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History

HISTORY: The pioneering design of the Sky Blues programme in the 70s - thanks to John Elvin

22 May 2024

History

HISTORY: The pioneering design of the Sky Blues programme in the 70s - thanks to John Elvin

22 May 2024

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. 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 divided opinion on the terraces and in the boardrooms of the clubs he worked for, but not the Designers and Art Directors Association, who stunned the design world by handing out their prestigious award to the creator of a pocket-money priced Coventry City football programme.

I’d connected up with graphic designer Matt Caldwell online in 2019. The previous year Matt had set up the Instagram account @1_shilling to share the graphic history of football programme designs, especially those issued between the 1960s to the mid-1980s. He’d read a piece I’d written enthusing about Elvin, and so we began to delve not just into the story of John Elvin, but other football programme designers of his generation, many of whom had been inspired by Elvin’s publications.

The resulting book; ‘1 Shilling - the Football Programme Revolution of 1965-85’ would be dedicated to John Elvin, and sadly, as we were soon to discover, he was a unique creative spirit in the game, who died far too young…

For Bernard Gallagher, both a former programme designer and an Elvin protégé, Elvin’s style was 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”.

John Elvin, born in 1940, was always a football fan. A Londoner, he was brought up in a Victorian terraced house in Putney by his mother, a conductor or ‘clippie’ on the buses. Hailing from a Chelsea-supporting family, the young Elvin was a regular on the terraces at Stamford Bridge, but he’d also regularly 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 merchandise goldrush following the 1966 World Cup, Elvin decided that his ambition would be to unite his love for football and illustration. He founded ‘Soccer Prints’, producing brightly coloured A2-sized posters featuring the likes of Everton’s Alan Ball, Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti, and West Brom’s Jeff Astle. 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.  Elvin founded ‘Sportsgraphic’ with an assistant, illustrator Ron Greenwood, and signed up for the Albion. Their mission was to transform the whole look and concept of the matchday programme with its unconventional landscape format - the words ALBION NEWS boldly emblazoned over two thirds of the cover - accompanied by a watercolor drawing of a sprinting Jeff Astle, WBA’s star striker.

Elvin’s manifesto for ‘Albion News’ was printed within: “NEW IDEAS, NEW FORMAT, a NEW DIMENSION”. He wrote “this is not just a programme, it is a magazine which is aimed at making you feel a part of the club”. Almost entirely printed in black and white, with splashes of Baggies-blue, this 1 Shilling-priced magazine was a game-changer. The inside spreads were confident, considered, and spectacularly art directed. Looking back to this time, John’s son Mark Elvin who remains a Baggies fan to this day, could see how his father was “consumed by his creation, he was 100% focused on his work”. At first Elvin’s ‘New Dimension’ was described as being “too ahead of its time”, “too arty”, and “not what the average fan wants”. But ‘Albion News’ would end the 1969/70 season as an award winner. Its critical success also began to reverberate around the football world.

The 1960s had been kind to Coventry City. A modern, booming City had emerged out of the ruins of WW2, and the football club had risen out of lower league obscurity to a top sixth finish in the top flight by the end of the decade. Coventry City had already led the way with a matchday magazine styled programme to mark the club’s arrival in the First Division in 1967/68. For its next upgrade, they lured John Elvin and Sportsgraphic across the Midlands.

Elvins first SKY BLUE v Southampton.jpg

Apart from the sky blue colour, the front cover of the first home game of the season against Southampton on the 22nd August 1970 could not have looked more different than before. Just two words ‘Sky Blue’ now consumed 70% of the composition, and Elvin chose a high contrast cut-out of Coventry midfielder Willie Carr as the only photo on the cover. It was Carr who two months later with the ball squeezed between his ankles had flicked-up Ernie Hunt’s legendary ‘donkey kick’ volleyed-free-kick. A goal that entered soccer folklore as one which could never be repeated as that two footed-flick up was promptly banned by the FA…

Elvin dropped the cartoon elephant mascot which in the previous season had cheerily held-up the ‘1 shilling’ price tag in the top corner, with a lengthy typeset announcement declaring “the price you pay is Two Shillings”. Inside, Elvin took full advantage of explaining why The Sky Blue had become the most expensive programme in the Football League.  He produced a bizarre page with type inspired by heavy rock LP covers, and with his zany sense of humour, penned a couple of paragraphs that humorously dodged the brief. He blamed the price increase on “35,000 hundredweight of 45lb coated art paper stuck in boat hold under 18 tons of Jamaican bananas” and print workers receiving a “50 shillings a week pay rise for setting type balanced on one hand”. If his new design didn’t bowl over the fans, then quite possibly his surreal jokes may just have.

John Elvin Sky Blue  card standee.jpg

Elvin’s studio was 89 King Richard Street, outwardly an ordinary terraced house bang opposite City’s ground. The Football League Review, then an influential magazine that was given away free inside the majority of the nation’s Football League programmes dropped in for a double-page feature. 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”. Though from a photographer’s perspective, Peter was less enthused about seeing Elvin cutting up and enlarging 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”.

Sky Blues Seasons Greetings card designed by John Elvin.jpg

During the course of the 1970/71 season, Sportsgraphic published 27 issues of 'Sky Blue', which Elvin nicknamed ‘Sky Blue Mark 2”, 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.

Coventry Bayern 1970 ELVIN.jpg

As well as all the regular Division One and domestic Cup ties, Coventry City were also participating in their first (and only ever) European adventure, the European Fairs Cup. The 2nd Round contest was against the mighty Bayern Munich and their spine of Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, all of whom had appeared in the Semi-Finals of the World Cup in Mexico that summer. Away from home in the first leg, City succumbed to a 6-1 defeat. For the home fixture at Highfield Road on 3rd November 1970, Elvin chose the match for one of most remarkable football programme designs. The classic ‘EUROPEAN SKY BLUE’ issue, sporting a striking cover image of Müller and a cornucopia of trademark eye-popping double-page spreads within. On the pitch, very few fans must have anticipated their team to overturn such a big deficit, but City did get to win 2-1 that night!

Sky Blue No1.jpg

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, Sportsgraphic had been handed their notice to quit.

Coventy Burnley 1971.jpg

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 magazines dubbed 'The Illustrated Saturday Man'. But the project never materialized, and Elvin returned to London as an art director on The Radio Times. In 1976, he had the opportunity to work for 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. And 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”.

‘1 SHILLING The Football Programme Revolution of 1965-85’ by Matthew Caldwell & Alan Dein. Pitch Publishing, 2024 - https://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/one-shilling

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