Much of the mourning for matchday programmes is lower-case conservatism

Words By Richard Jolly Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 15, 2018

It might have been a measure designed to rile football fans of a certain age and a particular persuasion. The Football League announced its members will vote to determine if the obligation to produce a programme will continue. Cue a combination of complaints and nostalgia.

It is another indication football is changing, sometimes for the worse, permitting a lament for the age-old matchday ritual. Yet other factors had done more to alter that: varied kick-off times, escalating ticket prices, a different demographic in fanbases. There is a certain symbolic element to programmes and if they appeal to the trainspotters in the football support, no journalist should object to the preservation of the printed word and the way some, and not merely hoarders, still prefer a physical entity to the digital.

Yet the outpourings of disappointment were notable for the use of certain verbs: buying programmes; collecting programmes; rarely, however, actually reading programmes, their supposed intention. Because, in too many cases, there is precious little worth reading.

Not all, obviously. Programmes can be divided into four categories. There are the professionally produced and presumably profitable ones at the top clubs, available to subscribers worldwide (Manchester United’s is a case in point), where there is a financial logic to ensuring they are of a certain standard. There are clubs who, whether due to commitment to their fans or the input of the individuals concerned – and Burnley and West Bromwich Albion seem examples, though certainly not the only two – employ a suitable calibre of people and put in the thought and effort to stand out; the hope is that it is rewarded in sales. There are the smallest clubs, where over-stretched staff with umpteen other jobs to do also have to produce a programme and where meagre attendances suggest they will always struggle to break even. For some, it may make sense to produce a loss leader, but not when the loss is too big.

But then there are the worst offenders, the clubs whose programmes are cynical cash-ins, thin, badly written and overpriced, but produced on the presumption a captive audience will buy them anyway. After all, they have no official competition – and there are far fewer printed fanzines than there were – and just as food and drink are sold for inflated prices on club premises, so are programmes. It is charging £3 when, by any objective criteria, the content – to use a horrible word – barely merits £1.

One issue is that most programmes have stood still while times have changed and they cannot forever remain islands, isolated from developments elsewhere; in this case, the shift to digital and the focus on social media, but also editorial differences. Because football writing has moved on and while it is wildly imperfect in different ways – there is far too much clickbait nowadays – much of it has progressed beyond the antiquated blow-by-blow reports that faithfully detailed that Player A shot wide in the fifth minute, Player B was booked in the 10th and Player C went off injured in the 15th, but offered little by way of analysis, insight, colour or background knowledge.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that very little of the best football writing is found in programmes. Access does not always mean interest value, supposedly exclusive columns rarely revealing instructive thoughts. Sir Alex Ferguson’s programme notes were papal dictates; other managers’ thoughts have rarely assumed the same importance, partly because others have not put the same thought into them and partly because they do not have the same stature in the game.

Rather, as official club publications, there is much programmes cannot say and cannot ask. In that respect, it is odd that they are the football writing some might keep for decades. In another, of course, they are not there for editorial quality but a souvenir to go with the half-and-half scarves, a reminder of games attended, a personal history preserved in an attic, but something that may have gone unread at the time, yet alone years later. This view, with which others will no doubt disagree, is that it is inexplicable to keep a programme of game you were not at.

The unfortunate element may be that the programmes which do disappear are precisely those which are needed most: at the smaller clubs, particularly in places where local newspapers no longer exist, and where little other coverage exists.

Regional and big-city newspapers, many with well-informed correspondents, are a greater benefit to fans in general at Championship level as some national newspapers have cut back on their coverage of many well-supported second-tier clubs (and most specialist websites ignore them altogether). As too much is already written about the top six, their programmes are the least essential (and, in the nature of modern footballing economics, almost certainly the most lucrative); in any case, the Premier League is not yet abandoning the obligation to produce one.

Yet much of the nostalgia has simply been lower-case conservatism, not analysis: objecting to change, whatever it is. In that sense, it has been different from when Ceefax ended: it was lamented, but with the recognition it was an anachronism, with far more information available on the internet and without needing to be near a television.

The outcry about programmes feels different, part of a phenomenon where certain types of things seem irrelevant or forgotten until someone considers scrapping them, when their importance is exaggerated. If as many bought them as bemoaned their possible demise, their future would be secured. But then there is a strain of nostalgia that involves grieving for something you abandoned long before its actual demise.

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