It’s been the slowest of deaths, but yesterday the “Saturday final” edition of a singular British institution will be just that. While in the last 20 years beloved pink ’uns and green ’uns (and the occasional blue ’un and buff ’un) have disappeared from towns and cities across the country, Portsmouth’s Saturday evening Sports Mail, 119 years old, held out as the last remaining dedicated matchday newspaper. It was first closed down in 2012 but quickly resurrected at the impassioned demand of fans of Pompey, the island city’s club. This time, the obituary is to be believed.
With it goes a century of a particular collective memory: that Saturday evening ritual of heading up to the local newsagent at 5.30 or 5.45 to await the mundane miracle of a stack of fat papers slung from the back of a van reporting from all across the city what had ended only an hour before, ink still smudgeable on banner headlines.
There were generally two categories of punter in those newsagent queues: kids like me who had biked up there to pick up a paper to take home in order to dissect awayday match reports with their dad (and later to pore over the implication of attendance statistics and substitutions), and men in Philip Larkin’s old-style hats and coats on their way home from the bookies or the boozer or the match, stamping their feet in the cold and grumbling that it was late this week, impatient for the moment they could run a finger down the classified scores and see if this time their pools numbers had finally come up – or if their Spot the Ball guess had been spot on.
Just as the National Lottery did for the pools, so the internet has long done for the pink ’un. The impulse, mainly among men and boys, dads and lads, for team gossip, player ratings, transfer speculation, something to discuss in the pub or the workplace, has not diminished, but it is not now confined to teatime on a Saturday. It is, like everything else, always in your pocket or on your screen, searchable in the sleepless early hours, tweetable over a lunchtime sandwich. Like all news, unmoored from its allotted time and place, its pink or green physicality, it has lost a little of its specific magic.
When I called Neil Allen, sports editor at the Portsmouth News one morning in the middle of last week, he was inevitably just filing some copy about Pompey for the website and promised to call back in quarter of an hour when it was done.
He has worked on the Saturday paper for more than 20 years. He grew up waiting at the newsagent’s for Birmingham’s pink Sports Argus, the original of the genre, which had first had the idea of utilising that hour between matches ending and pubs opening to report on then all-conquering Aston Villa (and their Black Country rivals) in 1882, and only stopped in 2006.
Allen had always tried to model the Portsmouth paper on that tradition, recalling the importance of the Argus’s peerless coverage of local non-leagues and amateur sports, cricket in the summer, old boys’ rugby, the way the whole ladder of a city’s competition from muddy local rec to manicured top-tier stadium could be found in one place.
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire did for the papers to begin with. Sky Sports’ insistence that the Premier League happened all week and not just at 3pm on a Saturday left far too many pastel pages yawning. No point in producing the sports paper for a five o’clock kick-off if the newsagents would be closed when the match ended.
“That was a total pain when Portsmouth were in the Premier League,” Allen says, “but it’s still mostly 3 o’clocks in the lower leagues.” The real issue is online. What kid could be persuaded to get a bike out to wait in the cold to buy something that they can scroll to on the sofa?
The original stay of execution for the Portsmouth paper came about in 2013 because closure coincided with the fans’ buyout of Pompey, which was facing liquidation. The Evening Mail was reborn as part of that emotional moment, the local paper bonding with local supporters. It pledged to stay in business just as long as supporters pledged to buy it, with a percentage of the sale price going back to the club.
There has been a similar kind of nostalgic response to news of the demise this time around, Allen says, but mainly from the club’s supporters who regretted not keeping up their side of the bargain. “It’s just time to change,” Allen says. “It’s nobody’s fault.”
One thing that hasn’t changed for Allen and his colleagues is the final-whistle adrenaline that accompanies match reports, but these days it’s a slightly lonelier business. He still has to get his thousand words and his player ratings done for the website on the final whistle, but these days it’s just him and his laptop, no soothing presence of a copytaker down the phone, chuckling at your jokes, wincing at your purple prose.
You could measure the progress of technology in the medium by which news made it to sports papers. Frank Keating, the great Guardian sports writer, once recalled how before his first shift on the Gloucester Citizen’s pink’un, the paper’s Dickensian editor took him up to the office roof to show him “the crumbling remains of the pigeon-cote where, decades before, matchday copy would arrive”. He was reminded of one of Arnold Bennett’s Tales of the Five Towns, when a frantic subeditor was required to unfastens scores from a bird’s leg: “Midland Fed: Axe Utd v Macclesfield Tn. Fog. Match Abandoned 3.45.”
These days the only frantic fingers, Allen suggests, are his own, when the sports reporter’s worst nightmare happens and a last-minute equaliser makes everything written redundant. “It’s so much harder to rewrite when you are typing rather than talking,” he says.
If the medium is constantly evolving, the message tends to remain familiar. The final edition of the Mail looks ahead to Portsmouth’s prospects for the coming season, its last printed word on the club. How are things shaping up? I wonder.
“Not that promising,” Allen confesses. “The season kicks off next week and they haven’t got a single senior striker on the books.”