Saturday, October 28 will see fans of Reading Football Club take another stand against owner Dai Yongge. This time, they’ll be marching from Blue Collar Corner to the Select Car Leasing Stadium – a move which holds undertones of a similar protest held four decades ago.
Almost 1,000 Royals supporters took to the Butts Centre in 1983 to protest media mogul Robert Maxwell’s proposed merger with rivals Oxford United. Ahead of a match against Millwall, fans-cum-activists chanted their way down Oxford Road to Elm Park, raising homemade placards and banners, one of which immortalised the tagline, “Save our Soccer”.
Maxwell’s plan to create a hybrid Thames Valley Royals, which played its home games at Didcot, would have seen Reading FC erased from English football.
😲In 1983, Robert Maxwell announced plans to merge Oxford Utd & Reading as the “Thames Valley Royals”
📢Fan protests & red tape prevented the move & both clubs survived to fight another day#OUFC | #ReadingFC pic.twitter.com/j02MPrXMYB
— ShotOnGoal (@shotongoal247) August 22, 2020
The march was attended by a 19-year-old John Ennis who, as well as still being an ardent fan since 1975, is now serving his 21st year as a Reading councillor. He described the original protest as a “bottom-up, fan-led fightback”, featuring a young crowd with support from the town’s general public.
Cllr Ennis explained: “I remember going there very well, I was proud and pleased to be at the demonstration. The atmosphere was brilliant, it was lively and there was just lots of noise.
“I had a couple hundred leaflets, which were hand-written and very basic. We saw football as a working class sport and greedy bosses like Maxwell were trying to take it over. Funnily enough, it’s still the same issue now, 40 years later.”
Despite the enthusiasm, the march lacked structure. Cllr Ennis labelled the Royals a “small club” in those days, one that was competing in Division 4. But the situation is different now, with three seasons of top flight football, the Championship’s record points tally, an FA Cup semi-final appearance and a 24,000-seater stadium to its name.
Saturday’s march follows several protests against Dai Yongge, who has been the club’s owner since 2017. During his stewardship, Reading have had 16 points deducted in the past three seasons, handed a string of transfer embargoes and served winding up petitions following breaches of the EFL’s financial regulations and failure to pay HMRC.
🎾 For the second time in as many home matches, Reading fans throw tennis balls onto the pitch in protest of owner Dai Yongge. #readingfc pic.twitter.com/UNj0s3ZmcP
— Ji-Min Lee (@JmlJourno) September 30, 2023
Relegation from the Championship last season means that the Berkshire side are currently playing in the third tier of English football for the first time since 2002. The uncertainty caused by an owner who has rarely communicated with the fanbase led to the formation of Sell Before We Dai, an amalgamation of various fan bodies with the sole aim of removing Mr Dai from the club.
Of the group’s plight, Cllr Ennis said: “It’s a well-coordinated campaign, one that I’m still hopeful we can win, get rid of this owner, and bring in a new one. The club’s much better placed to fight this back. We’ve got a lot to offer now: the best academy facilities outside of the Premier League, two Championship titles and a bit of history.
“Saturday will be massive and will get national attention, there’s no doubt about that. Disrupting the players with the tennis balls has upset some people but I think it’s been great. We want to show that we’ve got a fanbase. We need to prove to a potential buyer that fans will get on board.
“If we get a successful team, the stadium will be packed. We get a good crowd even when we’re not good. Some people have asked if Reading deserves a football team – it bloody does, they’ll show that on Saturday.”
There’s no doubt that the fate of the club is one of both personal and professional interest to Cllr Ennis. He added: “Reading FC matters to the town. It brings energy, money, attention – it makes people feel good. Reading is a footballing town and it needs a decent football team.
“It matters to my son, people care and they’re upset now. It matters to people’s lives. My weekend is based on how Reading does.”
Sell Before We Dai’s spokesperson, Nick Houlton, said: “Fans fought for Reading in 1983 and helped save our football club. 40 years later, we need to do it all over again.
“Despite claiming to come with good intentions, Dai Yongge has ultimately broken his promises and betrayed our trust. That’s why we are calling on all Reading fans to join us in a massive demonstration this Saturday ahead of the Portsmouth game. We want to show we are united, passionate and proud. That we will not give up until we have new owners in place who have the interests of our club at heart.”
Mr Houlton added that the march’s mission also involves shining a light on the role governing bodies play in football’s wider ownership problem, which he believes is critical to stop clubs suffering the consequences of inadequate ownership.
Picture: Sell Before We Dai
“As part of the protest we are also calling on the EFL to apply their owners’ and directors’ tests with added scrutiny and renewed rigour. Far too many clubs have been let down in recent years. Far too many clubs have needlessly gone to the wall. Football has an ownership problem and together with other fans’ groups we want to help fix it.”
The Sell Before We Dai has been widely supported by local politicians in Reading and its surrounding areas. MPs Matt Rodda, James Sunderland and Sir Alok Sharma penned open letters to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Lucy Frazer, urging the government to introduce an independent football regulator.
Reading Borough Council has worked alongside fan groups to ensure the smooth running of Saturday’s march.
A spokesperson for Reading Borough Council said: “Council representatives attended an initial meeting, co-ordinated by Thames Valley Police colleagues, and also attended by organisers of the procession, to share information and advice.
“While the route is yet to be finalised, the Council is not expecting any road or footway closures associated with this procession and as such we are not expecting traffic disruption at this stage.”