Johnny’s letter this week is to little pictures of footballers. That’ll be collectable football stickers, then…
Why the Love?
In my experience, people can be divided between collectors and non-collectors. You’re either someone who totally and innately understands how brilliant it is to collect and collate something and those poor souls who live their lives without needing to scratch that itch.
As you might have guessed, I’m A Collector. So much so that I have, could and would collect almost anything, if I had infinite money and space. It makes me happy. It gives me a sense of security and permanence in the shifting vagaries of existence.
These days I restrict my collecting habit solely to vinyl records but over the years I have collected everything from stamps, cigarette cards, bubble gum cards, tea cards, magazines, football programmes and even a year in the early 80s when I collected food packaging.
But my first love was collecting Soccer Stars. I started that in 1968 amd was never without by collection and my swaps. 1968 was the first year they were produced in UK, were made by a company called FKS and were just simple live shots of players which you stuck into a book.
The book is crucial because it told you what you didn’t have and what you still needed. Without it, you were lost. Each of the 22 First Division sides had a dedicated page. The cards came in a tightly packed orange packet. I can see them now.
These were hugely popular immediately. Loads of boys collected them and a few girls too. In the future a lot of different companies would produce cards including Topps, Merlin and the biggest of all, Panini. I am of the generation that, when bakers started advertising paninis, I assumed they were selling packets of the stickers and was surprised to find bread instead.
The style of the stickers changed with the seasons and the company, but the basic premise was the same, the attraction today the same and as strong as it was in 1968.
There’s several strands to the addictive love so many of us experienced. First, there was the mystery of not knowing what was in the packet and the anticipation of discovering. I would look at the full box of packets in my local newsagents at the top of Palm Grove and dream of what they held.
Secondly, opening the packet was a thrill in itself as you prized open the flap and peered in. Slowly you’d pull them out. Because you’d looked at the book so much, you totally knew what you had and didn’t have. Initially, every packet added to your collection, but as you got more and more, it got harder and harder and that made every acquisition even more special. Finally you were waiting to get the last one or two and would spend a fortune trying to get it.
The achievement of filling the book was immense. Sending off for the last one or two somehow always seemed like cheating, which just showed that the joy was as much about the process as the actual acquisition. In the same way and for the same reason, I won’t buy records on the internet: it’s too easy.
But it didn’t stop there. It was also a social thing. We all carried around our wedge of swaps. You would meet other kids with their wedge and begin the “got, got, haven’t got,” mantra, trading your duplicates where possible. Seeing a card you needed was a jolt of electricity to your heart. There it was. The object of your desire.
In the early days, you didn’t even know what it looked like. It was just a blank in the album and sometimes (but not always) a name. This is exactly the same thrill I get today when I see a record I’ve wanted for a long time. It never leaves you and is largely what drives any collector on.
So there was the dynamic of interaction with other kids but also, and importantly, collecting the cards/stickers really educated you about who played for whom. You would learn about each player from their potted history and details which were either on the back of the card or in the book. As a result, when I collected them from 1968 to 1974, I literally knew every single top flight footballer, what they looked like, how old they were, who they’d played for and what position they played. That was all down to collecting.
There’s a universality to collecting these wonderful wee bits of paper that has washed down the generations. Also it is a great historical document of haircuts and strips, as the pictures of three of our four domestic managers shows.
What they did so well was just being a simple shot of the player. Sometimes they were an action shot, mostly a headshot. It was uncomplicated and not at all flashy. You were collecting but you were learning as well. This was especially true when they started to sell World Cup and European Championship collections. My first full collection was Soccer Stars World Cup 70. I still have it, despite the fact that in the 80s a bottle of sunflower oil burst all over it.
England had the only double page spread. Now, I collected these all through the winter of 1970 and into Spring and early summer, getting every sticker apart from the man on the top row, second from the right. That is Ian Storey-Moore. And no matter how many packets I bought, I could not get him. Even now, looking at it, fills me with a sort of excitement at seeing something that was so rare. The tournament came and went and I was still buying packets and packets of duplicates just to get Storey-Moore. I had 17 Keith Newtons and at least a dozen Wolfgang Overaths. Eventually my mam sent off for the missing sticker. I was glad to get it, in one way, but I felt the Nottingham Forest man had somehow beaten me.
But the whole process taught me about and gave me a love of world football. I had literally never heard of El Salvador as a place before I bought the album. I even went to the library and got an atlas and looked up where it was.
The photos of their players stirred my imagination. They looked so exotic, so different to everything I knew in 1970 Teesside. They pictures look beamed by satellite from another planet. The goalie and others have been coloured in. So much so that some of them look more like illustrations than photos.
My interest in non-English football stems directly from this collection. It made me look to the horizon. And I know this is not an untypical thing. Many other collectors are likewise. Never let anyone tell you it is a childish thing. It is mind-expansion.
Every year they were a bit different between collections or brands. My favourite layout was the photo-to-the-edge without a border. If there were too many graphics it felt like you were being cheated out of enough photo. The changes are well illustrated by one of my fitba heroes, Graeme Souness (1, 2, 3 and 4)
In the 80s the concept of a ‘shiney’ was introduced. There was one of these per team – usually of the club crest or similar. Apparently, for a few years, there were material badges as well. These all became premium products and had a high exchange value in the playground. They also drove on the collector by rewarding their persistence with this occasional, hard to get item. It was a clever psychological trick to the play on kids.
The books became huge volumes as tournaments expanded in size. Someone sent me a picture of the Italia 90 folder. It is huge.
What The People Say
As collecting football stickers is a transgenerational culture, I got hundreds and hundreds of comments on Twitter. I’m sorry I could only use a few to represented the whole. Please go to my timeline @johnnythenic to see loads of the great photos people sent in. I love seeing boxes and boxes of collections. They are people after my own heart.
What was interesting was how so many people can still recall the ones they couldn’t get. Many theories began to be built up. Did they overprint some players? Was there a regional dearth of one, but an excess in other areas? Did they print less of one to make it harder to get? Panini deny all of this and say the same amount of stickers of each player were printed. I find that hard to believe.
Whatever the truth is, they are clearly a kind of bookmark in the pages of our lives. In an age of visual overstimulation, the simplicity of collecting them now seems almost radical. There’s no doubting the sheer joy they have brought millions of kids. For me, they took me from being a boy through to puberty. Once the hormones kicked in, vinyl records took their place.
– School Flashback. ‘Got. Got. Got. F***ing hell, Mitch Ward again when I need Geraint Williams..’
– I grew up with Pro Sets, which covered all four divisions and often featured players in gloriously awkward poses.
– Always wanted a Gazza, but all I ever got were about 74 David Burrows.
– Rewarded the 10 year old me by buying a whole, unopened box of Panini when we did it in the office for World Cup a few years ago. Glorious.
– Going to ‘swap shops’ in shopping centres to try and get the last few you needed was amazing. Would kids now even consider doing that?
– Got, got, got, need. Ridiculous trades of 12 stickers for one that he had and you wanted. Completed the 86 World Cup album
– It was collecting Football cards in 1990/91 and Panini World Cup 1990 stickers that got me into football and supporting Arsenal. Thanks Nan.
– Tears of joy from 1000s of 40/50 yo Wales fans last year when we FINALLY got into Panini. Better than reaching SF of Euros
– There’s always a part of you that never lets you believe you became one of the faces on the stickers you collected and swapped as a kid.(David Preece)You’d get kids from far & wide so it was amazing when someone valued a Newcastle player worth a fortune at school the same as Alvin Martin.
– That smell when you opened a fresh pack of Panini…
First time I completed an album was 2014 aged 30. Should be top of my CV. Also, brilliant at getting strangers talking to each other!
– Forget wind, dodgy pitches & red cards. The biggest leveller in football was always panini, where 1 Terry Fenwick cld be worth 3 Glenn Hoddles
– Started stickers again for Euros last year with my 8 year old, great bonding experience as a parent, great negotiating experience as a child.
– There is forever a part of my soul dedicated entirely to saying Got, got, got, got in swap, not got
– At 25p a pack, i would spend my full £5 a week pocket money on these at my local Happy Shopper. Never completed a book thanks to Dennis Irwin in 1997. Someone at school was offering his Irwin for £50 – ludicrous money for a 12 year old!
– The last World Cup resulted in us joining Facebook groups for swapsies meets. I’m 32. Glorious
– In the late 80s in Scotland, the Rangers shiny could be exchanged for near-infinite numbers of needs in one go, such was its demand.
– Examples of useless info I remember to this day: Bryan Robson, born Chester le Street, 1957. Mark Falco, born Hackney, 1960..
– Invested a chunk of student loan in Topps Match Attax a few years back, solely to get Crouchy. Ended up with seventeen Abou Diabys instead.
– Going a boys school meant a resurgence of stickers in 5th yr. Should’ve been underage drinking & going gigs but I still needed an Ian Woan
– The Italia 90 sticker album was an absolute monolith. Had a proper sense of achievement when I completed it…
– Late 60s Wonderful World of Soccer Stars. The player & club names were only on backs of stickers.
-23.62% of all the cards dstributed in England were of Hamish McAlpine of Dundee United – fact
– My first Panini album was for Mexico ’86. Loved the camaraderie of shouting ‘doubler’ after opening a packet + doing swaps with mates. Great fun, built up the player knowledge and not a ‘smart’ gadget in sight!!
– I needed David MCCreery to complete the 1984 Euros book. Getting him was, and still is, the greatest moment in my life. I’m 44.
The fact that companies are still producing ‘stickers’ in this digital age suggests there is something about the analogue medium which remains satisfying and important to a certain sort of psyche. And why wouldn’t that be the case? Kindle sales of books are now dropping, physical books sales, increasing. Vinyl albums have an audience again (albeit a tiny % of the whole) This is because 0’s and 1’s are too metaphysical for some of us. We want something we can touch, feel and smell. Something manifest and real.
It’s my belief that the concept will continue for as long as football is popular. Even writing this has really given me the almost irresistible urge to start collecting them again and i’m willing to bet a few readers feel likewise.
Greg Landsdowne @panini_book produced a book on the whole phenomenon called ‘Stuck On You’ which I highly recommend. There is an ITV4 doco due soon, based on his work. I think we’ll all be glued to that to go back in time once again to the thrill of seeing a missing sticker and yelling “need it!”