32 Programmes

by Dave Roberts
Bantam Press, £12.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 295 September 2011

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This is a life measured out by football programmes. Roberts is under wifely orders to reduce his collection from 1,134 to 32 and he tells the personal story behind each of his selections. The other 1,102, it is revealed much later, simply go into storage. I was quite worried about them for a while.

In Matthew Eastley's From Bovril to Champagne the FA Cup finals of the 1970s were the peg for a "life through football/football through life" narrative. 32 Programmes has a similar structure with a more eclectic match selection ranging from non-League to the World Cup.

Success in this genre depends on four factors: resonance, humour, insight and personality. Personally I can't fault the resonance. We're virtually the same age and only geography prevented us from becoming stamp-collecting, Valiant-reading, Subbuteo mates – I've even got two of his 32 programmes. More broadly, he reminds us of how tightly focused our generation's attention was in the early 1970s on the few stand-out or televised games like West Ham v Hereford or Crystal Palace v Manchester United in 1972.

But, as almost all of his selection dates from 1982 or before, there is less here for the younger reader. As for humour, there are a couple of laughs and some wry smiles at the recalled foolishness of young men in thrall to the gods of football. But one of the penalties of this resonance is that you can often guess correctly what is coming next.

Another penalty is the lack of fresh insight. There's not much here that you feel you haven't read somewhere else over the last 20 years. There is surprisingly little about the programmes as such and more than you might expect, or want, in match-report detail. How at a distance of 45 years you can recall John Connelly's shot hitting the Daily Express advert is beyond me but Roberts apparently did take notes and there's not a factual error to be found anywhere. His stories come alive when they involve some direct connection with the game, like meeting a player or winning a prize tracksuit, but more involve association with his purely personal landmarks, some
charmingly so.

Roberts's stylistic personality is that of the semi-apologetic male, the type that is self-confessedly a bit weird, yet hopes the confession outweighs the oddness. "Thirteen has been my unlucky number ever since I conceded as many keeping goal for my Boy Scouts team," he writes. When will this kind of self-debasement cease?

Men collect. That's what they do. I know an international banker and a City lawyer, both with programme collections to die for. If someone chooses to collect Bournemouth, home and away, rather than French Impressionist paintings it doesn't make him any less of a man. In my eyes, anyway. Roberts offers, at a rather steep £12.99, less of a window into the soul of the programme collector, more of a pleasant rummage through his bottom drawer.

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