling of loyalty to a team and town I’ve only ever seen in pictures. But it was also, in part, because of Adam Le Fondre.
Brian McDermott had been sacked as manager of Reading during their freefall to the bottom of the Premier League the year prior and had since taken up a post at universally-reviled Leeds United. When Leeds paid their visit to the Madjeski Stadium in Reading there was, surely, some good-natured revenge on the mind. After 96 minutes of scoreless play, super-substitute Le Fondre deflected a cross into the top left corner of the Leeds’ net, sending the Royals to the top of the table and Leeds home in bitter defeat. I was at my computer, in my living room, with Dellor and Gooding. It was 10am, and I was screaming, and it all made sense.
What I found is that falling in love with a team happens independently of why you chose to follow it. What I get from Reading isn’t trophies and glory, and it isn’t having a team to talk about with my friends and family. It’s an independent connection and love between me and a team; something I don’t have to share with anyone. That I can’t share it ensures the exclusivity, and in a perverse way only tightens the bond. Dancing alone in my living room after that last-minute winner against Leeds, I knew I was Reading till I die. I don’t need to know what it all means to know that I mean it.