John Elvin and the football programme design revolution

John Elvin and the football programme design revolution

5 min read

Pioneering the golden era of football programme design, John Elvin tore up the formal code of layouts and traditional typefaces and ushered in a new era
In his all too brief stint in the game, John Elvin created a unique body of groundbreaking work which kickstarted a design revolution of the humble match day programme, an ever-present staple of the national game since Victorian times.
In recent years, back issues of John Elvin’s 1970/71 Sky Blue programme, which he lovingly created in an end-of-terrace house beside Coventry City’s former Highfield Road ground, have acquired an increasing cult status.

The master

Elvin broke all the rules. Ignoring the conventions of the day, he chopped up photos, massacred the formal code of lay-outs and blew-up typefaces beyond the imaginable. They were designs that both summed up the very best of Elvin’s experimental vision, but also reflected a personality that courted controversy.
His work may have divided opinion on the terraces and in the boardrooms of the clubs he worked for, but according to Bernard Gallagher, former programme designer and Elvin protégé, Elvin’s style was utterly disciplined:
“There was always a reason why a particular graphic element looked best where he had placed it. He was the master. He always maintained that football was first and foremost a visual sport”.
"Back issues of John Elvin's 1970/71 Sky Blue programme have acquired cult status"
John Elvin was brought up in a Victorian terraced house in Putney, South London by his mother, a “clippie” on the buses. He was a regular on the terraces at Stamford Bridge, and would often nip across the Thames from his home to see Fulham play at nearby Craven Cottage. After leaving school, Elvin’s love for drawing led him to a design studio situated behind the local brewery, where he began to learn his trade, mostly creating layouts for trade catalogues and periodicals.
Perhaps inspired by the football merchandising goldrush following the 1966 World Cup, Elvin united his love for football and illustration. He founded Soccer Prints, producing brightly coloured posters featuring the likes of Everton’s Alan Ball, Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti, and West Brom’s Jeff Astle.

A new dimension

Elvin's design for Albion News
The year 1969 was the real turning point for John Elvin’s career. He was scouted by the promotions manager at West Bromwich Albion who wanted to change the fortunes of their match day flop, Albion News, which was then ranked one of the worst publications in the Football League.
"Albion News was a game-changer and would end the 1969/70 season as an award winner"
Elvin founded Sportsgraphic with an assistant, illustrator Ron Greenwood, and signed up for the Albion to transform the matchday programme into a brand-new entity. In came an unconventional landscape format with an eye-sizzling layout. The title ALBION NEWS was now boldly emblazoned over two thirds of the cover, accompanied by a watercolour drawing of a sprinting Jeff Astle, WBA’s star striker. Elvin’s manifesto was “new ideas, new format, a new dimension”. Almost entirely printed in black and white, with splashes of Baggies-blue, this one Shilling-priced magazine was a game-changer and would end the 1969/70 season as an award winner.
John Elvin's Sky Blue
The 1960s had been kind to Coventry City FC. A modern City had emerged out of the ruins of the Second World War, and the football club had risen from lower league obscurity to the top flight, with a top sixth finish by the end of the decade. The time was right for City to lure John Elvin and the Sportsgraphic look across the Midlands with an offer of creative freedom to upgrade the club’s Sky Blue match day magazine. Elvin was even handed a studio with a difference. A terraced house in King Richard Street, bang opposite City’s ground.

A breath of fresh air

From the get go, Elvin’s publication excited but also polarised the fans. The Football League Review magazine popped by in November 1970 to see what all the fuss was about. Photographer Peter Robinson can still recall the assignment.
“The place was a hotbed of energy and oozed with creativity. Elvin’s visual language seemed like a breath of fresh air for football, which in essence didn’t understand what he was doing”.
"Elvin's visual language seemed like a breath of fresh air for football"
Though from a photographer’s perspective, Peter was less enthused about seeing Elvin cutting up photos, blowing them up, and even solarising the images.
“Elvin got a buzz out of extending his scissors to anything. It’s a method that doesn’t accommodate the photographer though! For him the design was everything, and he managed to establish a house style, an identity”.

European Sky Blue

Coventry Bayern 1970 ELVIN
During the course of the 1970/71 season, Elvin published 27 issues of Sky Blue, whose cover designs went through three distinct phases, from the white “Tri-line” typeface to Elvin’s introduction of “Neil Bold” printed first in black, then in blue. As well as all the Division One and domestic cup ties, Coventry City had qualified for the European Fairs Cup. Their second round contest was against Bayern Munich. Away from home in the first leg, City lost 6-1 to team with a spine of Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, who all had played in the semi-finals of the World Cup in Mexico that summer.
But for the second leg on November 3, 1970 at Highfield Road, Elvin concocted his classic European Sky Blue issue, with a striking cover image of Müller and a cornucopia of trademark eye-popping double-page spreads within. Very few fans must have expected City to overturn such a big deficit, but they did get to win 2-1 on the night!
It was indeed a season of contrasts for Coventry City. Within the pages of the programme, the 1970/71 season looked wonderful, but on the pitch, the results didn’t fare so well. The hefty price of two bob, twice the cost of other match day programmes, didn’t sit happily with some of the fans. But in his vocal “Say So!” column, Elvin continually reassured them that their two shillings would contribute to the most exciting kind of matchday read, anywhere. The Football League Review Programme Awards agreed and voted the Sky Blue as the best club publication in the country in 1971. But just before the end of the season, Elvin had already been handed a notice to quit.

A rare disease

Without a club, Elvin switched sports to become the in-house designer for Snooker Scene and Hockey Scene magazines, run by the Birmingham-based journalist and sports commentator Clive Everton. Along with Bernard Gallagher his protégée at Albion News as his business partner, Elvin dreamed up a new generation of football magazine dubbed The Illustrated Saturday Man. But the project never materialised, and Elvin returned to London as an art director on The Radio Times.
"Try something highly different and you are bound to cause  argument—controversy is a part of football"
In 1976, he was offered a job at his beloved Chelsea, who were then playing in the Second Division, but it was clear that Elvin’s role as the programme’s designer and art director was going to be restricted. Then, during his second season at the club, John Elvin was diagnosed with Huntington’s, a rare inherited genetic disease which affects the body’s nervous system. He continued to love football, but could no longer work, and struggled to live with Huntington’s for 15 years, until his death at the age of 53 years in 1993.
When interviewed while at his pomp in 1970, Elvin declared that “Football has a tremendous visual appeal and that is what we have set out to do with our match day magazine. We want them to be visual, absorbing and exciting. Try something highly different, and you are bound to cause some argument. Controversy is part of football”.
One Shilling cover
This is an extract from One Shilling: The Football Programme Revolution of 1965-85 by Matthew Caldwell and Alan Dein (Pitch Publishing)
Banner photo: John Elvin at Sportsgraphic (The Football League Review Magazine)]
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