What Reading's attempts at a club song tell us about the hollowness of modern football
In 2015 Reading released the worst football song ever made. In a crowded market, this is a bold claim to make. However, "They Call Us The Royals" is of an awfulness so unremitting that it is almost a mark of distinction. A 'gift' to the fans from the then-co-owner Sasima Srivikorn, this is a piece of music so abysmal that it would not only garner nul points in the Eurovision song contest but also be forced to start the next year’s competition with a 12-point deduction.
Among other atrocities, it features, à propos of nothing, a rap interlude, the stern command to fans to “defend the glory of Reading”, malapropisms concerning butterflies (who apparently need to be fought), a strained but continually reiterated metaphor about royalty, and a genuinely surreal moment where it is implied that Reading fans have wings. All of this is underpinned by an unremarkable dance track of the sort that plays over any number of Instagram workouts. It made its debut with an on-pitch performance at a home match against Leeds United whose fans were, well, nonplussed, if we are to remain polite.
Yet this potent fusion between brash yet guileless absurdism and inert featurelessness is precisely why it is significant. It is the sound of what happens when football becomes detached from its communal origins to become a plaything for international speculative finance capitalism. This shift transforms football from a sport into just another global entertainment industry, functionally indistinguishable from MTV, McDonald’s or Nike.
The song has justly been met with rancour from opposition fans, but the intensity of the antipathy comes from a feeling of scandalised recognition rather than mere aesthetic distaste. For this song is as concentrated an emblem of this broader shift in football in the UK, an industry in which vain owners wish to ignore tradition in order to append animal names onto clubs and where to support one of the Big Six is effectively tantamount to possessing brand loyalty. "They Call Us The Royals" is remarkable for quite how flagrantly it documents this change in the qualitative texture of football supporting in this country.
But to understand this shift, we have to localise it by journeying through the recent intertwined history of the town of Reading and its football club, although the history of both could well be your own. Talk about Reading – my hometown – to most people and you tend to get grey responses: about the train station looking nice when they passed through (it is very nice), visions of endless roundabouts and car parks, or hazy memories of getting smashed when watching Muse at the Reading Festival at some indistinct point in the last decade. The football club tends to elicit similar reactions: a drab draw in a half-full stadium partially recalled and some discontented mutterings about a tin-pot supporter base.
As ever, there is more going on than these responses would suggest, but Reading’s status as a sort of colourless ‘all-town’ is not without an element of truth. It has undoubtedly internalised and expressed the dominant economic and political trends of the past 30 years with an unerring representativeness, the archetypal swing seat. Like many provincial British towns it has uneasily balanced the competing demands of community and neoliberal economic ‘development’.
A raft of service industries and IT firms replaced the traditional working-class base of the town (the three Bs: beer, bulbs and biscuits). Transient suburb- dwelling London-commuters have moved in, swelling its population, but accentuating its weird ephemerality. The old town centre shifted to a shiny new all-purpose shopping emporium called the Oracle in 1999, occupied by anodyne, interchangeable multinational brands with a raft of precarious workers providing the labour force.
Reading have undergone a similar change, sacrificing their material roots in the town for financial growth. After almost going bust on a number of occasions in the 80s and early 90s – a period which included a Robert Maxwell-led proposal to merge Oxford United and Reading into a single team, the Thames Valley Royals – the club was bought by the car-trading magnate John Madejski. Madejski swiftly initiated a modernising process, appointing a progressive young manager in Mark McGhee and drawing up plans to move the club from its charmingly dilapidated old home Elm Park to a new out-of-town all seater venue.
The result was initially a period of success unlike anything seen before in Reading’s history. A series of inspired managerial appointments (Alan Pardew, Steve Coppell, and Brian McDermott) presided over play-off campaigns and promotions to the Premier League. In 2006, Reading broke the Championship points record and the following season achieved their highest ever finish, eighth in the Premier League, a point off Europe, ahead of giants like Manchester City, Newcastle and Aston Villa. The genius of this period was – rather like the best of New Labour – to channel old traditions through a newly efficient, progressive vessel.
The Madejski Stadium is a representation of what occurred, its positives, its ambivalences. Built on an old landfill site, purchased from the council for £1, and right next to the old sewage treatment works, the stadium is an artefact of the post-1996 footballing consensus. Something more respectable, controlled, and middle class replaced the anarchic and often violent uproar of British football of the 80s. A wave of almost identical stadiums funded by local businessmen propelled middling provincial clubs who had the foresight to be slightly ahead of the curve to levels that they had previously never dreamed of. Its homogeneity made attachment difficult, but so long as things on the pitch were working everyone was content enough.
Things turned sour in the years after 2012. Madejski, suffering the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis, seemingly had neither the capital nor the energy to continue on as chairman. He sold the club to a Russian investor named Anton Zingarevich, who had been to university in Reading. Amid rumours of unpaid HMRC receipts and a fire sale of some of the better players, most notably Adam le Fondre, Zingarevich abruptly upped sticks a couple of seasons later, leaving the club on the brink of administration and purportedly riddled with debts to notorious offshore lender Vibrac.
That’s where the Thai consortium headed by Srivikorn came in. Quite why they were attracted to a relatively small but massively indebted club in Berkshire was unknown. However, their endeavour increasingly came to be associated with a development called Royal Elm Park that was to be built on club-owned land.
The council had, it turns out, radically undervalued the land it sold to the club back in the 90s. Worthless wasteland now was valuable real estate in a place swelling in out-of-town real estate developments catering to the increased commuter population who were flocking to Reading. The location just by Junction 11 of the M4, a half hour’s drive to Heathrow, further added to the appeal.
Royal Elm Park was to be a fusion of entertainment complex and new build community, containing homes, a conference centre, a venue, a new station and other amenities. It was to be an island of join-the-dots habitations that could exist anywhere, free from any signifiers of place. In this sense, it appeared to many that the Thai owners had less bought a football club than real estate, with the potential for international investment, with the encumbrance of a now financially unsustainable team attached to it.
It is here where "They Call Us The Royals" re-enters the fray. The dynamic of the merging of football and speculative finance capitalism is to produce a football entity that is almost entirely sundered from the local community. In an economic sense, it exists as a virtual entity, in a material sense it ceases to own its own land, and in a more elusive cultural sense, it circulates as a homogenous global entertainment complex, subsumed to the grey, characterless world of branding.
The French thinker Marc Augé identified the dominant feature of contemporary capitalism as its capacity to produce “non-places”. These non-spaces, like airports or service stations, are blank ciphers, possessing no notable characteristics and exist only to encourage essentially interchangeable consumption. The song is the artefact that most fully expresses Reading as a newly produced non-space.
For what characterises the song, more than anything else, is its astonishing lack of specificity and locality. It is a piece of music that could be about any club in any place in the world and, indeed, be about almost any sport. This is football enchanted into some hollowed out, endlessly transmittable but distorted image of itself and a town and club whose identity has been eerily siphoned out from beneath.
For a start take the tune itself. It is a simplistic pulsing dance track that might be lifted from a default, pre-loaded track on some music-making piece of software. The gently plucked guitar intro, the intrusive but plastic beats, the (admittedly unexpected) rap section, the lift in chords at the end – nothing here exceeds the irredeemably generic and utterly recyclable.
The song claims to express the collective will of the fan base through its lyrics and the iconography of the video. But the image presented is a terrifying one. It offers a vision of support without affiliation, unanchored, with trite, infinitely repeatable performative gestures replacing improvisation, attachment and love.
Clips of Reading fans reacting — with a weird time lapse — to events on the pitch merge with a hastily assembled gang of dancing supporters who appear to be trapped in a grey box somewhere. They wave their scarves, paint their faces and stare at the camera, veering between pseudo-military preparedness, eyes fastened on the camera in front of them, and generalised flailing with scarves and flags.
Accompanying their actions are the lyrics which alternate between motivational slogans that might have been plucked from some perfunctorily perused self- help book (“Now we’re here, now we’re strong, we’re going to bring it on”; “unstoppably we burn within”; “through passion and dreams we reached new heights”) and flat sporting typologies, bereft of identifying characteristics (“we forced our rivals to make way”; “we were marching from Elm Park to the stadium”; “how we love the thrill of a good game”).
The crowd is the most intense object of the song’s address. The supporters depicted in the video are useful to it only to the extent that they can be used instrumentally. The song positions fans as commodities to be sold, simulacra- like, to a diffuse and anonymous audience. Indeed, the weird familiarity of the song comes precisely from this source, for it suggests to support any given club is not substantively different from following any other.
The colourless pulse of virtual profit and the platitudes of marketing power the beats of the music. About halfway through the video, any attempt to mask these motivations falls away into a mix of millionaire narcissism and tawdry advertising. The owners and their comically large entourage stride onto the pitch in front of a fairly empty stadium, the logos of Thai Airways and Carabao are fleetingly but recurrently displayed between a few interspersed stock clips of match footage.
The ill-fitting marriage between corporate PR, international financial capitalism and a generally unremarkable provincial team creates a Frankenstein’s monster of a song, albeit a monster only monstrous in its inescapable banality.
It is the sound of all those clubs whose existence no longer lies in the actual ground in which they purportedly reside, but whose identity has instead disappeared into a virtual chain of stocks, shares and debts. It is the cry of those teams whose sole meaning lies in its history-free, entertainment brand. It is the music of clubs that have become eerily detached from their community, with only fabricated, mass-produced gestures of affiliation remaining.
Yet this is why "They Call Us The Royals" is significant and why it has been met with such loathing. For each of its notes, each of its glib gestures, gives body to the etherised soul of the modern game. Financial capitalism and football have become one and the fans are those who have lived these changes with the most intensity.
We live in an era in which to be a fan is also to be a speculator. The ubiquity of the betting industry threatens to make the match-day experience more equivalent to a financier calculating stock market trends than actual enjoyment. With accumulators in hand fans predict outcomes, monetise on-pitch play, speculating on what might occur. The message is simple: in spite of the randomness of events, everything is for sale.
Within the grounds, an overbearing sense of ennui reigns, as though supporters are simultaneously there and not there. This mood comes from the homogeneity of the stadiums, a no-place, and the practices within: brooding motivational music as players emerge onto the pitch, goal music, identikit chants exchanged between fans, obnoxious announcers, clappers and so on.
Meanwhile the endlessly televised Premier League encourages supporters to identify with an image on a screen rather than a place, with a brand and logo rather than a team, with celebrities rather than players. Even as it does this it tactically marshals the fans within the stadiums, zooming in on celebrations, amplifying the roars and slowing down the agonies and ecstasies of affiliation, changing them from a communal mass into a simulacra of support, just another of the caricatured typologies that make up a global brand.
Given that we live in a reality where commercialisation of this sort dominates across the board, we might conclude with an even bolder claim: that "They Call Us The Royals" channels the vacated existence of modern Britain itself. But that, perhaps, is a story for another day.