A glance at Steve Earl’s catalogue confirms the extent of a connection between England’s national team and match programmes. A mere £250 will secure you the necessary from a meeting with Scotland in 1930. Programmes for matches that took place during the second world war remain for sale; some of them comprise four pages, but they were produced.
So there is historic significance to the Football Association’s decision not to publish programmes for the three England home fixtures taking place in this international window. “In light of the current climate and as a not-for-profit organisation, it isn’t financially viable for the FA to produce matchday programmes for the England fixtures that are behind closed doors,” it said.
To Earl, this is ridiculous. To Brian Johnson, who runs Almondvale Programmes in the shadow of Hibernian’s stadium, there should be an obligation to produce this time-honoured memento.
Queen’s Park, Scotland’s oldest league club, were among those not to deliver hard copies last season. Nothing transpired for the recent Community Shield at Wembley – despite its featuring of two huge clubs – or the FA Cup semi-finals. This all feels rather feeble.
Collecting programmes – with their unmistakable scent of musty lofts – may be niche but to scores of people across the UK it is a serious matter. When Burnley announced digital-only programmes for this campaign, their supporters reacted with anger. Newcastle and Manchester City had declared the same before 2019-20 was concluded.
Michael Hewitt, a long-time dealer who specialises in Leeds issues, cannot understand the process. “There’s a bit of laziness and ‘can’t be bothered’ from a lot of clubs and the FA,” he says. “The people I deal with are avid collectors so they are biased towards programmes anyway but I don’t know a single person who would prefer to read it online or on their phone.
“There was uproar when Derby didn’t even produce an e-version last season, which really is laziness. There should be a decent profit, certainly when they are being sold at £3.50.
“Further down the leagues, you would think revenue from programmes should be an integral part of a business plan.”
It would, however, be wrong to point towards a general demise of the programme scene being triggered by Covid-19. It would also be unfair to depict those critical of non-publishing as merely chasing in a diminishing marketplace. Hewitt explains how normal business quadrupled during lockdown. “People couldn’t leave the house and there was a surge on people filling in gaps in collections,” he says.
Johnson’s experience in Edinburgh was identical. “They were buying everything. 1940s and early 50s stuff on the whole is through the roof in price. Since lockdown happened, a lot of programmes have doubled in value.”
Johnson admits to a fear that coronavirus would accelerate the demise of the match programme. “I know some clubs didn’t want to print but the pressure put on them became really high,” he says. Hearts, for example, have produced programmes since 1924; who would make a call to end that run?
Season subscriptions for Hearts and around 30 other clubs are available via Curtis Sport, one of Britain’s most successful programme publishers. During lockdown, they were running a seven-days-a-week operation and added three staff, such was the boom in collecting. With games now taking place, the dynamic has shifted dramatically and away from programmes being sold anywhere near stadiums.
“We have really just asked clubs to cut their cloth accordingly, to keep the programme going and we will hold its hand for the next few months,” says Stuart Curtis, the company owner. “Our big fear is that if clubs stop having a programme, that becomes the norm. We are only really printing copies that we know will sell. A lot of clubs have downsized pagination, too. We are kind of getting back to where programmes were back in the day – it’s really just manager’s notes, stats, opposition, really what it was before lifestyle came into it.”
Dundee United digital programmes were recently being made available in hard copy from Ukraine. That underground industry may well pull clubs back towards printing hard copies.
“People who come into clubs without knowledge of programmes have a ‘Let’s go digital’ idea,” Curtis says. “A football programme doesn’t really translate to digital media. We have people who have been collecting for 30, 40, 50 years that just want a physical copy.
“You only have to look at clubs who have stopped producing and gone digital; all of a sudden an underground market develops where people print off digital copies and sell at a profit. The files are easily downloadable. That has helped us because clubs would have to go through a cease-and-desist process, which is costly, or they can’t stop it.”
Tales of the programme industry’s gradual death, then, may have been greatly exaggerated. In this unrecognisable football world, we should be grateful for that.