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Handfuls of history: The clubs finding new ways to keep the programme alive

For many fans, the matchday programme is a treasured object and vital resource. Some clubs are moving towards monthly or quarterly editions, while others continue to defy the digital odds.

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This article first appeared in Issue 23 which was published in March 2022.

Illustration by Mark Waters

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“I normally start it on a Friday, do bits and pieces over the weekend, solid Monday and that would leave a Tuesday to sign off. A lot of the stuff will be done after 5pm so it is sort of like a hobby in some ways. If it was home and away, home and away every week it would be fine but when you have a volume of three or four games in a row, that’s when it gets really demanding.
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“Nowadays it just seems to sell itself.  The reputation it has built up has sold it itself. It’s really weird, everybody else going on about they can’t sell it but the size of crowds we get, we do pretty well."

I’m not sure what it was. Maybe the vibrant colours and eye-catching front covers. I can vaguely recall that one of the first I bought had Jim Jefferies sitting on a lawnmower on the Tynecastle Park pitch in the mid-1990s. Maybe it was the persuasive calls from the sellers, one either side as you entered Gorgie Road from Dalry Road. Or the one on McLeod Street or next to the now closed bank outside the Gorgie Road Stand. Or beside the Wheatfield Stand. Maybe it was the smell. That unique scent coursing through the organs of the nose, capable of bypassing the most blocked of beaks. Maybe it was having something tangible, connecting you with the game you were about to attend.

No matter the fixture, no matter the weather, no matter the importance, I would always seek out a programme. Something to flick through, something to devour, something to entertain during the half-time break. Something to hold onto as a memento. It was tradition and a staple of going to games up and down the country. As it is for so many.

Now comes the admission of guilt.

Despite being a strong advocate of the matchday programme, that tradition for me has fallen by the wayside. Away days traipsing from pub to pub or venturing to Bar Salsa in the capital after a match are not conducive to carrying around what is essentially a magazine on, for example, Hearts v Livingston.

There were exceptions, of course. A new ground, a big match, a visit to Pittodrie or Cowdenbeath’s Central Park. With that, I play a very miniscule role in the great programme dilemma.

Earlier this season, Hibs became the most high-profile team in Scotland to announce they were scrapping the traditional match-by-match programme. In its place has arrived HQ, a 100-page quarterly magazine which certainly packs a punch, featuring interviews with key players, those who run the club and famous fans.

They weren’t the first team in the SPFL to move away from the traditional programme. The pandemic brought its anachronistic place in a digital world into sharp focus. The landscape has changed drastically; there is not only a pressure to move online but also to save money.

“When I started back in the day, websites had only just really begun so matchday programmes and the local press were still your main way for the club to communicate with its fans,” Aberdeen’s publishing and media editor Mal Panton said. “The programme was the main focus. It shows you across those 20 years how much things have changed with club media. When clubs decide not to do a programme, you can understand because of the huge demands. Most clubs have small media teams. Scotland has some really, really good people, creative people but it’s challenging because you are under pressure to come up with different content, behind the scenes content. To have someone in the office doing the programme for two or three days alone for something that isn’t making a huge amount of money, you can certainly understand why some clubs have got rid of them.”

Speaking to Panton as well as Kilmarnock’s head of media Scott McClymont and the co-editor of Cowdenbeath’s Blue Brazilian Andy Mullen, it is clear the game-by-game programme can fall either side of an onerous or fulfilling task. Fixture lists, postponements, cup replays, a glut of home games in succession have played havoc with editors for years. Mullen sees it as a constant, evolving flow of work. McClymont talked of the “churn”. For many, work starts on the next programme before fans have had a chance to get a glimpse of the one just finished.

Panton has been doing the programme at Pittodrie for around 20 years. Following a midweek loss at St Mirren in January he was back on the road north to put the finishing touches to the edition for the St Johnstone game that Saturday. With wife and kid in bed, he estimated his time to finally catch some shut eye would be around 4am. That game was ultimately postponed.

‘It gets really demanding’

“I normally start it on a Friday, do bits and pieces over the weekend, solid Monday and that would leave a Tuesday to sign off,” he said. “A lot of the stuff will be done after 5pm so it is sort of like a hobby in some ways.

“If it was home and away, home and away every week it would be fine but when you have a volume of three or four games in a row, that’s when it gets really demanding. I’ve got other things to do at the club as well, I can’t just sit and do the programme all day. My wife always jokes: you’ve been doing it for 20 years, how difficult can it be?” He adds: “I always try to make the next programme better than the last one. At the end of the day, football fans are paying money for the programme so you want to give them something new.”

Some clubs have moved online, while Kilmarnock, at the start of the season, evolved away from the somewhat suffocating weekly programme for the breathing space of a monthly one. The club had maintained a programme throughout the Covid season despite no fans being in grounds due to the importance of capturing “that moment in time”, McClymont explained. But they also used that period to reach out to fans via a survey regarding a number of areas, one of which was the future of the programme.

“Looking at the past three seasons worth of data going into this year, there was a mixture of the financial element; ultimately, like most things, a product has to make money, but also as a content team we wanted to challenge ourselves but also be excited about everything we do,” McClymont says. “Change is always difficult and certainly football programmes have that inherent sense of history to them,” he said. “Being one of the oldest clubs in Scotland’s history, tradition plays a huge part in the club. It’s a huge part of the story we tell around Kilmarnock Football Club.

“When you are doing away with what would be decades of history it’s never going to be as straightforward as going from A to B and making that decision. We knew we were doing it for the right reasons. We spoke to our contributors, especially our club historian and the former editor who still contributes, and he had done it for 20 odd years.”

The idea of change is something Panton at Aberdeen has been grappling with. He produces one of, if not the finest programme in the country. He talked about the “need to evolve” and potentially producing a fanzine style with more fan involvement.

“One thing we might look at doing is going back to a more traditional programme, a smaller programme,” he said. “Almost go back full circle to the 1970s. We were doing 100-page programmes a few years ago. I don’t know whether people have time to sit and read that nowadays.

“We’re desperate to keep it going and we’ll do everything we can. Getting more fans involved, the AFC Heritage Trust, the AFC Former Players Association. I can see them playing more of a key role.

“At the end of the day, I’ve always taken the view that if it has the AFC logo on it, it has to be of a certain standard. That’s not an arrogant thing, you just need to produce something that’s reasonable. The one strength has always been the history content, the old photos. Showing old photographs, you can put them online or on social media but I don’t think they look as good as putting them in print. The challenge for me is to try and find new old photos.”

Encouragingly as part of the Kilmarnock survey, McClymont found that 74 per cent of respondents were “completely against” a digital-only publication. To quote Panton, “the programme is tangible, it is part of the matchday experience”.

Who better to advocate its role than Mullen, who co-edits Cowdenbeath’s fantastic Blue Brazilian – a name commandeered many years ago from a Cowden fanzine – alongside David Allan. Despite their lowly standing in League Two, the Fife club, it seems, have “bucked the trend”. The Blue Brazilian has evolved into a 48-page “glossy programme” with colour photos. Changed days from posting the photos to be used in the programme to the publisher in England on a Sunday morning. The programme regularly sells out, as it had when I attended Cowdenbeath v Edinburgh City in December.

“It was harder to sell it in the ’90s when it wasn’t as good,” said Mullen, who has been involved with the programme one way or another since the late 1970s. “Nowadays it just seems to sell itself.  The reputation it has built up has sold it itself. It’s really weird, everybody else going on about they can’t sell it but the size of crowds we get, we do pretty well. Probably the biggest challenge is getting the count right. If you sell out early you leave people disappointed coming in and not getting one.”

Mullen reckons the diversity of the programme is its strength. From usual Cowden features to Ask the Anorak to fellow editor Allan’s historical deep dives – how the local fire brigade started – are key tenets of the “programme-cum-football magazine”.

“There is still a demand for it,” he says. “We’ve got quite a few people from all over Britain who have got a subscription. If it’s good enough people will still want it. You’ve got to make it interesting to make people want to buy it. There are other outlets for news so you’ve got to make your programme a little bit different.”

While the Blue Brazilian goes from strength to strength, the early signs are promising for Kilmarnock. The first half a dozen issues have turned a small profit. In the Killie shop before they played Dundee United in the Scottish Cup, fans in front and behind were looking to purchase the latest edition, complete with in-depth interviews with Derek McInnes, who had just been appointed, club legend Paul Wright and head of academy Paul Di Giacomo.

McClymont has wanted to tell stories away from the pitch, showcase the academy and women’s teams in greater detail, and give space to each interviewee.

“The way fans of all clubs interact with their clubs has changed so much,” he said. “What the programme used to be for, I don’t think it’s for. In terms of that more newsy element, it didn’t have a place in the programme, whereas a magazine, I hope, still retains that timestamp and creates a picture of where the club are at the time that the publication is produced. Also, it has a little bit more of that personality a lifestyle magazine should have.

“I certainly felt that big responsibility when taking it on but I never think any publication should stand still. I felt one of the things we were guilty of before we launched this was that we were maybe replicating too much of our content across the number of platforms we had. Anything that goes in the magazine doesn’t get replicated anywhere. People who are buying this product, we want to be fair so we’re not going to give it away for free online. It’s on its own.”

Cowdenbeath: Bucking the programme trend

He added: “It’s great when I’m dashing about on matchday seeing people sitting in their seats an hour or 45 minutes away from kick-off flicking through the pages. It’s just been a really enjoyable experience and quite frankly much more enjoyable than doing a match-by-match edition and feeling that churn.”

Despite dabbling with a monthly product during the pandemic, don’t expect Cowdenbeath to follow suit while Mullen is involved.

“Me and David have spoken about this a few times,” he said. “I still think it is important. You have got your various media platforms. A lot of people who think programmes have had their day say: ‘you can find this on the internet, that on the internet’. I’d say 85 to 90 per cent of our programme you won’t see on the internet because we try to keep it original material.

“A mate of mine asked me the date when Cowden played Ashington in a pre-season friendly about 2002. He couldn’t find the exact date anywhere. I just dug out the first programme from that season and it had the match report. It’s great for keeping records. It’s a club archive, what’s happened at a club on a week-by-week basis. I think that’s important.

“Having spent many a day in the National Library digging through old newspapers to find things out, maybe in 50 years if someone is wanting to find something out about Cowden, if they’ve got a backlog of programmes, they would be able to find it a lot easier.”

Panton has no qualms with clubs moving away from the traditional programme and trying different things, but noted “once it’s gone, it’s gone.” Across the last 20 years, working alongside a number of managers – including Craig Brown, who used to type up his own programme notes – hundreds of players, only one of whom refused to be interviewed so as to avoid a brief curse of the player who was on the front cover, and various colleagues, fan groups and organisations, Panton has built up an incredible and incomparable Aberdeen FC archive, the historical photos and information the envy of many. Now, it’s about turning that into a “club museum online”, while continuing with the programme with some notable occasions and seasons on the horizon.

“It’s something I am exploring at the moment,” he says. “Maybe instead of doing a digital programme, that is a possible option worth looking at. I have 20 years of programme content. It’s about how you would display that for younger fans.

“I can’t imagine us not having a programme for the last season at Pittodrie or for the first season at a new stadium, or an anniversary. That’s when the programme comes into its own. Or when one of your greats sadly passes away. That’s where the programme is so important.

“I think at the end of the day it is a historical document. It’s part of your club’s history. It tells the story of the club in a lot of ways. One thing that’s really interesting is if you go back to the programmes of the 1980s and read Alex Ferguson’s programme notes. They are incredible as a history document and really, really interesting as well.

“If you’ve got something in black and white for future fans or club historians to pick up and learn about the past, that’s something I believe quite strongly in. Part of your club’s culture. It acts as a diary, an autobiography of the club in some way.”

This article first appeared in Issue 23 which was published in March 2022.

Illustration by Mark Waters

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