The end of Saturday sports papers?

Once a post-match staple up and down the UK, Saturday sports papers are closing in their droves. How long, writes Chris Arnot, can the remaining Pink 'Uns and Green Un's hold on in a Sky TV-dominated market?
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irst Liverpool and Manchester; now Newcastle - the three most passionate footballing cities in England and not a Pink 'Un or a Green 'Un between them. There could be no grimmer illustration of the protracted but almost inevitable demise of the Saturday night football paper, usually printed on a pink, green, blue or buff background, to distinguish it from the workaday white. The man with his thumb on its windpipe, draining the colour from another British newspaper tradition, is Rupert Murdoch. It's largely thanks to the demands of his Sky television that fewer and fewer matches kick off at three pm on a Saturday.

"Newcastle United had just 10 three o'clock kick-offs in 21 games up to Christmas," says Paul Robertson, editor of the city's Evening Chronicle which took the decision last month to close down its football special after 110 years. "We've got a reader in Norway who's been subscribing for more than 60 years. I haven't heard from him yet, but I expect I will," he adds. "When I was 16, I used to sell it round the pubs and clubs. People would queue outside the newsagents, just waiting to get their hands on it."

Sales have dropped markedly in recent seasons, but Robertson is hoping for a boost in The Chronicle's fortunes by switching some of The Pink's columnists to its mid-week sports pages. Among them are Malcolm "Supermac" McDonald and Bobby Moncur, who was captain in 1969 when Newcastle won their last trophy, the long-deceased Fairs Cities Cup. The current chief football correspondent, Alan Oliver, was born the year before the club's last FA Cup Final victory in 1955. Yet his is a role that offers celebrity status on Tyneside. Only five men have held the position since the war and Oliver has been sitting in chilly press boxes since 1980.

"Until recently I spent Saturday afternoons on the phone from 20 to three to five o'clock," he recounts. "Sometimes it was so cold my fingers had to be prised off the receiver. This is a way of life. Losing The Pink is like a death in the family. The odd thing is that it'll make my life easier. Instead of feeling physically and mentally drained on a Saturday evening, I can analyse the game more thoroughly."

There was nothing too easy about his last report for The Pink on Saturday December 17. A rare three pm kick-off at West Ham was delayed by half an hour because of a major accident on a main road into the East End of London. Match of the Day was there to record Oliver's frustration at the beginning and the end of the match. With Newcastle 3-2 up, the game almost over and his report complete, their England striker Michael Owen was faced with an open goal. Oliver found himself mouthing "Please don't score Michael" as the cameras rolled. Owen did score. Great for the away fans but not so good for the reporter. Nor for those manning the desk back at the office. Headlines, like intros, had to be re-written at speed. "I've taken some leg-pulling since," Oliver confides, "but I knew that score would make us even later hitting the streets."

Last-minute goals are an occupational hazard. "But we wouldn't have it any other way," maintains Ian Vickers, editor of Sheffield's Green 'Un. "When the adrenaline's going on a Saturday it's the best time of the week." Mind you, he could have done without the fire alarm going off just after half-time one Saturday, leaving a baffled football correspondent gabbling down the line to a non-existent copytaker.

Vickers is remarkably bullish. "The Green 'Un will be 100-years-old in 2007 and we're confident that we'll survive for another 100," he says. "The paper's still an institution round here." Maybe. But the average sale 10 years ago was around 28,000 a week while today it's nearer to 18,000 when both Sheffield clubs win and 15,000 when they can't muster a victory between them.

At least the figures are considerably healthier than the 2,000 average sale posted by The Leicester Mercury's sporting Buff when it closed down last season. Or, indeed, the 3,000 to 4,000 circulation of The Pink in nearby Coventry when The Evening Telegraph made the same decision soon afterwards. The Telegraph now publishes a football preview section with Saturday's paper and a Midweek Pink with football reports from local leagues. And The Mercury? Well, it produces a stand-alone Saturday-morning sports paper selling between 7,000 and 9,000. It's blue on the front for football fans and green on the back for followers of the city's rugby club.

Down in Portsmouth and up in Middlesbrough, meanwhile, kick-off times have forced sports desks to come up with exclusive stories in the absence of matches to report. In Portsmouth, the ongoing saga of manager Harry Redknapp's moves to and from local rivals Southampton has helped. "It was a good breaker for our Sports Mail when he resigned on a Saturday afternoon," recalls Mark Acheson, deputy editor of The News, the city's evening paper. The Mail needs all the breaks it can get considering that on six occasions this season Portsmouth matches have been switched to 5.15 kick-offs for Sky Premier Plus. "We can publish a paper afterwards," Acheson says, "but all the newsagents are shut."

Up in Middlesbrough, where three o'clock Saturday kick-offs are rare, the newsagent problem has been largely overcome by direct deliveries. Readers sign up for an attractively priced package that includes The Evening Gazette and The Sporting Pink. "It means a guaranteed sale of the football paper of 9,000," says outgoing sports editor Alan Boughey. "But we can sell over 13,000 if Boro play at three on a Saturday and win."

Former Gazette editor Steve Dyson recently took on the challenge of resurrecting The Evening Mail in his native Birmingham. Part of his legacy is one of the best-known Pink 'Uns of all, The Sports Argus. The good news is that Birmingham has three Premiership clubs [West Bromwich Albion's ground is only just over the city border]. The bad news is that all three are in or around the relegation zone. Dyson is keeping his cards close to his chest, praising The Argus as "a strong brand" but adding: "The marketplace has changed dramatically in recent years. Like all parts of the paper, The Argus is kept under constant review."

Could another Pink 'Un be drained of colour before too long? You might get slightly longer odds on Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Brom all being in the Premier League next season.