Design and football, part of the game’s evolution

FOOTBALL’s dynamism has long been built around spectator involvement, colourful characters on and off the field and exploitation of the mass media. Marketing the game has revolved around these elements and other more peripheral aspects such as iconography, typography and visual identity have been influenced by four things: club crests; club strips; history; and the homes of the clubs, the stadiums. These have long represented the visual representation of virtually every football institution and hence, when a club has changed any of these, it is usually accompanied by fan protest or discontent.

London’s Design Museum is currently running an interesting exhibition called Designing the Beautiful Game which looks at the various ways football has packaged itself over the decades. It’s a colourful, fascinating walk through the game’s history, including the increasing boldness of stadiums, the innovation of individuals in trying to challenge the status quo and the growing prioritisation of finance.

While we kick-off with homely Pathe films about hand-made footballs and examples of boots more suited to heavy duty building work than sport, we pass through displays of that great symbol of commercial opportunism, the ever-changing football shirt, to see models and photos of stadiums far removed from the traditional arena, such as Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, the proposed rebuild of Stamford Bridge and the sheer brutalism and beauty of AC Milan’s San Siro or Braga’s incredible structure in Portugal. The work of architects such as Herzog & de Meuron and Populous has taken football stadium ideas to an unprecedented level.

World Cup posters were one of the first print products to combine art with football. Take a look at the first posters from the 1930s and they cannot be confused with any other period, likewise in the 1950s, they are very representative of their time. While these pieces of art were, in their own way, the future, the rest of football at the time was still stuck in its quite parochial past.

In the early 1970s, Coventry City pushed the envelope further than any other club with its match programmes. Designed by one John Elvin, who had been poached from producing West Bromwich Albion’s ALBION NEWS, Coventry’s SKY BLUE was imaginative, exciting and so far ahead of its time. In fact, football programmes today lack the vision of Elvin’s work and are full of cliché, commercial intention and carefully cultivated messaging. The Design Museum pays tribute to the work of Coventry City providing a reminder of just how forward-looking the club was in its heyday.

More recently, clubs have recognised the need to portray their identity as a corporate logo, dispensing with historical but complex heraldry and introducing easily-recognisable and eye-catching badges, a trend that started back in the 1970s. But in the age of instant gratification and distraction, the simpler the image, the easier it is to remember. The redesign of Juventus’s badge is a prime example of transformation of brand identification, their “J” has become a form of corporate ID that can be replicated with ease across media, products and digital content. Not everyone likes it, the traditionalists are always likely to complain, but Juventus have almost taken ownership of the letter J in Italy.

Design is undoubtedly moving football into a new space, although some of the football kits being produced may suggest creativity is going a little too far at times. But in many other ways, it is creating a more spectacular game, although those controlling the purse string would be wise to ensure that beneath the gloss and artistry, there is genuine substance.

The exhibition continues until August 29 at the Design Museum, Kensington High Street, London.

Farewell Albert Sewell, the man who invented the classic programme

HOW sad to hear of the passing of Albert Sewell, Chelsea fan, programme guru, statistician and, above all, a genuine football fan.

Albert Sewell, in the late 1940s, initiated a magazine-style programme at Chelsea, the first club to change the way football communicated with its fans. Sewell’s trail-blazing publication was soon copied by all and sundry and Chelsea had an incredible record for selling a programme to almost everyone in the crowd, in an age when gates were booming.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, Chelsea’s programme was among the very best, and it was the friendly, accessible style of Sewell that set the benchmark. Chelsea fans will remember the intro to many a season’s programme, “The Talk of Stamford Bridge”, a tag that was replicated by many clubs.

Embed from Getty Images

He wrote an excellent book, Chelsea Champions, to mark the club’s 50th anniversary, which coincided with a first league title. He then repeated the trick in the early 1970s with the Chelsea Football Book.

Always magnanimous in victory or defeat, Sewell created a marvellous link between Chelsea and the fans. He truly cared and in 1974 when he urged the club to move forward once more after a grim couple of seasons, he was nudged aside by the board. Sewell, forever the optimist and standard-bearer, had seen what was happening at the club and was replaced. As a result, the Chelsea programme, for so long a market leader, declined, until in 1976-77 they brought him back. Chelsea readers rejoiced and his return to the editor’s desk was marked with a much-needed promotion. When things were bad, fans could, at least, console themselves with a first-class publication.

He later worked for Match of the Day and was often mentioned as the man behind the scenes who could come up with any fact or figure the TV programme desired.

Albert Sewell was a big influence on some people, myself included. As a young lad, his programme editorials were a catalyst and instilled in me a wish to become a writer. In some ways, Sewell was my first inspiration and my own career as a business and football scribe owes its source to reading those Chelsea programmes from the 1960s and 1970s. When I celebrated 25 years at Deutsche Bank as a business writer (and part-time football writer), I was asked who my writing influences were. I named Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh, JB Priestley, Patrick Leigh Fermor and…Albert Sewell. A few heads were scratched, but then I explained.

I truly owe Albert something. Thank you and RIP, Mr. Sewell.

Top picture, even players read Sewell’s programme notes. Roy Bentley and Ken Armstrong of Chelsea’s 1955 title-winners. Photo: PA

A new approach to non-league programmes is needed

A familiar sight...unsold programmes
A familiar sight…unsold programmes

Football news is in demand like never before. All supporters want to read about their favourite team and gorge on information. Whether it’s Real Madrid or Rhyl, Milan to Montrose, fans are desperate to know what’s happening. But they don’t want to pay for it.

One of the rituals of going to a game – especially when you are young – was buying your programme and absorbing every line. Today, especially in non-league football, the day of the programme is on the decline – probably terminally. Clubs all over the pyramid are bemoaning declining sales as supporters gain all they need to know from the internet.

It’s time to face facts. Non-league clubs  are up against it when it comes to funding a programme and actually getting someone to produce it for them. There’s little motivation in working 10-12 hours a week on a product that only 20% of your crowd is bothering to buy. “I  just look at the website, it doesn’t cost anything,” is a comment you often hear when a fan is asked if they buy a programme. And it’s a trend that has gathered momentum.

The problem is, the leagues demand that you produce a programme of a certain size, so clubs have to deliver a product they know will not make money, and at best, will break even. It’s a loss leader.

The time has come to make life easier for non-league clubs that are, essentially, part-time on the field and increasingly full-time off the pitch. Add up the time spent by the dozen or so people that most clubs rely on and it will probably equate to two to three people working full-time. It’s not easy and if the demands continue, it basically means that non-league will continue to be the domain of retired and semi-retired men (i.e. people with time on their hands).

So what’s the answer? Get innovative or get retro.  Scrap the programme, introduce the team-sheet concept and leverage off the power of the internet when it comes to advertising revenue. Football clubs have been slow in utilising the internet for advertising purposes – the website will always come out on top if you analyse the stats. If a 300 crowd yields 60 programme sales, the total exposure for the season, at best, is 1,800 people. An advert on the web can be seen by 20,000 people a week, and that’s conservative. No contest – you just have to persuade local businesses that the internet is the way ahead.

One way of exploiting the internet is to introduce apps that supporters can plug into on their smart phones. The really tech-savvy clubs could time the launch of information so fans can access the line-ups, scores and team news before the kick-off.

Another Heath Robinson idea is to bring back the sandwich board concept as a fun alternative. A willing horse could be led around the pitch with a board displaying the teams. It could become a pre-match and half-time ritual! A sort of human App!

Whatever happens, sales will go down and costs up. Let’s stop pretending we’re all Manchester United and embrace the low-cost  technological age. Programmes 2.0, I say.