One of my most vivid early memories of attending Heart of Midlothian matches was the walk to the ground with my dad. Park up at Fountainbridge or Polwarth, sauntering down past the Diggers before stopping at the crossroads where Dalry passes the baton to Gorgie.

It was there, before making the way past what was the Bingo hall and under the bridge, we'd stop at the programme seller. Early recollections were of a stand beside what was the public toilets or in a doorway of a nondescript building on the other side of the road.

I still remember holding onto a copy with John Robertson and Jim Jefferies peering back at me as they hold onto a lawnmower that, because of the positioning of the logo, appeared to be sponsored by Pony. The only thing better than the Strongbow emblazoned home shirt? Jefferies' tracksuit top.

Hearts Standard:

Hearts Matchday Magazine. Season 1995/96. 

Hearts. HMFC. Heart of Midlothian. The Match. The cover has changed. The name has changed. The theme has changed. But the official matchday programme has remained. And it will celebrate its 100th year next season.

While other clubs have allowed their matchday programme to be consigned to history, Hearts have not only continued to produce one. But produce one of the very best in the country.

How is it produced? What value does the programme bring? As the club celebrates its 150th anniversary, what's its importance? And, perhaps most importantly, what does the future have in store?

READ MORE: The making of Hearts' 150th anniversary kit: UEFA rules, release video, huge demand

The matchday programme has been an endangered species within Scottish football in recent years as clubs sought to find a way for them to exist and provide substance in an increasingly digital world. That situation became even more stark when Covid hit. 

Hearts weren't immune from that.

Gary Cowen KC, Foundation of Hearts board member and matchday programme contributor, remembers there being "debate about whether Hearts would still do a printed programme". His contributions have been part of issues for two decades with a focus on the club memorabilia he has amassed over the years.

He, along with Scott Cockburn and Graeme McGinty, who are in the process of producing a fully illustrating history of the Hearts programme for its 100th anniversary, stepped forward and approached the club, offering their help with the aim of preserving the printed edition.

"It was just an idea of helping out and taking some of the burden off the people within the club," Gary told Hearts Standard. "About half of the contributions come to me initially and then I edit them as much as I need to and pass them on to the club.

"Hearts have always produced an excellent programme and always been up there in the top two or three in the division in terms of quality. It was to make sure we stayed there and did what we could to help make suggestions and help ensure the programme is as good as it can be."

It is widely recognised as one of the country's best alongside those produced by Aberdeen and Rangers. And has been for a number of years.

Neil Hobson is now in the driver's seat having taken over editor duties from Sven Houston after he moved on from the club. Although Neil prefers a different transport analogy.

"I’d describe my job as almost being like an air traffic controller," he told Hearts Standard.

"There are a lot of moving parts to it and that’s probably the biggest element of the job. We are very fortunate we have got guys like Gary who manages the team of contributors, that certainly takes a lot of the pressure off of us."

Hearts Standard:

Neil is ideally placed to carry out the roles and responsibilities as programme editor. A Hearts fan who religiously bought the programme, part of his ritual when going to games with his dad.

"Thinking back to when I was a teenager it was a golden age because Sven produced all those fantastic programmes with the film covers, like Gorgiefellas, Natural Born Killie," he said. "I’m a long-term buyer of the programme and even at opposition clubs, particularly when I was younger I’d always embarrass my dead by going up to programme sellers outside Ibrox or Rugby Park to pick up a copy."

A lot of work goes into producing each issue, filling the 68 pages in the standard edition. It's a collective effort with content that caters for everyone. There are detailed player interviews, a Junior Jambos section, focus on the B team and the women's team, stats, away team analysis, fan voices and opinion pieces, as well as in-depth features on the club's history, from memorabilia to shirts to golden periods and memorable games, players or moments.

READ MORE: Tynecastle Park Hotel: Hearts income boost, Romanov, Donald Ford, Taylor Swift

"It is very much a collaborative effort," Gary, who is working on his own book 'From Medals to Toffee Tins: A History of Hearts in 150 Memorabilia Objects', said. "We tend to have a meeting with Neil at the beginning of the season to bounce around ideas and come up with a page plan for the season, work out what features are going to be in there and what we can do to make it better over the course of a season and then throughout the season it is a case of making sure those contributions come in and editing them and making sure Hearts have all the illustrations they need. 

"There needs to be a balance between engaging with the present day and what’s going on at the club and the historical side of it. This season and next season with it being the 150th anniversary we hit upon the idea of having the historical theme for each programme which would then run throughout the historical part of the programme so you would have three or four articles relating to that theme. And if you got all the programmes from those two seasons you would have a decent historical record of where the club had come over the last 150 years."

The issues are a keepsake of a very special milestone in the club's history. If the programme had not continued it would have felt like a small but significant piece of the club's celebrations would have been missing if these games were not marked by an official matchday programme celebrating the people, the moments, the triumphs that make Heart of Midlothian Football Club the club it is.

A lot of thought, attention and love has gone into these editions which started for the first home game of the season against Kilmarnock. 

Hearts Standard:

"It’s important the programme has played a part in it," Neil said. "It's been an education for me. I’m a certain generation of Hearts fan, I know a bit about the history of the club but the good thing about this year’s history collection has been digging up some tales from our history and past and giving them a polish and putting them on the pages for the new generation to read about. 

"That’s certainly been one of the biggest pleasures I’ve derived from putting together the programme this year and that’s a testament to Gary and the team of contributors. We really couldn’t do it with them."

One of the key features of the programmes this season is their striking front cover with a cover star each week. 

"It is a conversation with Curtis Sport and we are very lucky we have got so many talented people involved in the programme, our designer is a guy called called Ben Mortimer, an extremely talented designer," Neil explained.

"Speaking to Gary I was conscious that we were going to have the history theme and some historical events in the club’s history will come quite easily like the 98 cup final, plenty of images to put on the cover, create a collage. Going back to the era of the 1920s and the early days of the club there aren’t a lot of images. If there are images a lot of them will be very low-quality.

READ MORE: Eviction to extinction threat: Why staying at Tynecastle Park was crucial to Hearts

"That was the biggest challenge when we crafted the cover concept for how this season’s cover would look. We went to Ben, had this idea of the 150th cover in our heads, each issue would have a cover star and a strapline setting the scene. We sent the images into Ben and he was able to pull together a fantastic cover from the images we supplied.

"Over the course of the season that’s evolved into a position where if there are only a handful of images we’ll incorporate memorabilia from that era as well to give it that flavour of diving back into the past. Because it is the 150th we wanted to go for a regal feel for the programme, something that feels sleek and keen and touches on the past very well."

When it comes to pulling the programme together there are several things to consider, from touching base with the commercial team regarding sponsorship details to the details of the mascots and their pictures to feature in the issue. Then there are the number of issues to order and the variety of contributors feeding into Gary before the copy can be passed on to Curtis Sports to deliver the final product with the typical home game seeing around 1,500 produced.

Hearts Standard:

"It’s a case of making sure you are organised, getting all your ducks in a row," Neil explained. "In terms of the actual process, typically for a standard Saturday game, it will be a case of sitting down on a Monday, putting together a page plan although we have got quite a set structure this season so there isn’t too much variation usually, and from there a case of taking articles from the contributors that are sent in.

"Usually, it is a case of judging it from how many you’ve sold in previous games. One of our best-selling issues from this season was against Leeds in the pre-season friendly.  I think we actually sold out of copies 10 minutes before kick-off.

"You also have to take into account we need to order complimentary copies for guests in the hospitality suites and you want to make sure you have got copies to put in the referee’s room, in the home dressing room because I know the boys like to see that we’ve put flattering photos of them in, they are straight up to us if we haven’t!"

He added: "They tend to do quite well. I was quite lucky that when I took over from Sven there was a good foundation in place. He was good at steering me to what games tend to do better than others. We are quite smart with how we do things, I think we are at a stage now where it is quite comfortable for us."

European games add to the workload, especially if there is a Thursday-Sunday double header home game. Unsurprisingly, UEFA has its own quirks.

"It’s probably the stuff you don’t foresee that ends up being the most challenging," Neil said. "When we first went into the group stage of the Conference League that was a big learning curve because UEFA has got regulations around the programme. It’s the same across the European competitions. They ask for a PDF of the programme to be submitted a week in advance. That’s usually just for them to check there is no clash with any existing adverts on our side clashing with adverts or partners on their side like JustEat.

"If you’ve got a European game on the Thursday but you’ve also got a home game on a Sunday then you are basically trying to produce two programmes in the same week. Good communication is a key part, making sure everyone knows what needs to be done. Europe was certainly a challenge and if you have any last-minute changes, particularly in the early stage of the season like new signings, making sure you have got all their squad details to put on the back of the programme in time."

Hearts Standard:

Neil, who worked at Kilmarnock prior to joining Hearts, is also tasked with collating the manager's thoughts for his programme notes. A slight peak behind the curtain, he revealed Steven Naismith is more hands-on than some managers can be when it comes to what goes out on a Saturday.

"Naisy is always very conscious of what he is saying," he said. "I'll maybe put together a draft usually based on what he has said post-match of the previous game. I’ll pull together a generic idea of what he said, we’ll sit down and write it together and he will give lots of pointers.

"In terms of analysing, he knows a bit more about football and the opposition than me!"

That's what goes on inside the programme and behind the scenes but, the elephant in the room, what's the future?

Due to his previous experience at Kilmarnock, Neil is well-placed to offer an insight. At Rugby Park the club moved away from a matchday programme to a monthly magazine format.
"I’ve been on both sides of it now," he said. "It’s a tricky one for clubs because there are undoubtedly benefits to both and the programme has such a strong, emotional tie to football history.

"Especially someone who has been an avid programme buyer I have absolutely no hard feelings against clubs that go down the route [of moving away from the matchday edition]. It is a really difficult time for that market as it finds its feet and finds a way to coexist with digital products.

"Certainly in our case as long as our supporters keep buying and keep enjoying the programme, as long as we keep producing a high-quality product, hopefully that’s something that can keep going for a few years."

READ MORE: Foundation of Hearts: New website, new initiative, new era

With Gary and his band of contributors on board, there is little doubt that will be the case. 

"There is a role for the printed programme in preserving that type of information, preserving club news, preserving interviews with players because we simply don’t know where we are going to be in 40, 50, 100 years," he explained. 

"Is that information going to be preserved somewhere for future generations? The only way of ensuring that information is preserved for future generations is to have a printed record of it and what better way to do that than to have an actual souvenir of every single game which also includes what’s happening at the club on a week-to-week basis. So that was the thinking behind it and part of the reason we didn’t want to go the way Hibs had gone and simply stopped producing the programme completely. 

"You look at the incredible work Big Hearts are doing with the football memories group at Tynecastle and this is the same around other clubs where you have got people whose memories are sparked by tangible things like photographs of old players, by programmes relating to specific games. You ask yourself the question in 100 years if you are trying to do the same thing is it going to be the same if you have got all those records digitally other than physical tangible objects?

"There are good reasons for preserving written, printed programmes. That was part of the thinking of content, making sure there is a record of what is happening at the club."

It has been that way for 100 years, the next 100 is just about to start.