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How to save the matchday programme

Matchday publications have become expensive, bland and unwieldy. Let’s honour these vessels of memory and cut them back to basics.

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This article first appeared in Issue 24 which was published in June 2022.

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I’ve always been in favour of small clubs developing this type of “memorabilia museum”. Places where fans can come along at certain times and discover items from their club’s history.
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Before we jettison the programme altogether, let us begin to think of the young kid who starts to see a collection build, who starts to see their own gaps to fill. It is this kid that we really need to encourage to take an interest in our clubs.

Along Paisley Road West in Glasgow, just about under the Kingston Bridge and up a close, was the Glasgow Programme Shop. It took a wee while to get there, especially if you were coming out from East Kilbride early on a Sunday, but it was amazing. For a geeky teenager obsessed with his collection, this was the place to find that scarce home programme from 1976, that away trip to Dumbarton from last week, or the odd unattainable friendly. But you could also get big cup final programmes, European games, even World Cups. This was a world unknown to anyone else. And I loved it.

I’m not sure you ever made a decision to collect football programmes. You bought a couple at the games you attended and soon it became a few. Then you began to notice gaps. Collectors became collectors because they noticed those gaps. Things are not in proper order, pieces were missing.

Through the pages of Shoot! or Match you may have found a dealer who would provide you with a hint of gold in exchange for a strange thing called a postal order. Or they may have asked you to send a (checks notes) stamped addressed envelope for their catalogue. Within days you would receive a booklet which would blow you away. Pages and pages of programmes for sale. Hours of pleasure.

If you were still unsatisfied there would be a Glasgow programme fair in the McLellan Galleries in Sauchiehall Street, or the City Chambers. Dealers from all over the country would set up a stall to offer the most incredible pieces of memorabilia alongside programmes galore. Saving up pocket money for a few weeks allowed you to take your time, find what you needed, then spend the rest on a European Cup final from the early 1970s or a Scottish Cup final you didn’t have yet.

I’d come home with a bag filled with extraordinary things, ready to be filed, boxed, protected. You began to consider all the away games instead of merely the homes. Before you knew it, the space in which you lived appeared smaller. Boxes, folders, plastic wallets started to pile up.

Open one and you’ll remember why they matter

But then you get older and start to question their value. They take up too much space, too much of your time. You kick yourself thinking about what you could have done with that money. You put them away in an attic or a loft or a dark cupboard: you forget.

Years later, when life has settled down, you may return to those boxes. Accidentally, you come across your collection again and spend a glorious afternoon flicking through old programmes, remembering games, players. Remembering yourself.

And then you begin to realise just how important these little booklets are. These snippets of history, of your club’s history, of your history.

We are entering an era where programmes will be no more. Daniel Gray wrote eloquently about this in Nutmeg 22. We are losing a little bit of the football experience in what he correctly called “a larceny and a mistake”.

The end of the football programme may not be with us yet, but it has been coming. Covid lockdown appears to have accelerated its demise. Faced with months of empty stadiums, many clubs gave up on what had already been an expense which failed to “wash its face”.

Some, like my club Partick Thistle, bravely persisted with a smaller version of the physical programme all through a bizarre but ultimately successful season. But when the crowds returned in August 2021, decisions had already been made.

Cutting down on physical interactions was required if spectators were to return so the programme sellers were no more, the printers were no more. What had become an essential part of some fans’ day, was no more.

A price worth paying?

The hard-nosed realists among us will probably say it had been a long time coming. What we came to expect of the programme is now freely available on the internet. Club websites are now modern, often interactive, providing news of signings, developments, changes at the click of a mouse. Social media platforms even more so. Even the manager’s page will often appear online on the morning of the game. Beyond collectors, what would inspire us to buy a programme on top of all the other expense?

It can cost £20 a ticket to see even a lower division game in Scotland. Taking a family to the football has become more and more expensive. Added to that the cost of transport and food, you can see why buying a programme, especially one devoid of any new real information that isn’t available for free, stops being part of the day out. Three pounds or so each doesn’t seem to be
a very good investment, on the face of it. And, unless you do file them away in a box or a folder, what is the point of them?

You could argue that the fanzine revolution of the 1990s changed the programme forever. Once a small publication costing not very much, the programme had limited space, the bare information required and was reasonably cheaply printed. Fanzines had more honest writing about the club, more fans’ voices, more criticism.

Over time, the programme became the “Match Day Magazine” and began to rely heavily on advertising and promotional material. Production values improved in order to appeal to the fans and collectors and they would feature better photography, player interviews and features more conducive to the magazine format. Prices rose accordingly.

So now we’re faced with a situation that I find rather sad. The humble club programme will become just another piece of memorabilia in our collections. Some of us may miss the banter with our regular seller every time we approach the stadium. The warm welcome to the day often comes way before the turnstiles, which have themselves become automated, without a face to see, a voice to greet. And the careful placing of the programme in the hard-backed envelope, leaving a young collector safe in the knowledge that it will remain perfect, awaiting its place in the collection, will be no more.

What a shame that would be. Blowing the dust from a box recently, I came across some old Thistle programmes from the 1970s. The mere touch of these beautiful little booklets convinced me of the value of the programme. Flicking through to see old names, old games. Even the advertising brought back memories. But the most pleasing aspect of all, it seemed to me, was that they were still here. They give the ability to relive games at any point. It feels like we can be a part of every game we were ever at. Where are the internet pages for these games? Beyond the available facts, what else would we recall?

The programme becomes the physical embodiment of the games we see, and the ones that get lost in the memory. Often ignored, folded into pockets, even placed carefully in envelopes for perusal later on, what else do we take away from a game beyond our own pleasure or disappointment? Once shared among friends and family, passed between rows and seats, the programme may no longer have anything urgent or new to say – perhaps that is the problem – but it will have a club’s eye view on the week’s news. It will have information on home and away teams, managers’ thoughts.

Programmes from the past place our footballing lives in historical context. While it would be easy to find out the score from any specific game, or even the players who started, we can also remind ourselves of the world we once lived in, the social norms, the way we were. Earlier programmes will provide us with news of latest signings and departures, photographs of heroes long since departed, that barely perceptible glow from the fading ashes of past legends.

Again, Daniel Gray described it perfectly as “a patient kind of happiness”. They will be there for us when we’re ready.

Club programmes: Let’s fix them, not kill them

The modern-day magazine, bloated by the impatient demands of commercialism and overloaded with advertising, fails to provide us with the information we require. Large squads of players make it almost impossible to know the starting eleven until just before kick-off. Long gone are the days when Liverpool could win the league with only 13 players.

However, old programmes provide what John Litster, great Scottish football historian and programme expert, called “a storehouse of memories”. We will always have those: future generations may not thank us for depriving them of a similar legacy.

It is important that we don’t miss out on the uniqueness of flicking through old programmes. Very often it is what binds us to our clubs, especially those new fans we so desperately want and need to stay. Increasingly, over the last few decades, programmes have become unwieldy things, even to carry, definitely to store and a huge problem to keep, given that they have become standardised and dull through digital printing and the faceless requirements of corporate sponsorship. And it is with this realisation that I think the humble football programme may have a future.

I was reading something recently about the New York Yankees baseball team and it got me thinking about my own club and why it matters so much. The Yankees have a section of their support which is solely responsible for compiling and collecting items of historic importance, like programmes, to their club. They collect memorabilia and record and collate spoken histories from old and young. Fans of all ages can be heard recalling their memories about the team’s best and worst moments.

I’ve always been in favour of small clubs developing this type of “memorabilia museum”. Places where fans can come along at certain times and discover items from their club’s history. Perhaps some audio of interviews with fans of the past, those who experienced old glories. The programme would form the backbone of this. Surely clubs can collate their own collections and make them available to anyone who wants access. It could form a lasting and fitting tribute to both the club and those who made it possible.

Clubs could have a people’s museum of their own where fans could visit and listen to the thoughts of those who were at the great games, capturing the excitement, the humour, the pain and the anguish of a lifetime of following your team. A club which strives to become a focal point of the community needs to embrace its history in that community. And programmes, past, present and future, are a huge part of that.

We owe it to the future to save programmes

It can’t be feasible for the match programme to cost £3 or £4 if we are to expect it to have any future. So why not cut it back to basics? What do fans want from the programme? A short booklet with essential but exclusive content would help. If clubs are serious about their legacy, then this shouldn’t be a problem. Sell it as cheaply as possible but, like fanzines of the past, make the content the big seller rather than the professionalism of the look. Have the squads but go back to having spaces to mark changes clearly. Include a weekly voice from the club – a different voice – and allow criticism and independent thought.

Before we jettison the programme altogether, let us begin to think of the young kid who starts to see a collection build, who starts to see their own gaps to fill. It is this kid that we really need to encourage to take an interest in our clubs. The programme may well be the thing that does it for them. They may well be the ones to bring along the hard-backed envelope and the carrier bag.

And they may well be the ones who, in 40 years, will be writing about our club, documenting our history, preserving our memories and looking back, ever thankful that we didn’t let the programme die.

This article first appeared in Issue 24 which was published in June 2022.

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