Prejudice and propaganda in the programme

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The Independent Online

THE BURY programme - or official matchday magazine of Bury Football Club, to give its full title - runs to 48 pages. It's a good read, and fine value at £2.

THE BURY programme - or official matchday magazine of Bury Football Club, to give its full title - runs to 48 pages. It's a good read, and fine value at £2.

Is the match programme a peculiarly British quirk? I have watched football in very nearly every country in Europe, but even many of the top clubs veer towards a club newspaper rather than a special colour magazine.

When I first started watching football, match programmes, like me, were much slimmer. Eight pages or so stuffed - though I can still vividly recall the thrill of receiving it through the post - in a stamped self-addressed envelope, my copy of a Sunderland AFC programme. The pristine pages positively glowed.

Then, when I got a job in football, my second rung on the ladder was to become joint circulation manager of the Football League Review. The Leicester-based magazine was taken over by the Football League and used by most clubs as an insert to bolster their programmes.One week, if Manchester United were at home, sales would soar. With gates of 63,000 they regularly sold more than 70,000 programmes. The next week, Jim Smith would ring up from Boston United to order 500 copies and the sales figures would not be quite so rosy.

The Review's Audit Bureau of Circulation figures were often derided by cynical journalists who claimed that League secretary Alan Hardaker's mouthpiece constituted the bulk of the after-match refuse as the insert fell, unread, to the terraces. For the Football League Review was not slow to rebut press stories denigrating the League.

A government report on football in the Sixties was summarily dismissed as "a load of old codswallop" (Maybe David Mellor's long-awaited Football Task Force report on the commercialisation of football will receive a similar reaction).

Walter Pilkington, of the Lancashire Evening Post, dubbed by the Football League Review as the doyen of English provincial journalists, treated readers to a fascinating mix of statistics and analysis. His follow-up to the England World Cup success was particularly illuminating. "We are back to normal, thank goodness," he wrote in August 1966. "The stage is set for longer, more substantial fare. Several club managers have already said the games revealed nothing they did not already know. If some of the strategical ideas and sly tricks are copied it will be a bad thing for the Football League. If there is any repeat of the shocking behaviour, our level-headed referees can be relied upon to deal promptly." The short passing, intricate style of the Brazilians would not suit the English fan, Pilkington asserted. And he was probably right, sadly, in that at least.

The League banned foreign players at the time. Alan Hardaker argued that imports had led to only a short-term benefit in Italy and Spain. "If the importation of foreign stars was likely to improve either our football or our gates," he argued, "then it is surely obvious that the League would jump at the opportunity.

"The distinguished former referee Ken Aston, a bete noire of Hardaker, was repeatedly criticised for commenting on referees' performances on television while working as Fifa's World Cup referee liaison officer. Interestingly, Mr Aston was appointed MBE for services to refereeing more than 30 years later.

The BBC's Match of the Day was "being spoiled by the commentaries". How? By Kenneth Wolstenholme's use of the terms centre-back, wing-back and sweeper-up.

The League president, Len Shipman of Leicester City, used the pages of the Review to explain why grounds could not be improved overnight to cater for the growing interest of women in the game. Building was costly, he argued, and the team must always come first.

Hooliganism, which was beginning to take a grip on the game, was only part of a national malady of indiscipline.No prejudice was left unaired as the Football League's mouthpiece attempted to flatten all and sundry. It was only silenced in the next decade when the sharply escalating cost of paper made it impossible for the League to continue to subsidise club programmes and "match day magazines" came to the fore.It is not difficult to label the League's views as reactionary; of course they were. The very concept of a league is reactionary. A more open-minded approach would possibly have served the game better.

But many of the issues remain topical today: the surfeit of foreign players, the explosion in television coverage, styles of play (entertainment or success). In the Football League's view we had the best grounds, the best players, the best referees and the worst press.

I'm still reading Bury's programme a week after the match. I see that Danny Swailes has no sponsorship for his squad number. Perhaps the East Lancashire Window Company or the Bury FC Irish Supporters Club might extend their largess and support all named players?

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