Coronavirus: What will happen to football's 'ghost' programmes of 14 March?

By James LawBBC Sport
Doncaster Rovers programme
Doncaster Rovers had been due to host AFC Wimbledon in League One on Saturday, 14 March

Friday, 13 March 2020 is a day that will go down in British football history.

The announcement that the Premier League, English Football League and Scottish football would be suspended because of coronavirus meant the weekend fixtures disappeared without trace, at the 11th hour.

Although the games were not played, the matchday programmes - in most cases - had already been printed, seemingly never to see the light of day.

BBC Sport has spoken to some of those who put them together, fans who were still desperate to get their hands on one and an expert who thinks they could be valuable in years to come.

'Idea of game being off seemed remote'

With much of the programme material for a Saturday game compiled at the start of the week, many 14 March editions included no reference to the disease that would force games to be called off.

"Most of the copy is put together on the Monday or Tuesday and the idea of the game being called off at that stage because of the coronavirus seemed remote," said Simon Larkins, co-editor of Exeter City programme 'The Grecian'.

He told BBC Sport: "Our programme goes to print at 12pm on a Thursday and I even remember signing it off feeling pretty confident the game was going to go ahead.

"It wasn't until Mikel Arteta [Arsenal manager] became ill on Thursday night and I woke to news that the EFL were having an emergency meeting that I thought that the game was going to be postponed."

The disease did get a mention in the publications of fellow League Two side Grimsby and League One Rotherham, but with no inkling of the dramatic effect it would have on the entire weekend's fixture list.

"There was only a very slight mention of the coronavirus, which was located within our away days supporters' diary of our 2-0 victory over Scunthorpe United," said Grimsby's commercial and marketing executive Sam Strandt.

Rotherham included a statement on the coronavirus, made up of advice from the EFL.

"At this stage, we were talking about cutting back on our visits in the community and of course, handshakes," said media officer Sam Todd.

"Basically acknowledging that we had received the advice from the EFL and other places, taken heed of it and were taking the first steps of action to try and prevent any further spread."

A collector's item?

Exeter City programme
Manchester United fan Phil Strang was due to visit St James Park for Exeter's game against Salford on 14 March to complete his quest to watch a game at each of the 92 Premier League and EFL grounds

While small in comparison to the lost revenue in ticket sales, clubs are now left with hundreds - if not thousands - of unsold, out-of-date programmes.

Rotherham and Grimsby were two of a handful of EFL clubs who put programmes from their 14 March fixtures, against Southend and Carlisle respectively, on sale.

The Millers have sold around 40 issues at a reduced price of £2, while the Mariners said they had "a decent uptake" on those they made available on their club shop and eBay websites.

But why would fans want to buy a souvenir for a match that did not go ahead? Dr Alexander Jackson, collections officer at the National Football Museum, says they could prove valuable in the future.

"In terms of how the collectors' market has developed around cancelled or postponed games, I'm not familiar with prices," he told BBC Sport.

"But I imagine that the scarcity associated with such programmes would make them collectable.

"If the season ends up being cancelled entirely, perhaps the nearest comparison would be the collectability of programmes produced for the short-lived 1939-40 season, which was stopped after three games and with Blackpool top of the First Division.

"The last games were played on 2 September, with war declared the next day and the season immediately cancelled."

'My collection would be missing something'

Southend fan David Smith has a collection of club programmes spanning back to 1955 and is one of those who managed to get their hands on an issue for the postponed Rotherham fixture.

"I wanted to get one mainly from the collector's point of view - I would've felt that this season's programme collection would've been missing something without the Rotherham magazine," he said.

"It's always nice knowing you own something that not many people do but I wish it wasn't to do with such an awful outbreak like coronavirus."

But what will happen to the piles of unused programmes? They might yet come in handy if the games are able to be rearranged.

"This remains to be seen. It may be that we recycle them by using them again with new covers wrapped around a few pages of inserted content," Todd said.

"But with the current situation unlikely to change for the foreseeable, my guess is that we will produce a new programme."

Fan-owned Exeter, meanwhile, say their initial programme for the Salford game will be reused - possibly with a few extra pages added - if the match is played at some point.

"This is because having produced the content and paid for the print we are not in a position as a club to produce another programme for the rearranged game," added Larkins.

Liverpool v Derby programme from 1 May 1990
Liverpool reused their programme, with an eight-page wraparound, for the visit of Derby on 1 May 1990 after the initial game was postponed because of high winds. Player-manager Kenny Dalglish came off the bench for the Reds, who were already champions, to make his last competitive appearance for the club at the age of 39.

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