Siberian Soapbox

When I studied abroad, I didn’t really study, if I am honest. For Christ’s sake, if you were surrounded by cobbled Italian piazzas, Italian gelato, beautiful Italian people and calcio, would you? Of course not. I misspent my days stealing bicycles and hopping on trains to nearby towns to soak up as much sport as I could. A personal highlight was not actually football, but rugby. Haha, yes I did go to public school, and no I did not have ‘scrums’ in the shower…

Rugby match programs

One such trip was to the Veneto city of Rovigo. The city wasn’t spectacular – it was a hock of shite, to be more precise – but it did host European matches. So off I went, and was met with a delightfully ramshackle ground and terrible standard of rugby. The changing rooms were housed in a stereotypical red slate roof villa. The locals were more interested in sipping wine and munching crusty baguettes and delicious cured salami. A few were simply sunbathing. Marvellous.

I decided to pen a few words about the trip, but never submitted them. A decade later, I ended up in Siberia, and saw another rugby match. Look I’m sorry; it was too good an opportunity to miss. Nobody knew the rules – including the lineswoman (linesperson?!? Better check, don’t want the PC brigade breathing down my neck…) – the pitch markings were laid out by gaffer tape, and the ambulance driver was puffing more cigarettes than Maurizio Sarri after a marathon orgy. This time, I did submit my words, but brilliantly, they were published in the actual match programme for my local club side in England.

I’d planned it so my brother and father, who I knew would be attending the next game, would get a surprise. We would always religiously pick up a programme from every game, and enjoy the interviews and features. Of course, as pure fucking chance would have it, the one match for which I had a feature printed in the programme was the one match in decades that neither brother nor father bothered to buy the damn thing…

A sacred ritual

What the hell has this got to do with football you rugger-bugger loving posho I hear your scream? Well, a lot you prat: the program. The routine is a sacred ritual – pre-match pint, program, chippie for the journey home. It wasn’t always for during the match itself, if I’m honest. At least not always for me. When I got home, however, storing the publications as a record of my fanhood was a critical part of the bond I formed with my club.

I believe you can appreciate more than one club. Altrincham Town are my nearest non-league club, and offer a respite from the sanitised media-engorged Premier League. In the program there, you used to be able to ‘buy’ a square on the pitch. Your name would be printed in every programme on your own corner of the grid. I chose the sideline where Greg Young was playing when I shouted abuse at him one time, and to his credit, he turned and gave as good as he got. In the middle of the match.

Now I could see that little square, chuckle to myself, but also feel good about contributing to a good cause. I still have the programme somewhere. I have programmes from Russia v Spain and Russia v Brazil. Some are there from Liga Deportivo Universitario de Quito v Nacional, and others from Harrogate Town v Blyth Spartans. One of my favourites remains Tyumen against Zenit St. Petersburg when we (third-tier Tyumen) beat Zenit in the Russian Cup. The memories are inextricably linked to the print on paper. The way you fold them to fit into your jacket pocket. The smudge of ketchup from your burger. The stain of coffee that rested on the cover.

Cost analysis v tradition

I know this is a long way round to the rant part, but here it is: how can anyone contemplate getting rid of this? Back in the summer, the EFL clubs voted to make it non-mandatory to print and produce programmes. OK, for those down the pyramid the cost analysis would make that vote a fair decision. It isn’t cheap to produce and print anything near a quality product if sales are in the low hundreds.

The alternative, many have suggested, is an online version. Are you fucking kidding me?? Do we need yet another excuse for fans to be glued to their screens when football is passing them by? It is an utter joke to see middle-aged men face down instead of supporting their side. It’s all about content being absorbed nowadays. Not with the match programme, it’s not.

If just 0.01% of each TV deal was divided between league clubs, match programmes would survive. Make sure it is sustainable with recycled paper, sure. But keep them real, please.