By Jonathan Allsop
Squirrelled away in various boxes in our flat are, aside from books and music, some of my most treasured possessions. Football programmes. Hundreds of them. David Goldblatt in his excellent book The Game of Our Lives reckons that “football programmes are among the most prized of football memorabilia” and he’s spot on.
When I started going to watch United in the late seventies I fell in love with programmes and for the next decade and a half built up a sizeable collection. Looking back through them now triggers some great (and not so great) memories of my formative match going years.
There’s the slightly faded programme from my first match in 1977 when a Jimmy Greenhoff hat trick made my eighth birthday a very happy one. The “Welcome to Old Trafford” header on the front is resonant of simpler match going times. There’s the larger, thicker programmes from trips to Wembley for cup finals and Charity Shields. There’s Fergie’s first home game. The 5-1. Rotterdam. Anfield in 1992. Blackburn Rovers on that giddy night in May 1993. And then the programmes peter out. As they became glossier and the content increasingly embraced the bland, corporate-logoed world of the Premier League and insulted our intelligence I lost interest and stopped buying them.
There’s still the occasional one from the mid to late nineties. The majestic Miro-esque front cover from Barcelona stands out. And there’s the one from that scintillating 8-1 win at Forest in the treble season which I’d bought from the City Ground shop after the match as a memento of one of the ridiculous number of high points from that season. But for the next decade or so the fanzines United We Stand and Red Issue were my only match day reading material.
Until 2005 that is when I began buying a programme again. At first it was mainly about making a financial contribution to FC United of Manchester on a match day but in recent years it’s been because the programme has been such a bloody good read. I hope it’s not too daft or soppy of me in these hard-nosed, entrepreneurial times to say that the FC United programme has rekindled my love of football programmes.
Whether it’s Margy enthusing about the “twelfth man”, one of the players telling us about their life outside football or reading about one of the many volunteers who make FC United the club that it is the programme is always informative and entertaining.
In addition, regular features on fellow supporter owned clubs at home and abroad and campaigns beyond the pitch such as Football Versus Homophobia are written with a passion that is so often missing from programmes of any sort these days. There’s even room for the occasional opinion piece that exercises the grey matter or provokes complaints to the club. But far rather complaints and debate than some bland, inoffensive, corporate magazine like the ones you often see on trains sitting unloved and unread at the end of each carriage.
Perhaps most impressively in its style and content the programme has maintained the all important bloodline back to the fanzines which played such a crucial role in the formation of the club. It must be tricky from an editorial perspective to strike the correct balance between official-ness and irreverence but the programme invariably does it beautifully. All for two quid. It’s even won awards and stuff. But not in a “look at us, aren’t we brilliant” sort of way, more a quietly sussed, getting on with things, Mancunian kind of way.
On a Friday evening in May for FC United’s historic first match at Broadhurst Park, with Benfica the visitors, the programme perhaps hit its peak. There were more pages and a slightly bigger format. Flicking through it warmed the cockles. The memories of the 1968 European Cup Final. An introduction to Broadhurst Park. Adam Brown talking about the trials and tribulations of the ten year quest for our own ground. And Stuart Maconie off the wireless describing his admiration for FC. Not to mention the usual brilliant photography. It was lovely and befitting of a momentous night for the club.
But instead of the two quid that the programme had been since day one an extra fifty pence had been added to the price. Increased production costs were sighted as the reason for the price increase. Fair enough I thought and bought two copies on the night, including one for a Liverpool supporting mate who’s never been to an FC match but admires our punk football ethos. I thought nothing more of it.
That the club might be trying to screw an extra few quid out of its support did not cross my mind for one second. We do things differently at FC. And besides, our club manifesto reaffirms our principled rejection of “outright commercialism”.
However, you didn’t need to be Steph McGovern off BBC Breakfast to realise that with a sell-out crowd of more than four thousand for the first match at Broadhurst Park and many fans eager for a “souvenir” the programme sellers would be in for a busy evening. Unlike, say, Barwell on a Tuesday night in December.
In fact so much so that if you were to knock out a quick spreadsheet the average cost per programme sold might possibly be the lowest of the season. So, if production costs hadn’t increased, why the need to charge any more than usual?
Would it not have been lovely, and in the true spirit of this football club, after a season when supporters have made one last big financial effort to get us into our new ground – community shares, pound for the ground draw tickets, standing orders for the development fund, loan stock, crowd funding to kit out the ground, sponsored walks and runs etc – to produce a programme for the Benfica game that was the same price as the one for the first home game against Padiham way back in August 2005? That would truly have been doing things differently.
The financial whizz kids can talk about “revenue streams” and “profit margins” and how the club can’t survive on fresh air. We know that, we’re not daft and we appreciate that the club has to work within its means. But there is a time and a place for the financial smooth talk that doesn’t offend people or treat them as mere consumers.
As an NHS bean counter for nearly twenty five years I am all too depressingly familiar with the difficulty of trying to apply business economics to something like healthcare that should be free of all concerns about profit and revenue maximisation. Despite the monstrous “internal market” and the illusion of “patient choice” NHS patients are not customers. And the same applies to football; supporters should not be treated as passive consumers to be squeezed for a few quid more when the time feels right to go chasing profit.
There’s an accounting concept called “goodwill” which us accountants often find difficult to put a financial value on. When the price of the Benfica programme was arbitrarily inflated to £2.50 I reckon we risked pulling the plug on the huge reservoir of goodwill that’s built up at FC United over the last decade. That’s a shame.
In addition to the blatant disregard shown for one of the club’s founding principles, the club’s Twitter account running tacky adverts for a multi-national company and contriving to lose the editor of the club’s award winning programme it’s been a discombobulating summer for the Northern Premier League champions.
For me, the last few weeks have been even more dispiriting than the sight of so many Labour MPs abstaining in the recent parliamentary vote on the Tories’ £12 billion cuts to welfare. We’ve become used to being disappointed by the Labour Party. From FC United of Manchester, its General Manager and democratically elected Board, we expect better. I hope that ten bob doesn’t end up costing our football club a hell of a lot more.