In Sheffield the other night for Wednesday's FA Cup replay against Blackpool, a fish supper from the quite splendid Four Lanes chippy outside Hillsborough seemed to be called for, and chatting to the counter staff while awaiting my piece of haddock to be battered and cooked I was surprised to be asked, on revealing the nature of my visit to the city, whether I was covering the game for the Green 'Un.
"Don't be silly," the fish frier butted in. "It's a Tuesday night isn't it? Everybody knows the Green 'Un only comes out on a Saturday."
That put the girl with the chip shovel in her place, though what surprised me was that the Green 'Un still came out at all. Saturday football specials belong to the past, like wooden football rattles, centre partings, and stray pet animals invading the pitch to hold up big games without being hunted down at home by Sky Sports News television crews a day later. The Liverpool Echo's Football Pink, one of the most famous and best loved, with its masthead logos of Kopite and Everton toffee lady letting you know the fortunes of the two big clubs before even reading the print, is sadly no more. The Manchester Evening News no longer does a Saturday football edition either. You probably need a decent-sized city to do a football special, and it undoubtedly helps if you have two rival teams within it. Sheffield fits that bill perfectly, and not only is the Star's Green 'Un still going, more than a century after it first hit the streets, it had a relaunch as recently as last month.
Why, the chip shop proprietor wanted to know, had so many of the other famous football specials fallen by the wayside? The short answer to that question is that no one needs them any more. They were always something of a vanity or prestige publication, plumping out circulation figures but making little money due to carrying hardly any advertising, and even by the 60s and 70s most people had radios and television to tell them the football results.
Some people liked to see the results in print as soon as possible, mainly for the purposes of checking their pools coupon, while others – usually small boys – liked to read heavily biased match reports and scrutinise minutely small losses and gains within a newly published league table. There were no adverts in these papers because everyone reckoned that only men read them, yet my mother spent a fortune on Spot the Ball competitions every single week, often resorting to multiple entries and special trips to the sorting office to catch the last post, without ever winning a bean.
All part of Saturdays past, including the inevitable mistakes and formulaic writing that went with impossibly early deadlines, and there is no doubt that many football specials long outlived their actual usefulness by virtue of their status as an inexpensive yet treasurable element of the match-day ritual. Even people who attended matches used to buy Pinks and Greens. In Liverpool it was a source of pride to have the Echo's football edition available outside and around the grounds just half an hour after the end of the game, because in addition to the routine of checking whether the match reporter had "seen the same game" as you, you would always be interested in how the other team had fared away from home.
That is what is most different about Saturdays now and Saturdays back in the day. The real reason Football Specials began to struggle has nothing to do with radios, videprinters, the internet, mobile phones or Twitter, and everything to do with the changing nature of Saturday football. The essence of an old-fashioned Saturday was that every team in the land, including the local two or three, kicked off at 3pm. Every Saturday. Now it is not like that. Manchester United have been known to go for a month without a 3pm Saturday kick-off, and now City are just as newsworthy they are becoming the same. A 5.30pm kick-off is no use to a football Pink or Green, and a Sunday or a Monday night game might as well not exist. In the Premier League at least, there have been occasions in Manchester and Liverpool when neither local side has played on a Saturday, and with playing the pools also a social habit in sharp decline, that spells unsustainability.
No Saturday football equals no Saturday football specials. I would hazard a guess (that means I haven't done any research on the subject) that playing in the lower leagues has protected the Sheffield clubs and the paper that covers them from the televising of too many of their games and has allowed the Saturday routine of old to continue for longer. Were one or both in the Premier League they would soon find their activities spread irritatingly across television's three-day weekend.
Sometimes a two-day weekend is bad enough, since the obvious downside to the concept of a Super Sunday is that it can often leave Saturday looking wan and unappetising. There was a peculiar feeling of community brought about by attending a match on a Saturday afternoon in the old days – you had the idea that every other right-minded person in the country was doing the same thing. Now it is all too easy to harbour the suspicion that you are paying over the odds to watch dull fare on a Saturday, while the rest of the country gets the beer and peanuts in ready to settle down on the couch and watch the real action a day later.
That's progress, I suppose, though one can get too nostalgic about these things. There probably wouldn't have been too many Saturdays of old to compare with the prospect offered by a quite brilliant set of fixtures this weekend. Beginning with the big game at Old Trafford, which has more grudges and subplots than a whole Charles Dickens anniversary, there are relegation derbies at Bolton and Blackburn, another wealthy club for David Moyes to attempt to ambush at Goodison, a tantalising meeting of the two best promoted sides at Swansea and an irresistible encounter between the resurgent Martin O'Neill and the now fallible Arsène Wenger on Wearside. To cap it all off there is a top-five battle at 5.30pm at White Hart Lane that promises to be at least as exciting as the earlier televised game, and for good measure there is the Black Country derby on Sunday lunchtime.
So let's not say everything was better in the old days. What we have at the moment is pretty good, I'm sure you will agree. I don't think in-play betting is a particularly good swap for Saturday night Spot the Ball entries, but I reckon if my mother tried her hand she might enjoy the occasional success. She couldn't possibly do any worse, and she could finally throw away the rubber stamp that marks a hundred crosses in one go. Where did she buy the stamp? It was advertised on the competition page in the Football Pink, of course. You had to admire the acumen as well as the cheek. It wasn't only the love of football that kept those old titles going for so long.