For most Reading fans this season will end with memories of visiting Stamford Bridge, Anfield, Old Trafford and the like. But I already have my favourite away ground of this – or any other season for that matter and it’s as far away from the Premiership geographically as it is spiritually. It lies in the village of Gallstads, about 60 miles east of Gothenburg in Sweden. I watched Reading play there in a pre-season friendly and it was my best football spectating experience of all time.
I took in the match while on holiday in Sweden with a friend, John. Finding out where the club was situated threw up all sorts of difficulties not least because every Google search merely came back with stories relating to the team’s 14-0 drubbing by Aston Villa earlier in pre-season. There must be more to Gallstads than that, we though. And so there was – when you put a couple of dots over the ‘a’ and if you read Swedish …
John rang up the ground to check ticket arrangements to be told it was pay on the day and that “we’d be delighted to see you.” Entry to Gallstads was just as easy and welcoming. We parked up our camper van behind one of the goals and in front of some houses and simply walked onto the turf. The main stand, as such, was five rows of backless benches landscaped into a grassy bank in front of the club’s premises. On the opposite side of the pitch was a short, uncovered wooden stand only about 20 metres wide with several terraces of seating topped by a countdown-style clock. The two dugouts were similarly made of wood and, to accommodate the large number of substitutes, augmented to the side by classroom-like chairs arranged in neat rows under gazebos. The far goal and corner was backed by tall pine trees.
We soon got chatting to a Reading fan who had travelled from Oslo (even further than us) for the match – and was the only other spectator to arrive three hours ahead of kick-off. A former Norwegian first division player, he was actually more of a supporter of Steve Coppell having followed him around his various clubs.
Our children, who had come with us, then had an impromptu kickabout in one of the goals. No-one minded – not even the chap who wandered across the pitch to set up the ticket office in a trailer by the corner flag. He was the chairman. We also tried out the dugout (for the away team, of course) while we were at it. Then we were approached by a reporter and cameraman from the local news programme for Meridian who interviewed us and got some action shots. John will probably only ever have one goal broadcast on TV but it was a good one – a stooping header followed by some brief commentary while holding his hand aloft.
The arrival of the players provided yet more pre-match entertainment and not just for us. The kids loved going around gathering autographs even if they didn’t have a clue who these men were. The excitement of being next to a footballer doesn’t diminish with age. “Do you mind if I behave like an eight-year-old?” I shyly asked Graeme Murty before sitting between him and Jamie Harper, putting my arms around them (I’d never dream of doing that with any other blokes I didn’t know) and grinning with far too much glea for a 43-year-old. John and I palmed the camera between ourselves as we posed with an assortment of other Reading stars, most notably Steve Coppell. Pathetic, I know. I’d last succumbed to this form of temptation when I accosted bubble-permed Trevor Senior at an Elm Park open day in 1981. The picture was on proud display on the cistern of my toilet until I got married.
And then there was the match – which, for the record, Reading won 6-0. (Gallstads play in the fourth division). To be honest, if someone had said moments before kick-off “Right, lads. That’s your lot” I wouldn’t have complained. The cosy nature of the evening was encapsulated by the half-time snack: a hot dog cooked in the camper van by John’s wife and brought to me as I snapped away beside one of the goals by my daughter.