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Trash or treasure? You are holding both.

The following was an article I put in the Hamilton Wanderers programme for their game (win!) against Waitakere City on Sunday. In a train-spottery way, I mused over programmes.

Trash or Treasure? It’s natural to give a free programme a cursory thumbing through and drop into the trash when leaving a game. Perhaps you shouldn’t. When you are as old and decrepit as say, the goalposts on the Porritt number four pitch, there will come a moment, probably during a post-lunch wine-induced torpor, when you suddenly wonder who WAS that dashing left back who featured for Wanderers back in 2019 when they surprised the world and won the National League? Your trusty old collection of footy programmes will give you the answer.

Football programmes have been in existence, in one form or another, since pretty much the start of the game in UK, the first ones appearing in the mid-1880s, beginning as single sheets designed to be used as a scorecard. The first was produced for the 1882 FA Cup Final – Old Etonians v Blackburn Rovers at The Oval. A leading amateur outfit of the day, Berkshire’s Etonians won 1-0, though nobody thought to correctly record the name of the player who scored, believe it or not. A programme from that game sold at Sotheby’s in 2013 for £35,250.

That’s how they were for many years. There was no manager’s message, or indeed anything else.

Over the years they evolved to have interviews with players and a message from the executive, quizzes and all manner of other stuff, including really bad jokes and advertising for the local butcher. Those ads from local businesses always bring in a bit of extra cash.

Like most kiwi clubs, Wanderers provide our programmes as a freebie and ee lad, you don’t get owt in life for free. Don’t worry, we intend to keep giving the loyal Blue Army punters a decent read, but in the UK football programmes are like a Premiership manager, very much a threatened species.

After 120 years of being sold on matchdays, the English Football League (EFL) voted in June to make it optional rather than mandatory for clubs to sell them at every game. A logical decision given modern consumption changes, but for millions of fans the programme is etched into the fabric of football as much as a half-time pie. It was a commercial obligation of all 72 Football League teams to have a printed programme for every home game. But declining sales and increased costs have become a burden and at their June meeting it was decided that for many clubs they are no longer financially viable.

Carolyn Radford, chief executive of League Two Mansfield Town, told the Guardian she recognized the financial sense in abolishing the programme but insisted the Stags would continue to print them. “We’d always have a programme because it’s a voice from the club to the fans and it’s something some people keep religiously,” she said. “It’s part of the fabric of the club and an important piece of memorabilia, a collector’s item. I know we’re moving more online, but it’s different having something to hold. It costs us more to produce than it raises, so I can see commercially why some clubs would want to get rid and I think if it was no longer compulsory a lot of clubs, particularly in the lower leagues, would drop out. But it’s still an important part of football’s history.”

There are two Scottish League clubs, Arbroath and Stirling Albion who have both also announced they will not be issuing programmes this season due to the losses incurred. Stirling are producing a monthly magazine which will be on sale on match days. In the Scottish top tier, Hibs have announced they will produce full match programmes for games v Rangers, Celtic and Hearts, but mini-issues for all other games. Other clubs may well follow this lead.

Collectors could be the last bastion of support for football programmes. Despite the danger! Fanatical Englishman, James McMahon, quotes “I’ve had a few near-death experiences in my life. The last time was when I moved house. There I was, unloading my football programme collection out of the removal van, and an enormous box of them fell upon me. I distinctly remember thinking, “This is not how I imagined going. Please don’t let me die with a Grimsby Town team list on my face.” Thankfully I pulled through, but for a time there, things got pretty ridiculous between me and football programmes.”

When asked about the new edict, he said. “I have mixed views on change. Slavery? Same-sex marriage? That’s the sort of change I can get behind. But I’m struggling with this digital world, I really am. I like things. Stuff. And yes, my wife will almost certainly leave me if I don’t do something about the Mayan Temple-like construct in our spare room

MacMahon would travel the length and breadth of the UK to watch games and collect programmes. “I remember once being on a train and sitting across from a man who was travelling to Liverpool. We struck up a conversation. “Going anywhere nice?” I asked. “Yes, I’m going to Liverpool. Only for an hour though. There’s a train changing there, and it’s got new carriages. I’ve never seen this particular make of carriages before. I’m quite excited.”

“What a loser,” I thought – then I remembered I was travelling, on my own, to watch Altrincham play Grantham Town.”

Every aspect of a club can be found in the modern programme. An increasing number include coverage about the struggles and achievements of the past, material rarely found elsewhere. The special edition West Brom produced to mark the death of Cyrille Regis in January was an outstanding tribute to a man who contributed so much.

Small English clubs with meagre resources continue to provide programmes, as they recognise the valuable role they play. Even clubs with attendances of less than 100 manage to publish something. One non-League club advise they do not charge for admission but do provide a programme. 

Arthur Athfield of Oxford says this. “The constant content through the years has been the team sheet. And that’s why we still all buy them, really. It’s interesting that even now, in the digital age, the programme seller remains one of cornerstone cultures of English football, at all levels: an important part of the architecture of the game. As a fan when one watches a game it provides the names of players, subs and even the team trainers. Watching a game without knowing some of the players isn’t as enjoyable. Not sure why, but it just isn’t.”

So whichever way you look at it, the humble old programme is probably always going to be the best and long-lived repository of minor football history. Most of this stuff ain’t ever gonna pop up on a Google search. So, kudos to the various scribes and curators of Waikato footballing history, like Cordwainer Bull at Melville, Robin Slade at Unicol and Wanderers’ Brendon Coker. They will ensure each memory endures when our own memories fail.

And there’s something very human, warm and analogue about collecting programmes. They allow you to look back and re-experience different times and different ages of the club and of society too.

They have emotional value and, in some cases, monetary value too. Especially if you’ve got a mint copy of one of the 3,500 limited edition 1966 World Cup Final programmes which came in a black card sleeve. They’re selling for up to £10,000. So, trash the next one you pick up at your peril.

Rod de Lisle 

Categories: Other Football Topics

Rod de Lisle

Waikato based Kiwi living the good life that this wonderful country affords. I like to paint, travel, follow sport and do stuff with our large family. Writing song lyrics is a creative release that came about after (somehow) dreaming a complete song. Not being a muso has lead me to seek out creative musicians who might enjoy linking music to my words. Is that you?

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