IIt’s the slowest death ever, but yesterday’s ‘final Saturday’ edition of a singular British institution will be just that. While for the past 20 years the beloved pinks and greens (and sometimes blues and buffs) have vanished from towns and villages across the country, Portsmouth’s Saturday night sports mail, 119, was the last newspaper dedicated to matchdays. It was first closed in 2012 but quickly resurrected at the passionate demand of fans of island city club Pompey. This time, the obituary is to be believed.
With it goes a century of a particular collective memory: that Saturday night ritual of going to the local newsagent at 5:30 p.m. or 5:45 p.m. to await the banal miracle of a pile of thick papers hanging from the back of a van bringing back from all over town what had ended only an hour before, ink still smeared across the headlines of the banners.
There were usually two categories of punters in those newsstand queues: kids like me who had cycled there to pick up a newspaper to take home to dissect match reports with their dad (and later to delve into the implication of attendance statistics and substitutions), and men wearing old-fashioned Philip Larkin hats and coats on their way home from bookies or booze or the match , stamping their feet in the cold and grumbling that it was late this week, eager for the time when they could run a finger down the ranked scores and see if this time their pool numbers had finally arrived – or if their estimate of Spot the Ball had been accurate.
Just as the National Lottery did for swimming pools, the internet has long since done for the pink ‘un. The impulse, mostly among men and boys, dads and guys, for team gossip, player ratings, transfer speculation, something to discuss in the pub or at work, hasn’t diminished, but it’s not limited to Saturday teatime now. It is, like everything else, always in your pocket or on your screen, consultable in the early morning, tweetable over a sandwich at noon. Like all news, detached from its place and time, from its pink or green physicality, it has lost some of its own magic.
When I called Neil Allen, sports editor at Portsmouth News one morning in the middle of last week, he was inevitably dropping off a copy of Pompey for the website and promised to call back in fifteen minutes when it was done.
He has worked for the Saturday newspaper for more than 20 years. He grew up waiting at the Birmingham pink newsagent Sporting Argusthe original of the genre, who first had the idea of using that hour between the end of matches and the opening of pubs to report on Aston Villa (and their Black Country rivals) in 1882, and only stopped in 2006.
Allen had always tried to model the Portsmouth newspaper on this tradition, recalling the importance of Argusthe unparalleled coverage of local non-leagues and amateur sports, cricket in the summer, old boys rugby, the way the whole scale of a city’s competition, from muddy local rec to well-maintained top-flight stadium , could be found in one place.
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire did it for newspapers. Sky Sports’ insistence that the Premier League run all week and not just at 3pm on a Saturday has left far too many pastel pages gaping. No point in producing the sports newspaper for a five o’clock kick off if the newsagents would be closed when the game was over.
“It was a total pain when Portsmouth were in the Premier League,” says Allen, “but it’s still mostly 3 hours in the lower leagues.” The real problem is online. What kid could be persuaded to pull out a bike to wait in the cold to buy something they can cycle through on the couch?
The Portsmouth newspaper’s initial stay of execution came in 2013 because the closure coincided with the fan buyout of Pompey, which was facing liquidation. The Evening Mail reborn as part of this emotional moment, with the local newspaper bonding with local supporters. He pledged to stay in business for as long as supporters pledged to buy him, with a percentage of the sale price going to the club.
There was a similar kind of nostalgic response to the news of the disappearance this time around, Allen says, but mostly from club supporters who regretted not keeping their end of the bargain. “It’s just time for a change,” says Allen. “It’s nobody’s fault.”
One thing that hasn’t changed for Allen and his colleagues is the adrenaline rush of the final whistle that accompanies match reports, but these days it’s a bit more of a solitary affair. He still has to write his thousand words and his player notes for the website at the final whistle, but these days it’s just him and his laptop, no soothing presence of a copier on the phone. , laughing at your jokes, grimacing at your purple prose.
You could measure the advances in technology in the medium through which news reached sports newspapers. Frank Keating, the great Guardian sportswriter, once recalled how, before his first shift on the Citizen of Gloucester’s pink’un, the newspaper’s Dickensian editor, took him to the roof of the office to show him “the crumbling remains of the dovecote where, decades before, matchday copy had arrived.” He remembered one of Arnold Bennett’s movies Tales of the Five Cities, when a frantic sub-editor had to tear the scores off with a bird’s paw: “Midland Fed: Ax Utd v Macclesfield Tn. Fog. Match abandoned 3.45.
These days, the only frantic fingers, Allen suggests, are his own, when the sportswriter’s worst nightmare happens and a last-minute equalizer makes everything written redundant. “It’s so much harder to rewrite when you’re typing rather than speaking,” he says.
If the medium is constantly changing, the message tends to remain familiar. The latest edition of Mail eagerly awaits Portsmouth’s prospects for the coming season, his final word printed on the club. How are things looking? I wonder.
“Not so promising,” admits Allen. “The season starts next week and they don’t have a single senior striker on the books.”