The ringing of the school bell was the signal for the day’s trading to get underway. The goods would be removed from the pockets of grey trousers or coats; sometimes held together with a rubber band, sometimes not. Others would be liberated from their precarious existence in bags beside jotters wrapped in brown parcel paper or wallpaper discards. The trading invariably took place outdoors under the shelter of the overhanging roof where huddles of hagglers sparked up the day’s transactions. In the background, the red blaze pitch, so often the scene of great ebbing and flowing frenzies to which a football was almost incidental, stood empty. If there was any desperation in the air it probably had its roots in a variation on this problem: How the hell do you get rid of three Dave Bowmans?
It was time to swap football stickers. The ethos in the playground was as much Berlin black market as Wall Street stock market. What was involved was a form of haggling with your contemporaries with few agreed rules or conventions in place to shape the whole thing. One such convention was that the run-of-the-mill stickers, that is those featuring football players, were intrinsically less valuable than so-called shineys. These were the sought-after stickers featuring club badges superimposed on a shimmering, hologram-like background.
The effect of finding one of these rarities when shuffling through a packet of stickers was profound and enough to give even the badges of clubs you nominally despised or considered inferior a certain attractiveness. Unusual badges like those of Dunfermline appeared even more distinct. Questions about those squirrels on the Kilmarnock badge entered your head for the first time. Thus was the power of the shiney. If you had one or more of these in your doubles collection you knew you would hold the whip-hand in trades and there would be ample opportunity to indulge in the sort of cruelties at which children excel. Or to put it another way, you could adopt an imperial stance, like Britain after the Opium Wars, and impose your will on lesser classmates who didn’t have the sticker. It’s little wonder one school in West Yorkshire reportedly banned children from swapping stickers in the playground because doing so was resulting in fights. The school strenuously denied the claims of mollycoddling but I’d take little convincing such a thing had happened somewhere, sometime.
Another widely recognised convention, although one that was prey to the full forces of subjectivity and partisanship, was that stickers of famous players were of more value than those featuring relative unknowns. The logic was fairly easy to understand: the more popular the player, the more sought after were the stickers. It was simply demand operating on supply. It was likely you would have to pony-up a good few stickers of Partick Thistle or Falkirk journeymen types in return for a Brian Laudrup or Pierre van Hooijdonk. If a trader was in any way partial to film star good-looks or dashing heads of hair the likes of which had rarely been seen in the Scottish game, they would likely keep any doubles of Laudrup for their own purposes. If not, you should expect to trade in stickers the same amount of players Laudrup would skin in scoring the average goal.
Accumulating doubles (or even triples and quadruples) was an inevitable consequence of the random distribution of stickers in the packets you would buy at newsagents or supermarkets. While potentially a source of frustration, being burdened with doubles encouraged the formation of social and economic relationships around what was potentially a solitary pursuit. As such, perhaps Karl Marx or Adam Smith would have interesting things to say about the collection and trade of football stickers. The obvious advantage of being part of a trading network was that, in theory, it would reduce your total outlay. A professor from Cardiff University’s School of Mathematics recently calculated it would cost the average collector £374 to complete Panini’s Euro 2016 album. This worked out at 747 packets of stickers at 50p a go to get the 680 stickers required. The best case scenario, and the one that would be almost impossible to achieve, would be to buy 136 packets at a cost of £68 but this would require no doubles to be found. The professor calculated the increasing discounts that could be achieved by having more and more people to trade with but this was merely formulas confirming what any sticker collector already knows to be true.
An obvious question arises: how does a child of primary school age come by the resources necessary to complete a whole album? Even taking into account the smaller number of stickers and reduced price of packets, it seems unlikely my mid-90s habit could have been sustained by entirely legitimate or dignified means. As a bare minimum, I must have become an expert at pestering and moaning, now natural survival skills for small children in our highly-developed consumer society. Additionally, scrounging for change was encouraged by packets being sold for 25p. Any baleful looks I received from shopkeepers would have been well-deserved considering the ratio of silver and gold to copper in the handfuls of smash I was regularly depositing. But it was worth it. Even buying, say, eight packets felt like taking delivery of a bonanza and all for only £2. Despite the financial pressures and an addict’s singlemindedness, with careful husbanding, even meagre resources could be made to stretch to some sugary or chewy A-bomb like the late Irn-Bru bar, Hubba Bubba or Anglo Bubbly.
A form of conditioning took place and it is possible collecting football stickers plays an important role in the early stages of the development of active consumer identities for the young people involved. In no time at all you would find it impossible to enter a shop without naturally scanning the area around the till for evidence of those Panini stickers somewhere near the chewing gum or tobacco products, the latter offering more lethal forms of addiction. This was a form of reconnaissance, the gathering of intel potentially useful in the future but it’s likely most collectors had their trusted locals. My retailers of choice were the newsagents beside Oxgangs Primary School and at the top of Merkland Drive in Kirkintilloch. It was a bitter disappointment indeed if your chosen shop was out of stock, worse still if you were momentarily tricked into thinking otherwise by the presence of a box of English football stickers. Collecting English stickers was rare among my friends and schoolmates but it’s possible this tendency has been altered in reflection of wider trends in the game.
Collecting football stickers was a central feature of my early attachment to football and I can’t think of my formative years without thinking also of the pleasurable memories associated with it. There was an educational aspect although it would be misleading to overstate its importance. The ways in which a young fan would learn about the game in the pre-internet age look relatively limited when compared to the easy access to information that characterises the present day. More so than newspaper reports and more important, even, than attending or watching matches, collecting stickers was a way of familiarising yourself with the names and faces of the game. This point would apply with particular force to the majority of teams that you did not support. It’s entirely possible I’ve never known as much about the personalities of Scottish football since I stopped collecting.
I had long assumed, based on my own experience, that the collection of football stickers was, in the main, a childhood pursuit. But this is far from the case and adult collectors no longer hide in the shadows. Some might choose to see this as symptomatic of a culture with abundant examples of grown men refusing to abandon things like video gaming, a culture than has elevated comic book characters into vastly profitable film franchises. Others might choose to see it as symptomatic of a different aspect of society: nostalgia. Without too much trouble, the simple act of collecting football stickers could be framed as a refusal to engage fully with the challenges of adulthood in the post-industrial 21st century or to embrace the opportunities the future has to offer. Instead, you might stand charged with having opted to pull your childhood memories over you like a protective blanket. Or something…
Grown-up collectors aren’t difficult to track down. Lee Dent, manager at Martins in Macclesfield, established a weekly swap shop ahead of the Euros, while Colin Murray used his column in the Metro newspaper to confess his obsession is such that he feared he would try to peel the back off Mats Hummels if the German player ever crossed his path. Such is the perceived popularity of collecting football stickers among adults, the Three Sisters pub on the Cowgate in Edinburgh hosted a sticker swap as part of its World Cup festivities in 2014. And in perhaps the ultimate tribute to the cultural credibility of sticker collecting, the Guardian staged a fashion photoshoot inspired by Panini stickers back in 2014.
Quite apart from the time it takes to follow the game itself, football offers plenty of opportunities for collection around the edges. This is not limited to stickers. In his book Confessions of a Collector, Hunter Davies reckoned there to be ten categories of football collectibles ranging from annuals and magazines to cigarette cards and stickers. Today’s fans can collect the Match Attax trading cards produced by Topps Direct, the company that also produces SPFL stickers having taken over from Panini. The Italian company, founded in 1961, has long been the dominant name in the UK market. Before Panini there was the Bradford firm J. Baines Ltd. which produced different shaped stickers between 1887 and circa1920. These were more elaborate little productions than those produced by the likes of Panini, Merlin or Topps, with some containing quaint slogans such as ‘Cardiff Take the Cake’. The end of the Baines era coincided with the golden age of cigarette cards, which are similar in many respects to stickers. Davies reckoned this period spanned the 1920s and 1930s, with the cards printed on the cardboard used to stiffen the soft cigarette packs of the time. Manufacturers even produced albums for collectors to stick their cards in and it is estimated there were around 10,000 different cards produced between 1900 and 1939.
More generally, Davies suggested there were two categories of collector: the serious collector and the accumulator, with the latter essentially a glorified hoarder. He charted his own journey from serious collector to accumulator and back again. His collections spanned not only football but the Beatles, stamps, prime ministers and other areas. This suggests collecting should be seen as a character trait or a type of personality rather than simply an extension of an interest. He argued that collecting was a sociable pursuit at all ages but particularly as a youngster. The collecting bug bit him again well into adulthood and coincided, tellingly, with him having more time on his hands and his children taking up less of his time.
Considering attitudes to completing a sticker book suggests two different categories of collector. There are those for whom the process of collecting is enjoyable in itself but there are others who are collecting with a view to eventually achieving some sort of completion. When it came to football stickers, I belonged, in the main, to the first group. The most pleasure to be had from collecting stickers was in the anticipation of a new packet, the prospect of getting a sticker you’d been chasing and swapping doubles with friends. On the other hand, adding a new sticker to your album was somehow a fleeting and inconsequential moment. The moment a sticker was added (as neatly as possible) to the album its status was somehow transformed, its value diminished alongside all the others. A completed album, therefore, had an ambiguous status and was never a primary objective. What value does a full sticker album have except in its ability to prompt happy memories of the process of completing it?
Perhaps this is a minority position and it’s not one I adhered to religiously. For those who couldn’t complete their albums through the normal means of buying and swapping, Panini offered a cheat’s way out. If you made careful note of the stickers you needed and provided whatever sum was required, Panini would send you the goods. But what a way to dissipate the thrill of the hunt and the haggle! This was more like filling in a tax form or ordering something from your mum’s Avon catalogue. No doubt there was a public health dimension to this service but on the occasion I availed myself of it the sense of anti-climax was severe. But apparently the need to collect and complete can linger, if the exchange of old stickers on website like eBay and dedicated forums such as Swap Stick are anything to go by.
No doubt some early collectors of stickers will abandon their childhood hobby to pursue the collection of something considered to be slightly more respectable such as match day programmes, tickets or pennants. Others will stop collecting altogether and still others will stop and come back again later in life. For all that collecting has been sanctioned by some high-profile names and enabled by accommodating venues and new technology, the intensity of my childhood connection prevents me from considering it an entirely legitimate hobby for an adult. Respect, where it’s due, to those who can justify to sceptical partners spending hundreds of pounds at a time of economic fragility. Conflictingly, however, I have limited time for those who would seek to frame people’s hobbies or personal interests as an obstacle to be obliterated as part of the forward march of society. At a time when Scottish football doesn’t generate an abundance of happy moments or, worse, seems keen to dispense with fans altogether, it can be useful to draw on happier times if they are available in the realm of memory. Happy memories: that’s what football stickers are for me, at least at this stage in my life. Well, happy if you exclude all those bloody Dave Bowman doubles.