You were desperate for Gary Lineker, but you got Steve Hodge (again). There was a glaring hole where Paul Gascoigne should have been, yet your bedroom was littered with Des Walkers.
The power of Panini (other, less-adored sticker albums were available) was debated and dissected at a London exhibition organised by the creators of podcast Football By Numbers. The series humorously critiques famous players guilty of wearing the wrong squad number. Think Zidane masquerading as a heavy-hoofed centre half in his number 5 shirt, or former Netherlands (and Barnet) midfield mainstay Edgar Davids donning the wildly inappropriate number 1.
Fans gathered in East London to swap stories of stickers they never had – and too many they didn’t want – and were offered colour-by-numbers trading cards as a wry take on the numerically challenged team assembled by the organisers.
It was a throwback to when the dizzying thrill and occasionally crushing let down of opening a Panini pack was as emotionally involving as watching your team. Event organiser Bryan Mayes says, “There was always that moment of anticipation when you peeled open the packet. Pull too hard and you’d rip the sticker. Then – hang on, I wanted Gheorghe Hagi but I’ve got five full-backs.”
Mayes points out that Panini had the weird effect of fans hoping to avoid getting players they loved for the sake of completing another page. “It was that feeling of, do you want your favourite or the one you need? You could turn your back on your heroes: I don’t care about Mark Bright any more, I’m after Garry Flitcroft!”
The nearer you got to completing an album, the sweatier your palms became as you tore open the next pack. If you didn’t get the right players, you’d blame the newsagent. This rage is neatly summed up by Tranmere-loving indie stalwarts Half Man Half Biscuit:
I’ve got a few lines on Gerry Gow
I had three in one packet in ’78
I went back to the shop in a manner irate
Newsagent said: “Have you got a two pence piece?”
I said: “Yes”
He said: “Go and ring someone who cares.”
The tension was made worse by the spoiled lad down the road. Usually, this smug so-and-so’s dad was doing well for himself, and rather than having to do chores for weekly pocket money, he’d just ask for a lump sum and come back from the corner shop with an entire box of stickers.
Mayes’ co-organiser Tim Whirledge adds: “That was like a metaphor for rich modern clubs saying ‘yeah, we haven’t got enough defenders, so I’ll just go out and buy six of them tomorrow’. Completing their squad is almost cheating, and that’s how it felt with the rich kids. It’s the same with swap-shop events: it feels a bit like you’ve given up.”
Superstition was rife. I remember a time when Alan Brazil seemed ubiquitous. Simultaneously, Everton – my boyhood team – were on a losing streak. I left Brazil and his chubby grin buried under some stones at a service station. Hey presto, Kevin Ratcliffe and gang were soon back to winning ways.
But in this age of interaction, can the humble sticker album stay ahead of the game? The feeling of getting a foil (more glamorously known as a “glitzie” in Germany) isn’t enough for the iPad and Instagram generation. Panini is adapting to avoid getting cornered by technology. It’s created app-based and online versions of player cards and stickers, and introduced trading games.
One day it’d be good to see a nostalgia collection. Families could share their memories of great players down the generations, from Finney to Eusebio, and Shilton to Casillas. That really would be something.
I don’t know where my Mexico ’86 album got to, but I do remember I was only one sticker short. Anyone got a spare Gary Lineker they want to swap for five Terry Fenwicks?