Both Pete Sixsmith and I have revelled in nostalgia for the Saturdays that were incomplete without a) football (honest, we saw football on Saturdays) and b) the “Pink” on the way home.
For home games, that meant getting off the train in Durham and having time before the connection to Bishop Auckland to drop down into town, have coffee and a pie and buy the football paper. We hoped the Echo would come before we had to climb back up the hill; sometimes we had to make do with the Newcastle Evening Chronicle version though on a good day we could get both.
Away from home was as simple: wherever you went, there was bound to be a Pink (except that the town or city in question might use green or even blue paper).
In more recent times, these football specials have been falling like swatted flies. A great relic of more glorious days for the press is now all but dead.
Murdoch-directed changes to the rituals of football mean there is, far too often, no relevant match finishing at a time to coincide with a Saturday evening paper’s deadlines. And of course, people are not reliant on newspapers in the way they were; scores, results and interviews and are available in all sorts of other ways.
So the surprise is less that there are so few left, but that there are any at all. I still enjoy the Football Echo, which I took on subscription for some years and still see, either because I’ve been around to buy one of because Pete has sent his copy on. And there are three other cities around the country to maintain the proud tradition: Sheffield, Portsmouth and Southampton.
It made for a little piece in today’s edition of The National, Abu Dhabi, written in the hope that in these places at least, the Pink – or, in Sheffield’s case, the Green ‘Un – will continue to survive even if thrive may not be precisely the right word, Bear in mind it was written for the business pages of a newspaper that is unlikely to have many SAFc supporters among its readers …
It is a tough old game running a newspaper in the second decade of the 21st century.
In Paris, the daily France-Soir, founded by resistance leaders in 1944 and once able to claim sales of more than a million copies, has been placed under court protection for four months, freezing debts while a long-term solution is sought to its financial crisis.
With a circulation now hovering around 70,000, it is kept alive only by generous cash injections from the Russian owner, Alexander Pugachev, which he estimated in an interview last November at about €2 million monthly. Other French titles have serious financial problems, leaving few outside the regional press and a group of children’s daily newspapers able to claim reasonably strong health.
In the US, editors complain they no longer have enough staff or editorial resources to consider their publications to be papers of record.
And in the UK, to add to the problems caused by the phone hacking scandal, commercial pressures are inflicting a slow death on a grand institution of British newspaper publishing: the Saturday night football “Pink”.
It may seem the least of the industry’s problems. The Newspaper Society, which represents the British local and regional newspaper industry as a whole, could not even provide the names or locations of those still in publication.
But such is the lure of nostalgia, especially for football supporters of a certain age, that the complete passing of the Pink would seem like a minor national tragedy.
The reasons are straightforward: the price of televised football includes having to accept so many kickoffs on Saturday evenings, Sundays and beyond that newspapers struggle to keep up to date. People also have instant access, via broadcasting, internet and mobile phones, to sporting results and comment.
But until relatively recent times, virtually every British town that had an evening paper also had a Saturday evening sports edition.
In fact, although the Newspaper Society may not know it, only four survive. One – printed by the Sheffield Star – chooses a different colour and is known as “the Green ‘Un”.
Mention of Sheffield would have some people scratching their heads.
Why would a city without Premier League football – both once-mighty Sheffield teams, Wednesday and United, play in League One, the misleading name for the third tier – need a sports special on Saturday nights?
But survive it does, along with the Southern Daily Echo in Southampton, and Football Mail in Portsmouth (both covering teams currently playing in the Championship, or second division), and the Football Echo in Sunderland, which at least has a Premier club.
“Ours is not under threat but is constantly under review,” says Ian Murray, the editor of the Southern Daily Echo. “But we feel it makes a valuable contribution.”
The paper sells only about 5,000 copies, compared with the average daily sale of the main edition of 35,000. But Mr Murray feels it offers an important showcase for local and youth sport as well as chronicling the fortunes of Southampton FC and maintaining a presence in summer, when cricket takes precedence.
He also believes some regional press groups closed their equivalents as a knee-jerk response to a “fashion” within the industry.
No one predicts Pink ‘Uns that have ceased publication – the most successful English footballing city, Manchester, lost its version as long ago as 2000 – are likely to return.
But the appetite of rich men for owning newspapers, even if they do not make them richer, has not quite died, as is shown by the examples of Mr Pugachev in Paris and Alexander Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard and Independent, in London.
If they should find their heads turned and wish to study a model, they might do worse than look at the Football Echo in Sunderland. Despite summer rumours, the Saturday edition has reappeared for the new season.
“Circulation is very dependent on results,” says Rob Lawson, the editor. “If Sunderland win, it’s about 14,000 to 15,000, if they lose we’re lucky to do 10,000, compared with the main paper’s circulation of about 31,000 a night.”
Overseas subscriptions, offered to exiles living and working around the world, are especially popular.
Perhaps the new breed of press baron could contemplate resurrecting a gimmick from the past.
When Sunderland went down to England’s old second division in 1958, the first relegation in the club’s history, the paper changed from pink to white “in shame”, says Mr Lawson.
It initially recovered to a “strange greeny blue” before regaining its traditional colour on promotion a few seasons later.
* See also: Echoes of the Past