Mike Bayly takes us down memory lane to the playground amongst calls of “got it, got it, need it”
A friend of mine recently advertised a car for sale on his personal Facebook page; such frugal marketing tactics are always open to abuse, and rightly so. This would have been a fairly unspectacular anecdote had it not been for someone replying “I’ll swap you for the Man United badge”. At first glance this may appear to be a Newton Heath protest movement, or a pejorative swipe at the Red Devils commercial activities, but it relates instead to another of football’s long since demised institutions: the Panini football sticker.
If you spent the 1970s and 1980s hanging round school playgrounds (as a child, not an adult I might add) you will have experienced firsthand the grip that Panini stickers held over young football fans. On the surface a harmless and innocent product, they occupied a rare niche in the juvenile psyche, turning otherwise placid and rationale adolescents into low brow market traders. If you spent your school lunch time saying “got got need got” you’ll know exactly what I am talking about. If you don’t, I will briefly explain.
The concept of sticker books was simple enough. Each season, Panini would bring out a blank album covering Division One (the Premiership in new money) Division Two and the Scottish top flight. In addition, there would be specialist sections, such as programmes or grounds. Division One clubs had space for individual head shots, team badge and squad photo, as well as basic statistical details such as height, weight and beard length. Division Two tended to be team shots/badge combos and the Scottish league resembled early morning in a Kirkhaven Doss House. The object was to “fill in” the album by purchasing packets of stickers, which I nebulously recall cost around twenty pence for a pack of six.
Buying stickers was a multi pronged attack on the senses. I can still remember the smell on opening the pack, and the excitement on seeing a silver club badge; for that split second I knew how Charlie must have felt on finding the last golden ticket. The laws of statistical inevitability meant that purchasing stickers blindly – often in an attempt to fill the last few gaps in the collection – guaranteed a pile of duplicates, although I am still convinced the makers heavily engineered the availability of certain items in an attempt to maximise profitability. Why for example, would I have a ‘swaps’ collection that had five Tony Grealishs (left) yet not a single Ian Rush? Was it fair I had three Gary Bannisters and no Bryan Robson? Did I really need another Carlisle United team photo when my Arsenal page was missing ten key players?
Conspiracy theories ran riot, from the credible – “they may not have done another print run on that section yet” – to the ridiculous – “they don’t issue Liverpool players in our town”. Whatever the case, it meant spending school breaks going through each other’s spares collection and attempting to exchange players in a form of pre Bosman transfer dealing. Corridors were filled with the mantra of “got” and “need” as huge piles of stickers were sifted through like a dealer with a deck of cards. In retrospect, being able to recall in a split second which Oxford United player you needed to complete your collection bore all the hallmarks of an idiot savant. A break was never a success unless I offloaded one of my David Langans for a Mark Falco; if the vendor was particularly hard work, I would throw in a Snap Crackle to sweeten the deal.
The Holy Grail of stickers during those halcyon days was always the Manchester United badge, largely because of its engineered scarcity. Anyone who had this item on swaps was in a position of unequivocal bargaining power. I saw some truly astonishing exchanges take place when bidding wars started, which often involved sinister IOUs being handed out. Emaciated children relinquished dinner money. Parents had their houses used as collateral. On one occasion, rumour had it that David Cooper in the year above us had two Man United badges available; I would have been less impressed had he walked into school with a Snow Leopard.
Despite my obsession with Panini stickers, my interest in them was both acute and transient. My first sticker collection was the Mexico 86 world cup and my last the Italy 90 world cup. After that, I lost interest. It seemed to serve a very specific purpose for a very specific time which I grew out of very quickly. In a recent article on the same subject, John Crace in The Guardian ventured that collecting stickers “is a pointless activity.. but one I have happily indulged every four years since the late 80s – especially as I have a son, now 14, on whose behalf I can pretend to be collecting. But make no mistake: Panini is not for kids. He gets an album, but only to fill with my spares.”
I can’t share John’s contemporary enthusiasm. For me, Panini stickers occupied a specific zeitgeist when football was an altogether more mysterious beast, in a time where the commercial opportunities of televised games and ubiquitous news reporting were but a glint in Rupert Murdoch’s eye. Part of the attraction was venturing into the unknown: this was particularly relevant of world cup collections where the vast majority of players were completely unheard of. The saturation of foreign players in the modern English game combined with highlights packages of every major league in the world means contemporary fans are fully conversant with the majority of players appearing in major tournaments. Globalisation has removed the surprise element of these showpiece events with detrimental effect. Thirty years ago, Alan Shearer may have been excused for not knowing anything about England’s opposition but now the same protestations are an insult to a taxpaying public.
This point is highlighted by one of the more intriguing curiosities of the 1990 world cup, and a Cameroonian player called Charles Ntamark. Born in London, Ntamark won 31 caps for Cameroon, narrowly missing out on Italia 90 through injury. At the time, he was playing for Boreham Wood, before – allegedly on Roger Milla’s advice – going on to serve out a distinguished career with Walsall. After quitting the professional game, he went on to work for the CAB and various UK accommodation agencies. “If I spend a short time helping someone with problems sleep easier at night, then that is very satisfying.” he said on joining the Acton Housing association.
That Cameroon would once consider a player plying his trade in the semi professional game shows how far the game has moved on, even though African football has remained fairly static on the global stage. The Cameroon squad is littered with high profile stars now and any air of mystique disappeared a long time ago. And this is the problem I have with modern day Panini collections. If I want to know any of the world cup squads I only need log on to the internet and look at Wikipedia or the federation’s official site; I can’t enter a newsagent without seeing Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o glaring down at me from the news racks with Pound signs in their eyes. So why would I want to spend time and money on purchasing their mugshots all over again?
Or maybe I am missing the point. Maybe there is a childish pedantry that I need to re-explore where the sum is greater than its parts. Maybe I need to stop walking into Sunglasses Hut and asking for rose tinted shades.
One thing is for certain. It would be a far more interesting world if Fabio Capello could engage in the same swap tactics; I’d give the whole England squad and a Martin Kuhl for a David Villa or Andrés Iniesta.