Aidan Smith: Time for fans to help their clubs

Neil Connolly is selling hundreds of old Hearts match day programmes. Picture: Neil Hanna
Neil Connolly is selling hundreds of old Hearts match day programmes. Picture: Neil Hanna
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I NEVER cease to be amazed by the devotion of football fans because these days so much more is expected of them. There’s an old terrace song: “I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals... oh oh oh (insert favourites).”

Back when the chant was popular, such an idea would have been ludicrous. Now it surely can’t be too long before a group of supporters announces the first million-mile sponsored walk to raise desperately-needed funds for the latest stricken club.

Going the extra mile, or however many are required, is what fans must do. You’ve got your season ticket but unfortunately that can’t be the end of the commitment. There will be street collections and benefit nights. A vacant shop will be commandeered for the flogging of “Save Whomsoever FC” bunnets. You’ll be asked if you could see your way to buying a second season ticket, maybe a third. Some lunatic will probably announce he’s putting his wife on eBay to boost the fighting fund, and respect must go to everyone who digs ever deeper (apart from the lunatics). But I couldn’t do what Neil Connolly has just done – no way.

Neil is a Hearts diehard and last week he sold off 5,000 match programmes to try and keep his club going. There’s a cardboard box under my bed and, discounting the family, it’s my most precious thing. Inside is a souvenir pamphlet from every home game played by my team Hibs from 1960-1980, apart from the nine I still need. Most of the aways are there, too, and they all have their own plastic folder. There are some things more important than football – for instance, football programmes.

A year ago I would have laughed at such a statement. I’d just started collecting programmes, or re-collecting them, on behalf of my son, who hadn’t expressed an interest, but was going to get given them anyway. At that point, feeling in complete control, I’d meet others who very obviously weren’t. As we browsed the walls of the local programme shop, I’d try and engage them in football conversation. “Good/bad result on Saturday, eh?” but my inquiry would hang in the air, somewhere above the seductively foosty pong of half-century-old parchment. For some obsessionists, was the programme the thing – its safe purchase and insertion in the collection, uncreased – and was the game of secondary concern? I quizzed the friendlier guys about this and they agreed it was.

“I remember arriving late at Motherwell,” said one, “and running right round the outside of the stadium to try and find a programme-seller but they’d all skedaddled. I was like: that’s it, there’s no point staying. Two minutes later I’m through the turnstiles, having convinced myself it was one of those grounds which had sellers inside as well, when I absolutely knew it wasn’t. The lies collectors tell themselves! The lies they tell their wives over how much they pay for the last ones on their ‘wants’ lists! After that, I couldn’t concentrate on the game. I don’t remember any of the goals, even if there were any. I was just bereft.”

Most interesting, I said. But here’s what I was thinking: saddos! Would Motherwell 6, Hibs 6 have washed over you in your programme-less misery? Thank goodness I’ll never get the habit that bad, I told myself. But guess what? I have. My revived collection was to cover eight seasons: 1967-1975, first-ever game to a natural end-point, the end of the old First Division, the end of innocence (I left school that summer). I had most of the programmes already; only a few were needed. Except it hasn’t been the end. “You might not stop there,” Brian my dealer warned me. I scoffed, but now I keep finding new and interesting themes, just over the next hill. I convinced myself I hated seasons ’60-’61 and ’61-’62, same aerial shot of Easter Road every issue. The lies collectors tell themselves! Now I love them.

I guess Neil Connolly loved his programmes once but it’s a passion that dimmed. Well, when my club were in peril I was at the 1990 World Cup, down in Naples, where a lad in green and white was playing keepy-uppy with an orange, all proceeds to Hands Off Hibs. I didn’t have any spare cash but gave him an apple. You’ve got to do your bit.