If looks could kill…

These are changing times for Match of the Day, with the BBC struggling to hold on to TV rights but launching a new mag for kids with a design so busy you contract motion sickness if you even glance at its cover. Roger Titford compares this and other titles aimed at boys with those of his youth

My eyes hurt. I’ve sustained an industrial injury through reading Shoot, Match! and Match of the Day magazine in less than 90 minutes. It’s the visual equivalent of downing two litres of fizzy blue pop and half a dozen Boost bars. Yes, suddenly and unexpectedly the boys’ football weekly magazine market has burst back into life, with the three titles all competing at the £1.80 mark.

The last incarnation of Match of the Day magazine was launched into the post Euro 96 euphoria. It closed five years later when the BBC lost Premier League rights. The current version emerges into the spring of a fairly ordinary season before a tournament for which no English-speaking nation has qualified. Maybe that’s my old-fashioned take on the market opportunity and Torres, Ronaldo, Ballack and all will be just as compelling in their international jerseys. In response, Shoot has once more become a weekly title – it was recently selling 35,000 copies as a monthly – while Match!, which was shifting 113,000 a week in the second half of 2007, is fighting back with 50 free stickers and a giant Kaká poster.

As befits the newest kid on the block, MOTD is offering two ace footy gifts. First, I have a “Power Goal Game”. It consists of a dubious-smelling inflatable plastic goalnet and a Subbuteo-style ball. I inflate the net and flick the ball into it half a dozen times. My wife is out, so I’m lacking a competitive element – along with another goal, players, rules, pitch or any form of instruction or guidance whatsoever, other than a warning not to use it as a buoyancy aid. Given that it’s a net and thus consists largely of holes, I can’t think of anything I’d be less likely to use. No doubt my Power Goal Game is the product of weeks of tortuous, penny-pinching negotiation and a journey by sea from China, but I rather fear I shall just have to pop it into the landfill for the next thousand years.

The only thing that gives me a clue there might be more to come lies in my second gift – an A2 size poster of Rooney’s legs, from the knees down only. Perhaps, like Rooney, the Power Goal Game comes in a number of unspecified parts?

The MOTD magazine is lightly sprinkled with the names of key presenters and banal “Motty Facts” (“Reading have only won one Prem away game this season!” is scarcely an exclusive and I’m not sure about the exclamation mark), but otherwise it obeys the conventions of its category. Essentially the category screams at you, all red and yellow, comic typefaces, arrows and slang. The standard issue player-face is now the orgasmic, post-goal snarl and the verbal contents are a frenzy – a world of excitement where everything is amazing, fantastic, wicked and positive, and the weak exist only to be sneered at.

I’m not the target market, but 12-year-old Jack down the road is. He spends ten minutes looking through all three, without visibly flinching, and finds enough to like. MOTD, he thinks, is more for followers of Prem clubs and the other two for followers of other sides. What, like Swindon? He laughs politely. No, Barcelona. He can’t really differentiate Match! and Shoot.

Shoot has the only genuine idea in them, a school-based cartoon strip called Premier League High (motto “Onmi Edson”) which features Prem stars as if they were schoolboys. I always thought Rio ­Ferdinand looked like Plug in The Bash Street Kids anyway. Shoot veers wildly from a mildly informative feature about Torres, linked (naturally?) to a boots promotion, to an opportunity to “make Cesc minging” – that is to ugly-up a photo of Fábregas and send it in to win a DS. If your club is not in the top half of the Prem or in the Champo League quarter-finals, it’s just joke-meat or fact-fodder. Your guys won’t be on one of the 13 consecutive pages of “posters” – certainly not if you’re one of “the Rubbish Rams”.

Match! makes a claim to be ­“best‑selling” and its point of difference is its “world famous Matchfacts”. But if you want team line-ups for anything below the Championship – tough. Despite the fact there has been four-up, four-down between Leagues One and Two (or equivalents) for 50 years, the Match! League table shows only three, giving any junior Gills fans a false sense of security. Match! has a wider scope than Shoot, with interviews with Matty Taylor of Bolton, a relegation guide and an interesting piece on Milan. It deserves to hold its brand-leader status, but cover-mounted free gifts can be crucial in a market where products otherwise look very much the same.

As an outsider, what strikes me is their similarity in terms of content, style and, especially, omission. There’s nothing to read about actually attending a match in person. There is very little to indicate that football is even an outdoor sport. ­Virtually the only time you see the sky is when it looks moody in a boots ad. You feel as if football has become confined to the television and the computer. Do this quiz, cut out and wear that Ronaldo mask, go on-line for more madfootyshit. There’s nothing about the past other than as reference point for crap haircuts and minging kit. There are no team groups and there’s nothing Scottish. Thankfully there’s nothing much about Wags and Baby Bentleys either. And, presumably because it would be commercial suicide, there’s nothing that acknowledges the existence of girls as fans.

Football magazines, like the game itself, are a mirror to a changing society. Shoot and its ilk have been on the shelves for nearly 40 years. Flicking through some back numbers from the 1970s and 80s highlights the shift from analysis to factoids, from an educational culture that believed in the essay to one that relies on multiple choice. Thirty years ago Shoot! (with exclamation mark) had the same kind of content – quizzes, comic strips, interviews, worldwide news – but a totally different style and scope, 300 words from Joe Jopling of Aldershot, for instance, in April 1976. Crowd trouble and other problems were acknowledged. I see a letter from someone I know, aged mid-thirties at that time, asking if any readers had 1920s team photos of Aberdare and Ashington. Remember, this was Shoot, just a generation ago. It may of course have been a commercial disaster. By September 1996, the post-Viz, fanzines, Skinner & Baddiel era, Shoot’s reader is hailed “yo dude” and everything is “wicked”. Astonishingly, that is still the mot juste. In the mid-90s there were plenty of other words to read, too, but they have mostly disappeared now. Soon only the headlines and captions will be left.

Meanwhile the Premier League and their member clubs are much involved in young male literacy projects addressing the “reluctant readers” in our schools. If the kids’ eyes hurt like mine, it’s no wonder.

From WSC 255 May 2008