The Typographic Hub

Football programmes

23rd October 2011

Football programmes

Modern match-day programmes, comprising many pages of full-colour print, spot UV varnish, sophisticated photography and incisive editorials, are far removed from the 19th century team sheets that were issued by clubs simply as means of identifying players. Today, the football programme is a sophisticated communications and marketing vehicle sold in large numbers with a high cover price, which are driven as much by advertising and marketing as football trends.

Looking back as 150 years of match-day programmes reveals transformations not only in the game but also in local economies and printing techniques. Trends within the game are apparent in the editorials and features: today they are topical commentaries on the state of the club, in the past the text merely helped the crowd identify participating players and officials. In the 19th century, local industries were prominent advertisers: razor blades in Sheffield clubs programmes; vehicle and cycle accessory manufacturers in Birmingham club publications; and Clydeside ship-builders advertised to both Rangers and Celtic. Now-a-days, national and international companies view the football programme as a powerful advertising tool, and have all but ousted the local business from their pages. The last 150 years has also seen great changes in printing technology, and the move from letterpress to litho to digital is reflected in the transformation of football programmes from rudimentary team-sheets to the colourful, glossy booklets of today.

When first introduced in Britain in the mid-1870s, the match-day programme was little more than a diagrammatic line-up of players’ names and a list of presiding officials. Printed in black on a white card, and commonly measuring 150 x 130 mm, the card carried the line-up on its face and details of venue, date and kick-off on the reverse; it was sold for 1d. Amongst the oldest surviving programmes is one for the Finchley versus Old Etonians match in 1879.

The football programme card was derived from the cricket scorecard, but it quickly took on an identity of its own, and by the 1900s it had become a double-sided paper leaflet measuring about 255 x 190 mm. The larger format made room for additional information and advertising space, which helped defray the cost of production and kept the selling price at 1d. The single sheet soon became a four-page folder: page one served as a ‘cover’, the centre-spread carried the diagram, and editorial comment and information, and the back page contained advertising. It was a format that remained popular through the 1920s and 1930s. However, a new approach was adopted for major matches in the 1920s: this was an eight-, twelve- or sixteen-page pamphlet, measuring 200 x 130 mm, often with a two-colour cover. Priced at 3d or 6d, such pamphlets provided a substantial record of the event and were obviously designed as souvenirs.

Arsenal was club that took pride in its programmes. So confident was it in the accuracy of its printer, that in 1913 the directors generously gave away fifty season tickets to those lucky enough to detect an error in the printing of a word: there is no record as to whether any errors were found. It was also Arsenal that demonstrated the power of print when in 1926 it began reproducing the London Underground map on the back of its programmes and as a consequence persuaded London Transport to change the name of Gillespie Road station next to the football club to Arsenal. The station was renamed Arsenal in October 1932 and the club continued to print the Underground map on all programmes until 1939.

But it was Chelsea Football Club which helped generate a cult for programme collecting when it introduced an elaborate publication in 1948; a sixteen-page magazine containing articles, pictures of the team and individual players, and action shots of previous matches. The publication sold at 6d and other clubs rapidly adopted the formula, which pushed programme sales to sometimes exceed gate figures.

Collecting football programmes is now big business. Regular auctions of football material are held across the country, whole magazines are devoted to the hobby, and innumerable websites buy, sell and advise on what to collect. Bookbinders offer specialist services for collectors of football programmes, and there is an annual award ceremony organised by Programme Monthly & Football Collectable—Manchester United were the winners for the 2003/04 season.

Nowadays, football may be a national game played on an international stage, but when it comes to production most clubs still opt for local printers. Watford FC have their programme produced by the Alpine Press in Kings Langely; Ipswich Town turn to the local Ancient House Printing Group for their match-day printing; in South Yorkshire, Sheffield United patronize the well-established and reputable city firm of J W Northend; whilst Newcastle United favours Reed Print & Design, Washington; and both Fulham and Portsmouth FC patronise Bishops Printers, Portsmouth.

Despite the wide range of printers producing football programmes, there is a certain amount of standardization in their production: formats have settled at around 240 x 170 mm; extents range from 72 to 84 pages with separate covers; four-colour is the norm; and spot UV varnish is the current vogue. Quantities, of course, vary according to the size of the club, but a team with 15,000-16,000 core supporters will require 6,500 programmes per match – depending on the opposition or if it is a cup match. With around 26 home-matches played each season, additional cup and European matches, and auxiliary products such as tickets, certificates, and marketing material there is sufficient printed material generated by the clubs keep the local printer busy throughout the year.

It recent years, football programmes have changed dramatically and it has been printing technology that has influenced the change in both content and appearance. With the advent of DTP and CTP the programmes are now topical news pieces, and if a club has a breaking story— and a good relationship with their printer—then the job can be held back to accommodate the story, extents can be increased at the last minute, and if necessary the printer has to re-plate and sometimes re-print.

Alpine Press, Kings Langley has been printing match-day programmes for Watford FC for 28 years during which time they have seen many changes in programme production. ‘Changes in football programmes have been technology driven’ says Maurice Grainger, Alpine’s Managing Director, ‘in the past they were assembled by a paste-up artists, they went to press earlier and they were less sophisticated in their make-up. Producing football programmes used to be hard-work, but now we receive PDFs down the line producing and it has become a simple science.’ Production may have become a simple science, but it has to be backed by human organisation that can ensure delivery is swift and on time, ‘Football programmes need to be there for the start of the game. We deliver 6,000 copies to the club early Saturday morning for 26-28 home matches, plus cup games. In 28 years we have never missed a deadline.’

Speed of production and delivery is also seen by J W Northend Printers, Sheffield, as the key to success. Ever since they opened for business in 1889, J W Northend, has printed match-day programmes for Sheffield United. The longevity of the partnership is due not only to the close relationship between printer and club but also the ability of Northend to respond with rapidity to the needs of United and fulfil short production times. ‘Turn-round is pretty rapid,’ says Dorothy Bett’s, Northend’s Marketing Manager, ‘with the last copy—which is general the managers report—reaching us by 9.00 am on Thursday, and 500 copies of the programme hitting the newsagents, pubs and petrol stations by 2.30 the same day.’ Such speed of delivery and the ability to get the programmes on the streets ahead of the game, is good promotion for the club and useful for those supporters who are not able to get to the match. ‘This is a rapidity of service that only a local printer can provide a football club. At Northend we are just 2 miles from our local clubs; we would think very hard before taking on a football club that was further away as 3-party couriers are not reliable and unless you have your own vans you can’t guarantee delivery on time.’ But it is not simply speed of delivery that had enabled Northend to retain the Sheffield United account for so long, such is the complexity of the Sheffield United programme that Northend employs a full-time proof-reader to scrupulously check the setting before going to press.

But the long-term relationships many clubs have with their local printers are now in jeopardy as teams are being lured away by the incentive of up-front sponsorship which is being offered by a new sports and marketing company based in the south of England. This company will pay clubs up-front for the right to produce the programme and take the profits for themselves. Such centralisation of production will lead only lead to a homogenisation of appearance, and a same-ness in content. Production times will increase and copy dates will be shorter with the result content will be less topical. Already changes can be seen in the programmes, which are now being filled with images rather than editorial. Whether this new approach to programme production will succeed will be up to the fans on the terraces and whether they regard the new-look productions as value for money.

Dr Caroline Archer, Reader in Typography