It doesn’t take much to bring out the obsessive in many men of any age, and this is something that advertisers and hawkers have been aware of for a long time and acting upon this sort of impulse with greater and greater sophistication in recent years. Football supporters, of course, can be amongst the worst for obsessive behaviour, and one of the more obvious manifestations of this comes in the form of football programmes. For many, many decades, the football programme was no more than a glorified teamsheet with a couple of adverts attached to it. As football started to modernise during the 1960s, though, so the match programme became the “match-day magazine”, a glossier and glossier publication which has, in most cases, become blander and blander at the same time.
Still, though, there is an improbable glamour about the football programme, and this is something that Dave Roberts – who may already be known to regulars of this parish for “Bromley Boys”, his book about the glamour (or lack thereof) of following the eponymous Isthmian League club in the early 1970s - touches upon in his new book, “32 Programmes”. The format of the book is simple. Roberts, at the beginning of the book, is moving abroad and can only take a small proportion of the vast collection that he had amassed over the years, while the rest will have to go into storage. At least, most afficianadoes may reflect, the others weren’t headed for the tip or in the direction of a bonfire. What is left is a personal thirty-two which make up, effectively, a broader story of Roberts’ life, both around and outside of football.
Oddly, it is the matches from the start of Roberts’ career as a supporter which are the most vividly written. His first match, between Fulham and Manchester United in 1965, vividly evokes a different era, whilst his trip to Wembley in 1966 to England play West Germany in… a schools international is concise in describing the sense of sheer scale that comes from a first trip to a venue which was, at the time, considerably more cavernous than any other in the English game. One is left to wonder whether children that visit, say, Old Trafford prior to making their first trip to Wembley feel as much of one iota of the sheer wonderment that Roberts felt on his trip.
Each chapter is punctuated by a photograph of the cover concerned and a short quotation purloined from therein. Each of these is, in its own way, a trip down memory lane in itself. The Manchester United programme cover shows, as they always did at the time, the artistic impression of a player shaking hands with a supporter. That this iconic image has now been shrunk to the top corner of the United Review – although it was abandoned for a while during the 1970s before being reintroduced - says as much about the changing nature of the relationship between the player and the supporter as any ponderous article on the subject might. Otherwise, though, the details of the actual programmes themselves is a little on the skimpy side, to the extent that the reader – if of a certain persuasion, and who amongst us is going to deny that it is something that we are more than capable of – almost wants to reach into the book and cry, “Come on Dave! Share a bit more about Plymouth’s match ball sponsors!”
The other issue with the book is that it ends with Roberts moving to New Zealand, which curtails the story with, as it were, half of the match still to play. This, of course, is not the author’s fault. It does, however, create something of a hole in the narrative that, whilst we learn much of the game between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, during which not a great deal changed in football, apart from shirt sponsorship and more hoolganism, when the big changes were yet to come. He returns to Bromley FC for the last chapter of the book, but his chapter on it, for all the hoarse shouting and the invocations of the smell of Deep Heat and cold mud, has the feel of a man that has, for all that he would like to turn back the clock, is aware that he lives in another world now.
These, however, are minor quibbles, and the reader that this is aimed at can at least bask in the warming nostalgia of the 1960s and 1970s. Cultural minutae such as midweek afternoon kick-offs brought about by the power strikes may be something that seem as alien to anybody under the age of forty that they may as well be science fiction, but these are the sort details that obsessives of any persuasion will hang onto because, as anybody that smiles a hint of recognition at any of the stories that he tells will be able to readily attest, the devil in this sort of recollection is always in the detail – and it’s a relief to know that his programmes are safe in storage, of course.
You can buy “32 Programmes” from Amazon.
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