Everybody Loves… football programmes – a memento to every matchday

Date published: Friday 9th October 2020 9:31

Are they a relic to a bygone age or do programmes still play a crucial part of the matchday experience? Johnny Nic says both…

Who’s this then?

Not who, but what. The football programme has a long history, and is pretty much as old as football itself. Aston Villa were one of the first clubs to publish one, called The Villa News and Record, which was in the form of a journal, every one with a different number and volume for each season and week. This is manna to the collector mentality which loves nothing more than to be able to acquire a series of pretty much anything that is numbered sequentially. As such, it ensured that from the earliest days programmes were collectable items to be bought and carefully stored. To this day there are ‘proper’ collectors who buy two copies, one to use and one to store, pristine and virgo intacta.

For decades, programmes were little more than an often-speculative list of the players, sometimes set out in a team shape – again speculated. In the early days no-one wore numbers and thus were hard to identify. This led to ingenious attempts at identification such as the programme in 1875 for Queens Park v Wanderers at Hampden Park which itemised the differing sock colours of every player wore on one side, and differing cap colours on the other. Having to find 11 different colour combos of socks and caps must’ve been tiresome.

Cup finals were amongst the first occasions when the matchday programme was expanded to have more content, internationals likewise. World Cup programmes were often works of real art, drawing on many different art styles and influences, often more suitable for framing in a modern art gallery.

Photos on the covers were a rarity until the 1960s, a line drawing of two random footballers in action, or a goalie diving for a ball as it hit the top corner of the net was more common, but every club’s offering was different and had their own style, being produced by the club usually with the aid of ‘someone who’s good at drawing.’

An aerial photo or graphic representation of the stadium was always a popular choice, showing the importance of the programme in the promulgation and celebration of the home ground, as an iconic symbol of the club. It said, ‘this is our home’. Also, it is worth remembering that football grounds in the early years of the 20th century were architecturally new inventions. What came to be so familiar was a new creation and as such looked exciting and modern when depicted on the club publications.

The club always used to employ programme sellers directly, giving them a few quid and a ticket for the game. Today it is sometimes farmed out to another company to organise, which does seem to break another small bond between club and fan, somehow.

It might seem odd now but a programme seller was a job with some status to it, or at least some notoriety. An important element of matchday, some would have the idiosyncratic style of newspaper sellers, yelling out something incomprehensible which definitely didn’t sound like the word ‘programme’. You get used to your own sellers cries, but on visiting an away ground, the local programme vendors would shout something different, leading to confused conversations

“What’s he saying?”

“I think it’s “get your pork meat here” ‘,

“No, it’s ‘today’s progressive soup,’ isn’t it?

“Could be. Or ‘porridge is out now’ ”

In an ever more culturally and economically homogenized world, a football programme is still something that offers the chance for a club to express individuality and uniqueness. Obviously, most of the big clubs are now little more than corporate cash grinding machines and their programmes often reflect that, looking more like a sales brochure than something produced by the people for the people. But elsewhere, even or perhaps especially those produced on a tight budget still have the whiff of local about them and are a vital artery to the past.

Why The Love?

While the Premier League and others, who like to pretend they’re modern and fashionable, try to market our game as though it is the fantastic, exciting football played by celebrities that pulls us towards a ground every Saturday, Sunday, Thursday, Anyday unable to resist the sporting delights on show for a mere £25 – £150, obviously they’re wrong. People who know nothing about football seem to assume our passion for it wholly resides in actually watching the kicky kicky.

Clearly this is absolute bollocks. It does not. The kicky kicky is merely an excuse for the myriad of other cultural and habitual societal routines that orbit the game. OK, these can’t happen without a match, but they are at least as important in the landscape of our existence.

One of these routines is buying a programme. Routines are important. Without them, life is a shifting, shapeless void. With nothing to hold it together, life just drifts. While it may only be a small act, it is nonetheless an important and comforting one. These are the ties that bind us to sanity.

Better still, it registers the day as part of your personal history. It is a bookmark in the week. Many years later, that purchase will awaken memories of that day that would otherwise remain dormant. This is valuable and important, often more valuable and important than we realise at the time, especially when we were young.

Programme sellers become familiar figures, members of the vicarious football family of our lives, standing on the corner down from the ground in all weathers. You nod and say hello as you purchase a copy, knowing you are anonymous to them even after all these years but comforted by the familiarity of the relationship nonetheless.

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The programme registers you as part of the club’s history, for the small moments as much as for the big. Yes, you were there for the 0 – 1 defeat to Shrewsbury. It’s not a big thing, but it is an important thing to feel that you are part of the evolution of events. These are the days of your life, after all.

But the delights of the programme, and perhaps especially of collecting programmes, is in how they reflect the era they’re part of. A good example of this is how England programmes have changed. Sixty years ago, they would often have the flags of the team’s nations on the cover and a Union Jack would be beside England. This was wrong. England is not the UK the two are rarely conflated outside of right-wing Twitter handles and the whole of America today.

When I was a kid, programmes often listed the team inaccurately as it had gone to press the previous day so any changes would be announced over the tannoy and even displayed on a board which was carried around the ground. Others game scores were put on a pitchside board next to a letter. You needed the programme to know which letter represented which game, so they had a practical use.

Advertising in programmes was, for many years, dominated by local businesses but today, in the upper echelons at least is more about global corporates, especially when it comes to internationals, with the heinous introduction of the term ‘brand partners.’ But lower down, you’ll still find ads for the local garage, butcher and funeral home. The audience these advertisers can reach is a captive one. There’s nothing else to do at half-time but look at the programme, so their ads get great exposure.

You can track societal trends through the ads in programmes. Ads for fags were common in the 60s. Women only ever depicted in the kitchen. You can track print development too. Most programmes until the 1960s had that line drawing on the cover, then came black and white photos and then colour. You can also track the development of clubs as a brand. Today, the club ™’ed club logo is always dominant, whereas back in the day, if you saw the club crest once a season you’d be doing well and the idea that the club would try and sell ‘official’ merchandise would have been scoffed at as a total rip off, that it would be policed by lawyers, branded disgraceful.

All changes in football are marked through the programme. They are a historical record of incredible detail when you consider that every single club in every country of the UK produced them, each full of content specific to each locale. When you were really familiar with your own clubs’ programme, seeing one from another distant place was excitingly exotic. It almost looked like it was from a foreign land.

They have also provided much joy for those of a collecting frame of mind. You are either a collector or you’re not. You have the gene or you don’t. If you are, it gives you a tingle in the tummy to even just think of acquiring every game’s programme from a specific season, or to get one from every club for every year since they were established. Or collecting every League Cup or FA Cup final programme, or every England international of the 1980s. Every World Cup Final.

Collecting is never over. You have never finished collecting. That’s why it’s so great. There is always something more. It is a much derided and mocked occupation by those who think themselves more cool and superior. They are not. Collectors are custodians and curators of history.

Programme sellers used to have shops – and a few survive – there’s one in Leith by Hibs ground, but mostly it’s been an ideal thing to move online. A few command very high prices. A 1882 FA Cup Final between Blackburn Rovers and Old Etonians sold at auction for a world record of £35,250 in May 2013 to Old Etonians Football Club. The previous record was for the 1909 FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Bristol City in May 2012 for £23,500 at Sotheby’s.

While they were often a single A4 folded sheet in the early decades of the game, detailing little more than the player names, moving on to being thicker A5 booklets, latterly, bigger club offerings have become more like magazines. And now, in the age of Covid-19 games played to no-one, there are usually just digital-only copies.

The manager’s comments page are legendary and again, document the rise and fall of so many careers. Often exercises in cliche and meaningless bland waffle, they could also be a place for eccentricity such as Jimmy Murphy’s classics like “I realise that not many possess the wisdom of the Mandala, but at times persiflage is not comprehensible. However, don’t worry, we shall defeat the diphthongs.”

What The People Love

I’ve noticed many younger people – always boys – are on YouTube, proudly showing off their programme collections. This is very heart-warming and shows the analogue concept of paper and print is not dead yet and still offers its acolytes that same warm buzz in the belly that it has done since collecting got underway property in the 1960s. It’s clear from the comments that there are people who just ‘get’ programmes and their import and those who just don’t have that romance in their soul. But for the former, they remain an important part of life.

I love everything about them; the sentimental value they have, holding one in your hand as you go through the turnstiles and even the way they smell are all such pillars of a match day. I find it difficult to part with a programme even if it’s from a terrible match

At Watford there’s a guy affectionately called Wolfie whose shout of PWOGRAAAAAAMES is part of the matchday experience.

Back in 82, our first season in the top flight and with Everton at home, it was claimed that every single programme seller outside Vicarage Road was robbed.

I’ve bought one from every game I’ve been to.

Have one from my first game – Burnley v Sunderland 1966 & first game at Leeds (v Sheff Utd 1967). Still not completed my Leeds Utd “wants”, hopefully one day. Still get a buzz when new find drops on the doormat

Aged 11 I asked my non-league club for any remainders and then swapped them via a column in the old Soccer Star. Learned a level of responsibility I’d not had, and a bit of geography too

Whilst, in football world at least, I’ve never been prouder than when my FA Cup stats first appeared in FA Cup Final programme (Man Utd v Palace in 2016), my happiest moment was seeing my stats first appear in print in the Nelson vs Newton Aycliffe programme in EP Rd that year!

An absolutely crucial and critical archive of any football club. Should be protected at all costs.


Three great programme videos

Every FA Cup Final programme since 1946. An education in history, graphic design and football…

Want to know what a million programmes looks like?

A classic trip through a collection and what they tell us about the life and times of the club…


What now?

While in 2018 the EFL voted for the production of a programme for every game not to be compulsory (as it had been) presumably for cost reasons, the concept of the programme remains a strong proposition offering both a memento of the game, some sort of insight into the club and some hilarious guff from the manager.

It may be produced in a digital format for reading on our phones, but it will still essentially be the same thing it has ever been. It is even possible that the physical programme will have a major resurgence of popularity when it is fully realised that a life lived entirely digitally can be rootless and offer little proof that you even exist. There is pleasure in the physicality of things for some people and they will be the people that keep the football programme in business long after the device you’d downloaded your programmes to has ceased to operate and the cloud it was stored on has been destroyed in a server conflagration.

Indeed, if I may put my pop psychologist hat on for a moment, I would speculate that the epidemic of mental health problems that proliferate all age groups but especially in younger people are at least a part of lives lived entirely in the digital ether, rooted in nothing except an operating system, robbing life of the grit and heft of its physical roots. Perhaps doctors should be prescribing collecting something such as programmes as antidepressants. Certainly losing yourself in a hobby is, for many of us, a great way to deal with and hide from the harshness of life and a tremendous place for your mind to go towards.

If you doubt how important football programmes have been, just try and imagine the game without them. What would we have left as detailed evidence of every single game ever played, at least professionally? We would all be the poorer without them and that’s why, one way or another, they will survive.

John Nicholson

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