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That was a season that was... 1985-86

31 years ago almost to the day, the Royals' team set a remarkable record of 13 consecutive wins in Division Three to set a League record that remains to this day.

In August 1985, in the days before the Premiership, inflated players' wages and mega TV deals, Reading were attracting crowds of less than 4,000 to their Elm Park ground.

Two years earlier, Reading had almost disappeared off the face of the football map with an ill-conceived amalgamation with near-neighbours Oxford United.

But despite all this, there was an air of optimism around Elm Park for the start of the 1985/86 season.

Ian Branfoot, at only 37 and in his first management role, had turned down a move to Southampton in the summer as a replacement for Lawrie McMenemy. Branfoot's feeling was that Reading, a small Town club, had the potential to become one of the leading clubs in the country. He considered the club to have great potential and he could foresee no reason why, given the right foundations, both financial and managerial, that the Royals could not go straight through to the First Division.

With the backing of Chairman Roger Smee, Branfoot started to strengthen his team that had finished a creditable 9th the previous season.

He paid Plymouth £15,000 for left-winger Andy Rogers and Millwall £35,000 for their striker, Kevin Bremner. At the time, it looked as though Bremner  would succeed Senior, who was expected to leave the club – most likely for Benfica in Portugal!

They began the campaign with a fine 1-0 win at home to Blackpool, with a solitary goal scored by local boy and former Apprentice Jerry Williams.

After a Milk Cup defeat at home to Bournemouth came a 196 mile trek to Plymouth, where Senior's first goal of the season proved decisive in a 1-0 win.

Just two days later, Reading followed that win at Home Park with a 3-2 home win over Bristol Rovers. Next, Reading visited Ninian Park, where Senior, scored his first hat-trick of the season with goals in the sixth, 78th and 86th minutes. Cardiff refused to give him the ball in the time-honoured fashion as their manager, Alan Durban, was quoted as saying, "He's done enough damage to this club without taking away its equipment as well!

Senior popped up again scoring the winning goal as Walsall were beaten 2-1 – on a day that left them and Manchester United as the country's only teams with 100% records.

Reading's tactics that season proved effective but did not go without its critics. The long-ball tactics might have been unsophisticated, but Reading fans weren't complaining!

Reading's undefeated run continued into their sixth League fixture with a trip to Yorkshire. Goals from Rogers and Mark White gave 'The Royals' a 2-1 win over Rotherham.

The scoreline was repeated away at local rivals Brentford with goals from Gary Peters and Senior.

If they needed it, the Reading players were bolstered by the words of Swansea manager John Bond, before the fixture at the Vetch Field when he said in a pre-match interview, "There must be a number of poor teams like us in the Third Division for Reading to have won so many matches"

How true he was when goals from Dean Horrix and Senior sent Bond's Swansea to a 2-0 defeat.

Now possessed of eight straight wins, Reading were at the centre of the football world, the spotlight intensified by the parallel record of Manchester United. And where there's success there's chancers, with various local businessmen promising the club £4,500, should Tottenham's record of 11 consecutive wins from the start of the season, achieved in 1960-61, be surpassed. And after the next weekend, it was a game closer. Good work by Dean Horrix helping Mark White score a late goal that beat Doncaster at Belle Vue.

Into October and Reading produced their best performance of the season so far, a 4-2 pasting of Chesterfield that was even more convincing than the scoreline suggested – and again, principal praise went to Senior, his second hat-trick of the season achieved despite 10 minutes off the pitch while six stitches were inserted into his gashed forehead.

Excitement was building around the Town as Reading prepared for the visit of Bolton Wanders. Reading Borough Council increased capacity at Elm Park from 6,000 to 7,500.

If The Royals could beat Bolton then they would equal Tottenham's 24 year old record.

Reading dominated the game against their mid-table opponents, but it was a solitary goal from local born centre-back Steve Wood that handed Reading all three points.

While Reading were celebrating their 10th straight win, Manchester United could only draw at Luton, thus leaving Reading alone to go for the record.

Next, Reading travelled to Newport. An estimated 4,500 Reading fans, plus representatives from the national press, television and radio travelled down the M4 eager to witness a piece of history. Ian Branfoot and his Reading players watched in amazement as they passed car after car with fans honking their horns in acknowledgement and their blue and white scarves flying from car windows.

And their team did not let them down. The former Spurs player Stuart Beavon put Reading ahead, panelling low past Mark Kendall, a former team-mate. There followed a spell of home pressure but the captain, Martin Hicks, and his partner, Woods, were simply too strong. "They've got big tower blocks of players in their side," Bobby Smith, County's manager, said afterwards.

Then, in the second half, the substitute Bremner headed home Beavon's cross with his first touch and the record was secured.
In Ian Branfoot's eyes that victory brought a League record to Elm Park but there was now a Championship to win. The battle had been won but there was still a War to be fought.

Reading marched ever on with a 1-0 win at Lincoln City with yet another Senior goal.

Next up Wolves at Elm Park. Once again Reading Borough Council had upped the capacity of Elm Park to allow a crowd of 13,245 to turn out under floodlights to cheer their team on.

Now, everything was going for Reading. The previous evening, they fortified their position at the top of the table without even playing – Walsall, in second place, had lost 2-1 at home to Brentford, while Notts County, who were third, were also beaten, by Wigan. And Wolves were expected to be compliant opposition, 31 points off the lead, defeated in every away game but one and with only one win in 14 – form that would see them relegated with the same number of points as Swansea.

As if to spoil the party, Wolves took the lead in the fifth minute, before a whirlwind of pressure around the hour eventuated a pair of Reading goals either side of it, from Bremner and Senior – his 12th of the season and 79th for the club, in just 109 games.

Reading continued to push forward in search of a third goal, but, on 85 minutes, Wolves  broke away and equalised. Reading's record run was over.

This was only a minor setback in the hunt for championship honours.

The undoubted game of the season came on 21 December, as Reading overcame a 3-0 half-time deficit to beat Plymouth Argyle 4-3 in a game at Elm Park that will live long in the memories of those that were lucky enough to witness it.

By the New Year Reading were 19 points clear of the second placed Derby County.

To many Reading fans it was a matter of time before Reading would lift the Canon League Division Three Trophy.

Royals beat another record in March by signing Terry Hurlock from Brentford for £82,000 – easily surpassing their previous highest transfer fee paid of £50,000 for Charlton's Dave Shipperley back in September 1979.

Promotion was secured with a 0-0 draw at Darlington on April 19 with five games to go.

Reading had one hand on the Championship trophy with a 1-0 win over Derby at Elm Park but was confirmed as champions during the midweek when Derby failed to win their final game in hand.

Branfoot had a closely knit squad and used 24 players with Senior, Wood and Westwood being ever-presents. Ian Branfoot won the 1986 Third Division Manager of the Year Award and Senior topped the Third Division goal scoring charts with 27 league goals and 31 in all competitions. 

27 October 2016

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