No matter your club allegiance buying a programme at a game unites us all. Or rather it did.

With today’s fare more like glossy expensive magazines and wifi now widely available in grounds for a half-time scroll down your Twitter feed are programmes as relevant as they were?

Having founded and edited Programme Monthly for thirty years and written several books on the subject there was only one man to ask. Here John Litster talks saddle-stitching and team cards in celebration of a football institution.

Are programmes as popular now as they ever were?

They certainly are for special occasions, Cup Finals, historic matches etc.  Football fans still want a souvenir to provide a tangible link to the memories they have of the match.   In terms of routine matches, programmes are not as popular as they used to be; far fewer programmes are now sold at most games, and even fewer kept in collections.

The rise of fanzines in the 80s seemed to threaten the tradition of programmes being bought at games. How did they affect the industry?

I’m not sure fanzines presented a threat to programmes, but they certainly served as a ‘wake up call’.  Clubs realised that their programmes had to compete with the fanzines, and therefore had to be improved and made more readable.   Fanzines are now a thing of the past, whereas programmes have survived.

Which clubs would you say have been consistently impressive at producing good quality programmes?

Most League clubs in England have a recent history of consistently good programmes.  Among those which stand out are Arsenal, Spurs, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Brentford, Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Bristol Rovers.   In Scotland, Aberdeen and Clyde have stood out, along with Hearts, and at non-league levels in England there are stand-out programmes throughout the country.

For anyone who has a large stack of match-day programmes piled up at home who have retained them with a view to selling them or passing on to their kids – what advice would you offer on the best way of preserving them?

Keep them dry and out of direct sunlight.   Really old programmes, on flimsy paper, should be kept in sleeves, not polythene. Polypropylene is okay but polyester better.  Putting them in binders is a good idea.

Do not store them in paper bags or cellophane-fronted sandwich bags, these will eventually harm the paper of the programme.

Today’s programmes – not suitable for Bovril-supping.

Programmes these days have morphed into glossy magazines. Do you think something wonderful has been lost in this ‘advancement’?

Very much so.   Programmes used to be printed by local printers, and each one looked very different from every other club.  Now, it is almost impossible to identify a programme from its design or cover, because they all look the same. There was something about the small, brief, letterpress-printed programmes on old fashioned thin paper. They felt ‘right’ when you handled them, and looking through them nowadays they seem to capture the antiquity of the bygone era from which they emerged. I very much doubt that we will be getting the same feeling when we look at today’s programmes in 20, 30 or 40 years time.

I tried to explain this unique “feel” of an old programme to someone who was not a football fan, and they immediately compared it with the difference between an LP and a CD.  Music fans will immediately recognise the distinction. I am also very much against the perfect binding which is the current fashion amongst League clubs. I believe this goes against everything the programme is meant to be.  With proper saddle-stitched (stapled) programmes, you can hold it open and read it with one hand, while eating a pie or drinking a Bovril with the other.  Or you can have the other hand warming in a pocket on a freezing cold terracing.   Perfect bound programmes need both hands to read, and are not easily done so in a busy football stadium.

What’s the largest collection that you know of?

I know of several collections which amount to several tens of thousands, and it would not surprise me that there are a few approaching 100,000 items.  So many football programmes have been produced over so many years, and the vast majority of those from the past 50 years can be obtained for very modest prices today. Of course, the best collections concentrate on the quality (and antiquity) of items, rather than the quantity.

Is there a programme that has always eluded you that you would love in your own personal collection?

The programme I want doesn’t exist. The football club I followed, Raith Rovers, have been in only one Scottish Cup final, in 1913 – a decade before programmes began to be printed for that fixture. Unlike the English, the Scots were slow on the uptake in that respect.

I don’t have a particular programme in mind, but it would be very nice to have an original copy of a team card from the very early days of organised football in Scotland, an 1870s Queen’s Park match, a Scotland v England game from that era, or similar.

Having spent most of your life involved with them is it possible to pick out one particular favourite programme?

I have many favourite programmes, and they illustrate the diversity of the hobby.   One may be particularly valuable, or collectable, such as the 1923 FA Cup Final, the first at Wembley.  One may be quite rare, such as the Testimonial for the great Celtic and Ireland player Patsy Gallagher in the 1920s. One may have happy memories, such as the 1994 Scottish League Cup Final (Raith Rovers’ only national trophy).

However, if I was asked to pick a single programme which I would least like to part with, it would almost certainly be one that no-one else would cherish.  Part of my reason is that it would be almost impossible to replace, because I believe that no-one else would have kept their copy. It is from August 1968, and it is a small, 12 page pocket-sized programme from the Eastbourne United v Leyton Athenian League match.  There is practically no editorial content – I’m not even sure the teams are listed – but to me it is invaluable.  My grandfather brought back programmes from the matches he attended, and I have them from international matches, Raith Rovers games, West Ham, Chelsea and other clubs he visited when he was on his late summer holidays. In Eastbourne to watch the cricket festival and listen to military bands on the promenade, he stayed in a Bed and Breakfast across the road from the Oval football ground, where Eastbourne United played, and he went to watch them and brought back the programme for me. Every time I come across that programme, among the 60,000 I have, I remember him.

Check out John’s website here

NOW AVAILABLE : The 308 page book FIFTY YEARS OF SCOTTISH FOOTBALL HISTORY 1963 to 2013 by John Litster
FOOTBALL’S WHITE FEATHERS – How Scottish Football Survived the opening months of the First World War, 160 page book by John Litster
and HOW THE CUP WAS WON, The Scottish Cup Story by Forrest Robertson, 160 page book.  
See website for details, click on Scottish Football History