News, Culture & Society

Will anyone pay up to save the Rothmans Football Yearbook?

Many cherished the simple line drawings of a significant goal. Others looked out for the ‘golden boots’ awards, identifying the best British XI from the previous season.

Then there were the iconic covers — such as the five great stars of the Argentina World Cup imposed on the pentagonal panels of a ball, for the 1978-79 issue — which felt like the height of publishing sophistication at the time.

These treasures and a multitude of others have been packed into the Rothmans Football Yearbook — the annual football almanac and definitive chronicle of changing times for so many who love the sport.

Commentator John Motson saw the Rothmans Football Yearbook as ‘internet between covers’

It has held on in the face of the digital information tide, although the end may be nearing now.

As Sportsmail revealed on Wednesday, Sky Sports, who took over the title sponsorship in 2003, feel they can no longer justify the outlay of about £30,000 a year. 

The title’s 48th issue may be its last. The collective dismay felt around the game spoke volumes.

‘It’s been the basis of my work since 1971,’ John Motson told Sportsmail. ‘It’s the internet between covers.’

The BBC commentator said the ‘index of players’ was one of the elements he found most useful — although, in fact, that particular listing was actually never so much of a hit.

Fans thumbed through Rothmans for random, idiosyncratic details — everything from Arsenal’s address to Zimbabwe’s shirt colours — and for the preservation of each season in aspic.

The new feature for 1996-97 was a list of the foreign full internationals playing in England. There were 102 of them.


Star names of 1978 (from top right): Brazil’s Rivellino, West Germany’s Berti Vogts, Holland’s Johan Neeskens, Scotland’s Bruce Rioch and Italy’s Franco Causio graced this Rothmans cover. 

The money on offer was £200 when Jack Rollin, a football magazine editor and aspiring commentator, was asked to compile the third issue in 1972, after the second had not gone too well.

Rollin spread the paltry sum out among contributors, in an attempt to cover many bases, but he covered most of the ground himself.

He scoured newspapers for his information — dozens upon dozens of them — nationals, regionals, football specials. And if there were still gaps to fill, he would walk into Fleet Street offices or call clubs up.

‘I had 92 big sheets of paper in a room at home and they were my bibles,’ Rollin, now aged 86, told Sportsmail. ‘I’d say it took me a day and a half a week. It was fine once you were in the routine.’

Even back then, the sport’s innate greed could make things difficult. Within 10 years, clubs complained that their copyright was being breached by the yearbook’s use of team groups and badges. The Football League actually issued a directive before the 2000-01 edition telling clubs not to co-operate.

A notice on page five of that edition thanks two-thirds of clubs for ignoring the suits from the League.

The line-ups seemed outdated, anyhow. The tight summer publishing deadlines meant that the previous season’s team pictures had to be used.

The Football Yaerbook was seen by many fanatical supporters as the definitive yearly guide

The Football Yaerbook was seen by many fanatical supporters as the definitive yearly guide

‘But it really upset me that they thought we were making a mint,’ said Rollin.

The bigger struggle was trying to cram the game’s expanding European and international horizons into 1,000 pages. Hard decisions had to be made.

‘I still regret there has been no room for all the FA Cup final line-ups since the 1994 edition,’ one reviewer wrote in 1998.

And as the Premier League era dawned, others tried to muscle in on the action. The Sky Sports Ultimate Football Guide had good detail and a more user-friendly lay-out. But it was fatally weakened by mistakes such as the spelling of ‘Alex Furguson’ and the birthdate of Nottingham Forest’s Steve Stone — 20.08.91 — which made him a very young player indeed.

The definitive book kept to its strengths, resisting any temptation to seize upon the growth of football writing and produce a more literary publication, like cricket’s Wisden.

In 1995, Rollin, whose delegation had been confined to leaving Scottish football and obituaries to others, drafted in his daughter Glenda, then a legal secretary in her 30s, to help.

There have been threats before this one. Rothmans decided to cut out the publisher and do its own yearbook for 1983-84. A threat of legal action ensued and the Rollins were not involved that year. By 1984-85 the tobacco company had realised what an error they had made and the original compilers were back.

When Rothman stepped away in 2003 because of impending British legislation restricting tobacco sponsorship, it seemed that the almanac would be no more — and this newspaper revealed that development, too.

The most prestigious football reference book of all is set to cease publication after 48 years

The most prestigious football reference book of all is set to cease publication after 48 years

‘The Daily Mail’s report was very significant for us,’ said Rollin. ‘It was because of that Sky Sports came in.’

The Rollins’ involvement ended in 2013 after Headline had taken over publication of a title which was with Queen Anne Press for years.

‘There were changes at Headline and we didn’t get on with the new people,’ reflected Rollin. ‘We felt it needed a re-launch — something they were not supplying. I sensed a lessening of interest. If you don’t gel with people there’s no point carrying on.’

The world has certainly turned since a line drawing captured Dennis Tueart’s bicycle-kick winner for Manchester City from the previous season’s League Cup final, in the 1976-77 issue.

‘A move that was well rehearsed apart from the flamboyant finish,’ reads the caption.

Such is the beautiful and unaffected simplicity of the Rothmans Football Yearbook. It will be mourned deeply, unless there proves to be salvation.