In the Pink
Nick Catley on getting your football news in a time before the internet
Funnily enough, it was never really a Watford thing, for me at least. I just about remember popping down to Jennifer’s News on the old A41 in Berkhamsted (not the nearest newsagent, but the right side of the main road and thus the only one my mum would allow a seven-year-old to visit unaccompanied) to get the Evening Post-Echo, but I hadn’t grasped its full glories by the time it ceased publication in 1983.
Instead, the charms of such Saturday-evening sports papers – often known collectively as football pinks, or pink ‘uns, although they were printed on paper of various different colours (the Post-Echo remains the only white one I remember) – revealed themselves on journeys back from various far-flung destinations from 1994 onwards, when I started travelling to just about every Watford game.
Their joy came from a number of sources. The sheer logistics of the things – in newsagents and on station concourses and street corners within an hour of the final whistle in, then, every game in the country – have been well documented, but are none the less remarkable for that. Large chunks prepared in advance and reports phoned through at half-time, with only brief updates, scores and tables added after the matches had finished, were a form of sleight of hand that somehow made these barely credible publications feasible.
The production still doesn’t really explain the attraction, however. They might have echoed Samuel Johnson’s comment about a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”. For a long time, though, they were a genuine source of information. You might hear the odd result announced on your way out of the ground, or catch one or two while walking away from it next to the bloke carrying an enormous radio that probably wouldn’t be allowed through the turnstiles these days (and there was, always, always at least one). But when you got back to the station – or, given the timescales, changed trains on the way home – you could pick up your passport to an informative and entertaining train ride home for around 30 pence.
There were, amongst others, the (pink, and later green) Sports Argus in Birmingham, the Sheffield Star Green ‘Un and the Manchester Evening News Football Pink. Many a trip back from Oakwell, Hillsborough, Turf Moor or the City Ground was enlivened in this way – and, if you hung on for a pint and caught a later train, visits to St Andrew’s and Bramall Lane too.
These days of course, we have, as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul might say, information up the wazoo. Then, though, a whole afternoon’s sports results set out in front of you was a glorious treat, particularly after a win. You could also enjoy the local reporter saying how lucky Watford had been, or praising us through apparently gritted teeth. You could see in the ‘Stop Press’ section that England had lost three early wickets in Trinidad, or that Hyde had conceded a late equaliser at Marine. You could go through all the results and, crucially, their impacts on tables, all the way back to Watford Junction, ideally at an otherwise unoccupied table with a sandwich, some crisps and a drink bought from a nice place up the road from the station. Essentially, it was mindfulness before I realised mindfulness existed – even now, I struggle to think of anything more relaxing. Perhaps the nearest equivalent I can think of is the way some people might have a nice, long bath, with all sorts of bubbles, candles, rose petals, unguents and essential oils, enjoyed with a glass of Prosecco. It was the icing on a good day’s cake or, when the football was less enjoyable, one of the trip’s highlights.
You sometimes got little insights into other cities, too – for example, why the fans of an apparently perfectly serviceable Sheffield United side that you’d just seen give Watford a thorough humping were massively disillusioned with the manager, or that in Birmingham, as evidenced in the Argus, the local teams were called ‘Blues’ and ‘the Villa’, instead of ‘the Blues’ and ‘Villa’, as it was in the national press. If the journey was delayed, as it often was in those Hatfield-affected days before the perfect railway system we have now, you even got to read about the previous week’s local Sunday League games.
The end for these Saturday-evening friends was, of course, the greater availability of facts. With the rise of teletext and, later, the internet, people had other places to get their information – in truth, they were already past their heyday by the time I started reading them in the mid-90s. Most of them were gone before the smartphone was even thought of – the Evening News in 2000 and the Argus in 2006, although the Green ‘Un hung on until 2013. The Southern Daily Echo Sports Pink, based in Southampton, moved to a Sunday in December 2017, and a tradition passed into history.
I’m not bemoaning the smartphone. Progress is progress, and I use mine as much as the next mildly obsessive football fan. And if I really wanted to go back to those days, I could just turn my phone off until 5:30. I don’t, of course. But I do miss the old ritual – something to do with delayed gratification, rarity value, or even knowledge of the logistical craft required to produce the paper and thus the privilege of holding it in your hands, I suppose. Somehow having everything available on a phone just isn’t quite the same as having it laid out in front of you. Just one last time, I’d love to step back into that warm, welcoming bath – even though you always ended it with your fingers absolutely filthy.