It is late on a Sunday evening. I am not blind drunk, but far from sober after toasting Nottingham Forest’s survival from relegation. I am sat in front of my computer, trawling a website and making a spreadsheet of the teams in each of Europe’s top ten ranked leagues. I have had an idea.
Two hours later, I have rubberstamped an attempt to collect a different piece of merchandise from every club. Sampdoria flip-flops, Roma flat cap, Juventus mini football, Fiorentina scarf and Chievo Verona sports bag form part of the first haul. If you look hard enough, you can pick up items for little more than a few quid. Eleven items are on the way for a total of £41.20, including shipping. Something has begun.
“You don’t really start collections, collections start you,” says Hunter Davies. “The first stage is just accumulating – or not throwing anything away.”
Davies is one of Britain’s most notorious collectors. Now 81, the author and journalist began the hobby as a child and reaffirmed his passion as an adult. He has myriad different collections, from letters written by Prime Ministers to Beatles memorabilia and football tickets. Davies has even written a book on the subject, Confessions of a Collector.
If it sounds presumptive to say that there is a collector in all of us, there is certainly academic theory to fortify the claim. The theory goes that collecting is the innate, impulsive nature to quench a desire that lives deep within all of us. The only question is the strength of the addiction, and how it manifests itself.
What is certainly true is that collecting is hardly a modern phenomena. Ancient Greeks and Romans collected pottery and sculptures, paintings were accumulated by the wealthy during the renaissance and natural history was collected and documented by those explorers who travelled to new worlds. If Johnny Depp (insects) and Angelina Jolie (antique knives) are current famous accumulators, so too were Julius Caesar and Christopher Columbus. Some of the most famous museums in the world exist solely thanks to private collectors.
Yet there is a modern twist to the obsession – the rise of collections that are essentially pointless and near worthless as individual objects by otherwise very average individuals. At The Collection, a pop-up exhibition in London last January, Kelle Blyth displayed her 3,000 Pez sweet dispensers; Liz West showed off a fraction of her record-breaking hoard of Spice Girls’ memorabilia.
If collecting is certainly not limited to football or sport, it does provide the perfect petri dish for fascination and addiction to grow. There are so many obvious items of interest (tickets, programmes, pin badges, replica shirts, team sheets) that anyone is likely to encounter on a five-minute walk to the ground, and postcards, cigarette cards, annuals, books and magazines offer an extra layer of interest even before we consider the rise of merchandising and club megastores. Football also requires an emotional investment that leaves us vulnerable to becoming collectors. Addiction to the sport, addiction to your club, addictions to watching, playing and reading. The leap to collecting is a short step.
And so you have those organisations that sound quaintly British (even if that is a slight inaccuracy), like the Association of Football Badge Collectors. And you have people like Gordon Andrews, who owned Sports Programmes Ltd and sold it to Roy Camels, who is now 76. And you have collectors like Nick Warrick and his collection of a shirt from every international team. And Jim Brown, whose Aladdin’s Cave makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
Brown, the former vice-Chairman of Bradford City, collects books, magazines and other miscellany. He has every copy of Shoot, Match, When Saturday Comes, World Soccer, The Times’ The Game pull out and more, all complete collections and all bound in leather-backed files. Some people keep their collections in bin liners or cupboards; Brown has built a three-storey barn. For someone like me, it is like walking into London’s Natural History Museum and Uncle Scrooge’s money pit combined.
Collecting clearly requires a mind that is easily fixated by compulsions (a euphemism for an addictive and obsessive personality), and I would consider myself as registering high on that particular scale. I am the type of person who, were they given a free Arsenal mug, would immediately wonder where I could store 91 others. I am the kind of person who must make a list for the next day every evening before going to sleep, and write it in one pen and then cross the items out with a different pen. Those pens must never change.
Compared to Brown, my football collections are minute, but only through a lack of financial resources and a constant pushing away of the bad conscience urging me to give in to temptation. I write down every match I’ve watched (with teams, scorers, minutes, competition etc), but that doesn’t really count. I buy a pin badge from every ground I visit. I collect football shirts in no particular order other than sheer fancy. I collect football books. I also daydream about starting many other different collections, and having a group where we combine efforts to create a super-collection.
Most collectors enjoy an odd relationship with their hoards, blending an intense personal pride and sense of achievement with an apologetic air whenever it is mentioned, like you are collecting something deeply disturbing like the hair of dolls or your old toenail clippings. Some people might appreciate or even applaud the collection, but more will consider you an oddball that has wasted their money. In these moments, collections are used as a means of self-deprecation that strays dangerously close to humblebrag.
It is also obvious that there are different drivers for collectors. Some start them and complete the collection just to sell them, motivated either by the hope of economic profit or the mere thrill of the chase, even if the rise of the internet has reduced some aspect of that thrill. Yet most are emotionally invested in both the process and the collection itself. Such is the passion that football ignites, it is hard to imagine anyone glumly trawling the internet for that Manchester United programme from 1952/53 ‘just because’.
I would describe myself as an open-ended collector, in that I (through I made no conscious decision) focus on those things that can never be truly complete, or at least things that have an ever-extending catalogue. I am also a scattergun collector, interested in the quantity as much as the quality and regularly starting something new, like a bluebottle buzzing around until in lands on something it likes. My house, and the cupboards within, are a graveyard to commitments lost, something that would probably earn disapproving looks from plenty in the upper echelons of this weird community. The links with more darker dependence, needing to find a fix and satisfying the urge with bulk purchases, are obvious. Is collecting merely the acceptable face of addiction?
Crucially, I cannot envisage collecting anything non-football, and it is fair to conclude that we are more likely to collect items related to the things we love. A count collecting books and shirts and another way of immersing myself in football, just as I pinch myself that I get to write about it every day.
If the ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ of collecting have simple answers, the ‘Why?’ is a more delicate question. One of the most persuasive arguments from a personal point of view is offered by McIntosh and Schmeichel (not that one), who suggest that collecting is used as a means of ‘bolstering the self by setting up goals that are tangible and attainable and provide the collector with concrete feedback of progress’.
The positive psychological impact of collecting is often overlooked. I do not consider a collection to be filling the space of an emotional void (although some clearly do), but the entire process of searching, attaining and organising certainly provides a safe place where mental and physical relaxation is reached and where insecurities are managed. Or, as Davies mused: “We all need that, a way of taking our minds off our worldly worries. But from what are we escaping? Oh help. We’ll leave that for another day.”
Despite the dark psychology, lingering worries about addiction and concerns about the obvious link between collecting and hoarding, there is something truly rewarding about collecting, whether you are Jim Brown or just like keeping programmes from the matches you have seen. In a sport that regularly takes itself far too seriously, there is something to cherish in the wonderful pointlessness of accumulation.
Who cares if a footballer is now worth £89m? This Roma cap – that I will never wear – cost just £3 and I will put it on a shelf that I have designated just for Italian football ‘stuff’. Plans for the three-storey barn are with the council.