Football magazine that was right on target

PHILIP BARKER on the anniversary of the launch of a football publishing phenomenon that gave us League Ladders, “You’re The Ref” and “Shootman”

With much fanfare and even an advertising campaign on television, Shoot hit the bookstands 40 years ago this summer, a weekly football magazine costing just 1 shilling, which they said was “for fans of all ages”. At its peak, Shoot had a circulation of 600,000.

In the summer of ’69, when England were still officially the world champions, Leeds United were League champions (which means that they had won what is now called the Premier League), while Manchester City were the FA Cup-holders and, at the Baseball Ground, a young manager called Brian Clough had just guided Derby to promotion. There was English success in Europe too, in the forerunner of the UEFA Cup, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, where the winners were Newcastle United.

England captain Bobby Moore was the first star columnist for Shoot. Chris Davies, an SJA member, was also on that launch editorial team, as “Shootman”.

“They were great great days,” Davies says. “It was a great learning curve. Even now, some of my best contacts are still from Shoot.

“In the first issue, we had an ‘action’ picture of Francis Lee and noticed was wearing a watch, so we had to airbrush that out.”

Given away free with that first edition were the cherished “League Ladders”, a piece of pre-computer age technology – well, cardboard – which allowed readers to maintain the very latest tables throughout the season. At least, as long as the vital colour card tabs with the club names of East Fife, Stenhousemuir, or Manchester United did not disappear into the unforgiving path of the vacuum cleaner.

“We used to get letters from people asking us to send them replacement Liverpools or whatever,” says Davies.

“If its a good idea, then I claim it,” he says, “but I think it might have been the marketing guys who came up with it. The League Ladders were incredibly popular.”

For many people, the magazine’s panel of star writers was a major attraction.

George Best was an early signing. “We’d sit in a fish and chip shop near his agent’s office drinking tea out of a chipped mug and we’d end up choosing our team for the world to play against the moon. He loved talking football. He was the best player I ever saw,” says Davies.

“Trying to do a column with George in those days was not easy – there were no mobiles – yet somehow it was always done. It was nice to sit down for an hour with a player and for them to chat and do an interview. These days, that sort of thing is almost unheard of unless there’s a sponsor involved.”

Shoot was responsible for the introduction of a cartoon strip called “You are the Ref”. Stanley Lover, of the London Referees’ Association, set the questions and Paul Trevillion did the illustrations.

Some of the scenarios were downright bizarre. “A goalkeeper throws a cap with a lead lined peak, diverting the ball over the crossbar. Do you rule A, B, or C ?” Davies recalls.

Shoot even anticipated the obsession with celebrity trivia. “We were the first to do questions and answers with top players, ask them their favourite film, actor, hobby and so on. We would send the footballer a form and they’d send it back. We had very very few refusals.”

Few footballers had flash cars in those days. They were more likely to drive a Ford Cortina than a Mercedes. Even international stars like Eusebio were happy to answer Shoot’s questionnaire.

In its first year, Shoot homed in on football’s north-south divide: “Wake up London and the sleepy South, stir yourselves you Midland clubs. The North has you licked where it matters most,” an editorial said in an early issue, highlighting the dominance of Manchester United and Liverpool.

Aston Villa were then in Division Three (League 1 in today’s parlance) and Tommy Docherty had just arrived as their manager. “The Doc has spent £250,000 to make Villa great again,” Shoot related, undoubtedly not imaging that in four decades’ time, such an amount would represent barely a fortnight’s wages for some players.

As it was, nearly half of Docherty’s spending went on buying Bruce and Neil Rioch. And Tommy would surely have agreed with another Shoot article which revealed: “The secret of being a successful manager – kidology”.

Commercialism had yet to take off but if you looked hard enough in the small ads there were: “Boys Football Teams Outfits in Colours of Famous Clubs”, with prices of up to 41 shillings (£2.05). The other big sellers included cine films of matches – no VHS or DVD machines then – and even records of radio commentaries. One enterprising firm also offered Manchester United lampshades.

Shoot eventually folded in 2008. During its lifespan, football had changed forever.

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