Report by Richard Sheaf, with additional reporting by John Freeman
A recent social media post by ex-Fleetway editor Barrie Tomlinson alerted me to a 1990s football programme for St. Alban’s City Football Club, featuring cover art by “Billy’s Boots” artist John Gillatt.
This is the kind of thing that got me into looking for other football programmes that Barrie must somehow have been involved in the production of, and I came across two more – and one match programme published in 1993 displays the legendary Roy of the Rovers as the club’s sponsor!
“I was born and bred in St.Albans and followed the club,” Barrie reveals of how his relationship with the Club began. “In chats with the chairman, I got Roy of the Rovers made a Vice President of the club. Then I asked John Gillatt to provide a cover for the match programme. That’s really all I know.
“After I was booted off Roy of the Rovers, I discovered that he was a now sponsoring the club… hence the two other programme covers which appeared. There may have been more.
“Why the Roy of the Rovers publishers wanted to sponsor the club is a mystery to me. Were they doing it just to give me another boot up the bottom or was there some other reason? I never found out. Most people thought it was me who had arranged the sponsorship. But it wasn’t! Sometimes, life is a mystery!
“Anyway, I like the John Gillatt artwork for the first programme. The other covers make the ground look a bit too grand!”
Football clubs have of course long used comic art and artists in their match programmes – in fact, they’ve been around as long as the Football League, coming into existence in 1888, though the first was produced for the 1882 FA Cup Final – Old Etonians v Blackburn Rovers at The Oval.
Sadly, the decline in sales has led to changes last year that mean clubs no longer have to publish one for every match, after a decision by the English Football League in June.
Programmes had been mandatory as a result of partnership and sponsorship agreements held by the EFL, but Championship, League One and League Two clubs can now make the decision on a match-by-match basis.
The EFL will however continue to produce programmes for all its major games, including the Carabao Cup final and all three play-off finals – and despite the rise of social media and the webb, most clubs are continuing to sell them at every match, regarding them as part of the fabric of their club community. Liverpool FC reported in December that their programme sales were on the rise – putting a 9.3% increase in sales in part down to striking cover images of the players.
“The increase in sales figures is terrific because it is clearly a very challenging market,” Programme Editor Darren Griffiths told the Liverpool Echo. “We realise there is plenty of competition when it comes to spending money on a matchday and that’s why we work so hard to produce the best possible programme for our supporters. We want every issue to be a really enjoyable read as well as, of course, a collectable piece of memorabilia.
“The front covers have provided a real talking point this season. The aim is to reflect the fact that we are a massive part of this city and that we embrace all aspects of the community. And the players have enjoyed the photo-shoots, which is great!”
Perhaps now Roy of the Rovers is back, and with the weekly Striker comic back on sale in a couple of weeks time in all good newsagents, there’s some hope for some iconic art work covers making their return on programmes, too?
• Manchester’s National Football Museum holds an archive of matchday programmes and has some on display: www.nationalfootballmuseum.com
• The Big Issue, June 2018: My three decades’ worth of football programmes mean more than life and death
James McMahon has missed many a goal on the hunt for a matchday programme, but with the future of English Football League programmes in doubt, what’s next for the ground-hopping collector?
• BBC News – 8th June 2018 – EFL clubs vote to end compulsory matchday programme publication
• Liverpool Echo, 19th December 2018: Everton programme bucks national trend as sales are on the rise
• Roy of the Rovers is online at royoftheroversofficial.com
• Striker – back on 16th January in all good newsagents – is online at www.planetstriker.com
• St Albans City Football Club is online at www.stalbanscityfc.com