Sheffield United: The pleasure - and the pain - of keeping one of football's finest traditions alive

The date - 8th June 2018 - is forever seared into Matt Young’s memory.

Friday, 5th August 2022, 11:35 am

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A lifelong Sheffield United supporter and now the club’s programme editor, a role he combines with commentary duties on their in-house television channel, the former freelance journalist was aghast to discover that members of the English Football League would no longer be required to produce matchday magazines. For someone who regards them as an integral part of the big game experience, it was a deeply troubling and unsettling announcement.

“Football for many people remains a traditional sport and buying a programme is something fans have been doing for over 100 years,” Young told The Star ahead of tomorrow’s clash with Millwall, after signing off the latest copy of UTB. “For many fans, holding on to a programme provides a tangible treasured memory of a particular game or moment. Having something physical to remind them of something is still important.”

Matchday programmes are loved by young and old alike

Fortunately for Young, and the millions of others like him, United have not decided to take advantage of the EFL directive; ostensibly issued to enable teams to opt out of its advertising agreements but, most people suspect, a nod to the modern world’s obsession with cyberspace and the internet. Indeed, unlike many of their rivals, Young’s employers have allowed him to improve both its content and pagination since poaching him from neighbours Rotherham a couple of years ago. The results of this commitment recently saw them awarded a prestigious silver medal in the Premier Progs end of season awards.

“When I first started going to football in the early Nineties, having a programme was just as important as watching the game,” Young continued, explaining his obsession. “Going was always such a highlight for me that having a memento from the day became essential.

“I still have many of the United editions from my early years and they bring back cherished memories of going to United matches with my dad, a tradition we have maintained since.

Kevin Gage and Matt Young (fourth left) of SUTV at Mansfield Town during pre-season: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“Countless others will probably say the same thing. Or there will be another reason for them being such a treasured memento. That’s just one of the reasons why I think they’re so important. They’ll mean different things to different people.”

Young began piecing together the programme United supporters will be able to read before the first home match of the new campaign earlier this summer. Researching articles on times gone by, commissioning copy from contributors and interviewing members of Paul Heckingbottom’s squad can be a laborious process. But, for Young, it is a rewarding one too.

“We have a 100-page edition, that’s quite a task especially when there’s sometimes back-to-back home games so essentially the work starts over the summer, months before the new campaign, when I can get a lot of our historical content started.

Sheffield United face Millwall at Bramall Lane this weekend: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“For the more up-to-date content, I’ll generally start working on it a week in advance of the game. For a Saturday-Tuesday home turnaround, this will require some very quick updates usually over the weekend and into the first hour of Monday morning to ensure we meet the deadline.”

Yesterday afternoon, once journalists had finished grilling Heckingbottom on United’s forthcoming game and James McAtee’s loan move from Manchester City, Young retired to a room adjoining the Randox Health Academy’s media theatre to begin punching out his final articles before sending UTB to print.

“We like to make it relevant, so people are getting up to date information. If there’s any new news, then we always like to get it in.”

It is job Young will repeat three more times this month, with the first few weeks of a campaign always proving particularly challenging. Although not, it emerges, as at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when fixtures were frequently postponed at short notice.

“August is always tough with the sheer amount of games,” Young continued. “Early Christmas deadlines and the close proximity of fixtures are also hard, but last year producing programmes at the height of the Covid infections was tough. Knowing there was a good chance of the games getting called off but still having to work extremely hard to finish an edition in case they went ahead was a pain. There’s no point in denying it. But it had to be done, because we want the quality to be excellent.”

Occasionally, despite Young’s expertise, things do not go according to plan. Once, during his spell at the New York Stadium, a computer error left him scrambling to rewrite an entire issue of Rotherham’s programme in less than five hours.

“I signed off an edition quite late - at around 10pm - only to be told 30 minutes later the changes had been lost and that I had to do it again.

“I think I got it done at about 3.30am in the morning. How I laughed about it at the time.”

Another glitch, however, produced an unexpected benefit.

“I remember a game when the printers had an issue and printed the back section in the front and the front in the back,” he explained. “The covers were fine, but instead of starting with contents, it was a random news page. To be fair the printers did a re-print and mailout to subscribers. The original then became a collectors’ item.”

As United’s away following noticed last term, a growing number of clubs are now ditching their programmes and focusing on their websites instead. At Bramall Lane, Young revealed, they remain committed to doing both. Much to the delight of those who respect one of football’s best loved traditions.

“New information can be accessed by the click of a button these days, but features with former players and historical content are popular,” he said. “We’ve a raft of imagery from down the years but it’s still important to have something for kids in there, and the current team. It’s a fine balancing act ensuring that all bases are covered.”