Aidan Smith: ‘Football programmes are dying and I still need one from the ghost game’

A general view of the main stand at Station Park, home of Forfar Athletic. Picture: SNS Group
A general view of the main stand at Station Park, home of Forfar Athletic. Picture: SNS Group
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On a perishing cold day – March 23, 1974 – my father pointed his Fiat sports car northwards and we travelled the road and the miles to Dundee, eager to see our team maintain their title challenge.

Away-days were important for dad-son bonding, though we didn’t call it that back then.

The programme from Forfar v Rangers in 1970 - a full five years before the Loons say they started printing. Picture: TSPL

The programme from Forfar v Rangers in 1970 - a full five years before the Loons say they started printing. Picture: TSPL

He would have asked me how revision for my Highers was going and I would have tried to change the subject to the latest LP I’d purchased, doubtless something with flutes and mellotrons from the prog-rock section.

Now, if this scene was replicated by a father and son today perhaps the pundits would be chuntering on Sportsound – there was no big radio build-up to the football in ’74 – and the boy would be glued to his phone.

But I can’t be feeling too superior about the fact that we talked and this pair probably didn’t because with all the info available to them they would at least have known the match had been called off.

In our innocence and ignorance we parked the X19 and walked the last few hundred yards to Dens Park. That’s funny, I thought to myself, there would usually have been a programme-seller on that corner.

And where were the hodden grey masses, tramping Lowry-like towards the stadium? There were no programme-sellers because there was no game. Ah, but programmes were produced…

What happened to them has intrigued me for years. Obviously it hasn’t been on my mind constantly otherwise by now my wife would have divorced me.

But still: these programmes would have been unwrapped and held in chittering fingers until the moment the game wasn’t happening.

Were they then dumped in the nearest bins after which the sellers, snapping icicles of frozen snot from their noses, ran home to three-bar electric fires, Grandstand and glorious motocross from some muddy hillside?

Well, if they were thrown away or pulped back at Dens, some survived. I keep watching eBay hoping one will turn up. My programme dealer tells me that if this ever happens I can expect to pay a few hundred quid for it.

That really would end my marriage.

Darling wife: “I’ve tolerated your obsession for long enough. I’ve allowed you to chip away at the household budget to buy programmes for games you’d either lost or weren’t able to purchase on the day.

“I’ve allowed you to buy programmes for games you didn’t attend. But I draw the line at ghost games which didn’t actually happen. 
“It’s over. We talk through my lawyer. I’m taking the kids, the Harold Robbins first editions and the speedboat.”

So what, then, am I bid for the official parchment from Forfar Athletic’s 1970 Scottish Cup tie with Rangers? I’ve dug out my copy because it would seem to be a ghost programme.

The Loons, in explaining the other day why they’re stopping the presses, put the start of publication at 1975. Am I sitting on a small fortune? Unlikely. 
Probably the club mean that regular programme production began in ’75 and the cup issue was a special one-off for the visit of, in Station Park chairman W F Callander’s words, “one of the finest football clubs in the world and by far the most expensive playing pool in Scotland”.

The mighty Gers’ line-up included Gerry Neef, Kai Johansen, Andy Penman and Alfie Conn, while Forfar were captained by Archie Knox, Dennis Milne had arrived in Angus via Arsenal and Royal Antwerp and midfield schemer Tommy Mackle had had his Celtic career interrupted by National Service on the Rhine. 
Never mind these guys, though, what about the adverts? Here’s a good one: “For all your sand and gravel requirements… ”

Upcoming entertainment for members of the Loons supporters’ club was a “beat dance” featuring The Escorts (probably not a prog band). And of course: “When in town buy the famous Forfar bridies… ”

All that local colour, all that social history.

It’s sad that Forfar are scrapping their programme but the club insists that sales have fallen to “unacceptable levels”.

Another problem has been finding contributors and I suppose there must be a limit to how many times one can recall the occasion of Station Park’s record crowd of 10,780 – the Rangers game – especially when the Ibrox club tanked the home team 7-0 and obviously had no intention of allowing another Berwick-style humiliation.

Programmes are being usurped by club websites and social media accounts.

This analogue matchday tradition is being similarly thrashed by the digital outlets available to teams now. Bigger clubs will be able to keep publishing for a while, and if your team has a fan whose anorak smells of fusty newspapers then keep buying him sustaining cups of Bovril because his enthusiasm for writing about old games will ensure your programme stays interesting for the nutters who love such things.

I wouldn’t call Judy Murray a nutter but Scotland’s First Lady of Tennis was at Hampden when our women warmed up for the World Cup against Jamaica and she lamented the absence of a programme.

“There is so much more we can do to promote the team,” she wrote in her newspaper column. “The more information we can put out there, the better the chance we have of raising the profile of the players,” Judy added.

The printed word in all forms is under threat so programmes are in good company. If they were all to fold then I guess that would push up prices of old ones.

Good news as regards my collection but bad news for the continuing quest for my ghost. That Baltic afternoon in ’74 we didn’t head back down the road straight away.

We hit swingin’, downtown Dundee in search of a snooker hall, couldn’t locate one, found a record shop, Dad bought me a Gentle Giant album as an inducement to passing my History exam (I failed it), then he vouched for me being over 18 (I wasn’t) to be able to see Jack Nicholson’s X-rated The Last Detail.

Chips on the way home while listening to Scottish country dance music rounded off a memorable day so I’m sure you can understand why I crave this souvenir.