How a collection of football programmes told the story of one man's life

William Hill Sports Book of the Year award -- the contenders

The winner of the 2011 William Hill Sports Book of the Year will be revealed next Monday.  This week, The Sports Bookshelf presents a run-down of the seven titles on the short list. Today:

32 Programmes (Bantam Press)


Almost everyone collects something. A few seconds on Google turns up a woman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who has more than 3,000 frogs (toy ones) and another, in Janesville, Wisconsin, who has accumulated upwards of 100 different mousetraps.

It may sometimes seem weird but it is normal. And for the football fan there is nothing more normal than collecting football programmes.  In the United States, clearly, a man with 1,134 football programmes, such as Dave Roberts, would have barely merited comment.

But when Dave Roberts and his wife decided to move there in 2008, taking with them only essentials, it was determined (by Mrs Roberts) that 1,134 football programmes were not essential.  Tough negotiations followed, after which it was agreed that Dave could take with him only those programmes he could fit into a Tupperware container ‘the size of a Dan Brown hardback’.

The container, it turned out, held 32, hence the title of Roberts’s book, which tells how he whittled down his collection to the 32 he valued most.

Each, naturally, comes with a story attached, and by the time it is written, 32 Programmes has become a life story, each one the trigger for a host of memories, from youthful football obsessions and crushes on disinterested girls, to a series of jobs that culminates, somehow, in a career in advertising. There is marriage -- two marriages -- and children.

But it is not an ordinary life. The first 31 programmes, starting with Fulham against Manchester United, his rite of passage game in September 1964, span 27 years.  Yet between the 31st and the last there is a gap of 17 years.  And, for reasons that have little to do with football, the last one is the most treasured of them all.


“A lovely book … by reproducing their front covers and remembering who he was at each juncture – he’s hand-in-hand with his father, 90 minutes and a whole future not yet determined, then he’s a punk rock fan being invited back to the home of a girl described as  ‘chubby, in a good way’ -- he’s still managed to tell the story of his odd little life.”
--- Aidan Smith, Scotland on Sunday. Read more…

“I’m torn between thinking it the saddest memoir I’ve ever read, or a book that every woman should study, for the unique insight it offers into the impenetrable enigma of the male mind.”
-- Jane Shilling, Mail Online. Read more…

“Very well told…there is a real twist in the tail at the end of the book but that just makes it even more of a worthwhile read.”
-- Bromley News Shopper. Read more…


Dave Roberts was a bike courier, a security guard, a civil servant, a KFC chef and a train driver - all before reaching 20. After that, he settled for a career in advertising, which was eventually cut short by illness.  He is the author of e-luv: an internet romance and the acclaimed The Bromley Boys, both of which -- like 32 Programmes --  have obsession as their theme.  He has three children, one living near Birmingham, another in Leeds and a third in New Zealand. He lives with his wife Liz and her cat in Connecticut, USA.

* * * * * * * 

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world's longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize. As well as a £23,000 cash prize, the winning author will receive a £2,000 William Hill bet, a hand-bound copy of their book, and a day at the races. 

The judging panel for this year’s award consists of broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; broadcaster Danny Kelly; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop. 

The winner will be announced at a lunchtime reception at Waterstone’s Piccadilly (London), Europe’s largest bookstore, on Monday 28th November.

A Life Too Short
The Ghost Runner

The shortlist in full:
1. Among the Fans: From Ashes to the Arrows, a Year of Watching the Watchers by Patrick Collins (Wisden Sports Writing)
2. Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books)
3. The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn't Stop by Bill Jones (Mainstream Publishing)
4. Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson by Paul Kimmage (Simon & Schuster)
5. Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar (Orion)
6. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng (Yellow Jersey Press)
7. 32 Programmes by Dave Roberts (Bantam Press)

Buy 32 Programmes direct from Amazon

More on the 2011 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award

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