'They're a tangible link to great memories' - Sheffield United's programme editor explains why matchday magazines still matter in the Covid-19 and internet era
It isn’t the first time Matt Young has been asked why, nine months after Sheffield United supporters last filed through Bramall Lane’s turnstiles, he still produces a matchday programme to commemorate every home game.
Sales inside the stadium are non-existent. Only a smattering of complimentary copies, for the small band of folk permitted beyond the Covid-19 cordon, are handed out before fixtures. But Young believes he has an obligation, a moral responsibility, to ensure these much loved pieces of memorabilia keep rolling off the press.
“There are fans out there who have collected one from every single game, and have done so for decades,” Young explains. “While we still have games going on, I feel it is a duty to our supporters to put these out.
“Everyone loves a matchday; the buzz around the ground, having a pint with family and friends and the sense of anticipation as crowds get bigger edging closer to kick-off. These traditions and many more have been taken away from us at present. For many buying a programme is a tradition and, whilst it isn’t quite the same, having a hard pre-match copy is something we can still offer the punters - albeit through the post.”
Young is enjoying a rare moment of down time as he outlines the reasons behind United’s decision to continue publishing UTB, as the magazine he edits is known, throughout a pandemic which has prevented thousands of their followers from watching Chris Wilder’s players in the flesh. Earlier this week, he finished piecing together one profiling Sunday’s meeting with Leicester City; the 11th to be published since social distancing restrictions forced Premier League clubs to retreat behind closed doors and an edition which, like his readers, Young hopes will become a treasured memento of United’s first win of the campaign.
“For me, programmes provide a tangible memory to some fantastic games or personal incidents,” he says. “For example, I’ve still got a copy from the play-off semi-final against Ipswich Town, in 1997 I think, and you can see it’s had a hammering from the rain.
“You can still see all of the crumples on the cover and the smudges inside on the text, so that takes me back to the thunder and lightning belting down throughout, as both sides battled on.
“Mine are all submerged in the loft but I always have a quick flick through when we get the Christmas decorations down and they bring back so many memories, so many things that haven’t necessarily survived on film or the personal ones that obviously weren’t captured.
“Most of my era has been caught on camera but, for older fans, a programme is probably their only real link to a past footballing memory.”
Some people believe programmes are now an outdated concept, loved by a dwindling band of people who view the world through sepia-tinted glasses but redundant in an era dominated by the internet and smartphones. United have been trailblazers on social media, with their small in-house team of content creators releasing a stream of exciting and pioneering posts which have captured the imagination of all generations. But by reminiscing about the night he watched Howard Kendall’s side reach Wembley, or the vivid pictures he paints about other boyhood experiences, Young reveals why programmes matter. Why, as permanent reminders of the past, they remain relevant.
“Personally, I think there’s room for all forms of media,” he continues. “I use social media a lot and first thing in the morning I’ll always grab my phone and look through the news and sport sites. It’s a part of everyday life now and that’s fine by me.
“But I always buy a newspaper when I’m on a train, I still subscribe to Four Four Two magazine and I still read books and enjoy flicking through programmes.
“For me, your hard copy doesn’t run out of battery like a mobile might and, like lots of people, I like to have something to hold for my money.
“I know plenty who buy a programme as a souvenir of being at a game.”
Young, a sports journalism graduate from Staffordshire University, joined United in July last year after spending over a decade working as a media and communications officer for their neighbours Rotherham. Also a former rugby league correspondent for The Star, his role brings him into contact with Wilder and his squad on a regular basis.
“The vast majority are excellent,” he says. “When Sander Berge signed from Genk in January, he had so much press to do but he still found the time to sit down in the hotel for an hour so we could get something for the programme. Chris Basham has always been brilliant like that too.
“When I was at Rotherham, Paul Warne always made time for a weekly chat for his ‘Warne’s World’ column where he talked about the best TV he’d watched. His views on The Apprentice would always have you laughing all day.”
Of course, as he races to meet tight deadlines, things don’t always run smoothly.
“Some copy is written in advance, because we do 100 pages and that’s a lot, especially if you are turning over two programmes a week. But we have a great team of contributors and our designer Alex, at Sports Ignition Media, does a superb job too.
“It wasn’t funny at the time but once, at Rotherham, we got a delivery of programmes the day before a game which were from a previous fixture. I also missed a mistake there from a different designer where, on the back, he referred to the away team as ‘Wolvers’. Again, not funny at the time.”
The stress, Young concedes though, is worth it.
“Once the programme is signed off, especially now we do it earlier so we can post them out, there’s a two to four day wait before we see a hard copy. There’s no better feeling than seeing everything in print.”