Way back in the annals of football history, before the internet and Sky, when Match Of The Day or The Big Match were the be-all and end-all of football coverage in Britain, people…OK young lads almost exclusively, got their regular footy fix from a dangerously addictive and all-consuming habit. Panini football stickers.

Now I realise these are still around today. I half-heartedly started collecting them for the World Cup in South Africa. There are other items of memorabilia on sale such as Match Attax, which if I’m not mistaken are the footballing equivalent of Top Trumps. But I suspect these things are no longer the draw they were when I were a lad back in the glorious 1980’s.

I think I was about 6 years old when the Panini addiction took hold. I remember those little packets like it was just yesterday. The cover of the packet with the player doing a bicycle kick with a Union Jack backdrop. The little symbol in the corner telling my parents that for a grand sum of 6p they could purchase six sticky labels guaranteed to feed their child’s blossoming infatuation with ‘The Beautiful Game’.

For kids of my generation, Panini stickers were the best way to learn about the professional game. The widespread, in-depth, 24-hour, wall-to-wall coverage we get today just didn’t exist. By owning and collecting the stickers and the album we could ingest our new found knowledge to our hearts content. Learning about the clubs, seeing the badges, putting faces to the names we heard on the programmes like Grandstand and Football Focus.

Of course, being taken to the local shop for stickers, or as you get older, being given the money to do this yourself was great, but when the holy institution of swapping enters your life and garnishes your hobby, a passion is ignited.
I don’t think I can recall the exact time that I realised that I would get duplicates from the packets I bought at the shop. I also don’t remember when the practice of swapping remedied that big pile of extras that were already adorning my album. Whenever it was, it was a great day, and that great day almost certainly happened in some far flung corner of my primary school playground.

That concrete yard will always conjure up memories of football at play time, games of British Bulldog and Ace-King-Queen-Jack. The girls dancing round a Ghetto blaster as it belted out the new Wham tape and other great childhood past times, and right up there with the best of them was swapping.

Groups of boys would huddle together uttering the strange repetitive mantra “Got, got, got, need, need, got….” as they flicked through each other’s pile of unwanted stickers. And when a trade became available, the sense of satisfaction and indeed elation was often palpable.

My own zenith of Panini collection came in 1986 and specifically the Mexico ’86 World Cup sticker album. It was in that summer that my collecting version of Mount Everest would be scaled.

In previous and subsequent years I never filled one single sticker album. I got close on several occasions but no matter how many packets I liberated from the local dealer or purloined from my chums in the schoolyard, the promised land was never reached.

Panini, having thought of this eventuality, kindly supplied a form in every album, so if you could not find the last few stickers to complete your collection you could call upon them to come to your rescue for a maximum of 50 stickers, at a healthy premium of course. None of you 1p per sticker nonsense now. They made us pay 3p each for the privilege of a full set. The cheek of it! Well not me Mr.Panini, I won’t succumb to temptation! I felt morally disgusted at the thought of taking the easy way out and ‘cheating’. If I couldn’t succeed by buying and swapping then I would fail with glory, safe in the knowledge I would do it the right way.

And in 1986, I was rewarded by the sticker Gods. It was my time to succeed. Through all the pain and toil. For all the years of being stuck with a million swaps of Newcastle’s Kenny Wharton, Arsenal’s Tony Woodcock or the rosy-cheeked porcine features of Sammy Lee. Or praying desperately for the St.Mirren badge in all its shiny magnificence. My time had come.
Throughout the summer, both before and during the tournament, myself and my friends bought and swapped furiously as our narrow window of collecting time before next season’s album came out. The most sought after stickers were the first prize on everyone’s list-Maradona, Platini, Zico, Scifo, Rossi, anyone from England.

Once these were safely ensconced in their rightful rectangular slot on their specific page, the scramble to fill the book began. From the mascots, through the two-piece stickers of the stadiums to the teams themselves. The glamorous names like Italy, Argentina, West Germany, Brazil. The home nations England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The also-rans Portugal, Paraguay, Spain and Poland. The no-hopers Iraq and Canada. My own nemesis were the Danes. I must have had their entire squad 5 times over and couldn’t shift them.

As the World Cup ended and the summer holidays began the swapping frenzy subsided, I gradually and systematically picked off the last remaining absentees, with all the determination of a ruthless Nazi hunter, until one remained uncaptured. The USSR’s Anatoli Demianenko.

If I close my eyes even now, I can see his face and picture his face with a slight smile. His head adorned by a pronounced side-parting. But back in the late summer of 1986 I didn’t have that sticker and for once I wanted to fill an album. I didn’t care if I never did again, and consequently I didn’t, but no-matter. Just once I wanted to fill my book the right way.
So fruitless had my search amongst my closest friends become, that I put out a request to friends of friends and even those in other year groups. And when you’re ten years old, other year groups may as well be living on the Moon for the amount of contact you have with them. But despite this feverish search, my summer holidays would come and go with no fulfilment to my quest.

September swung around far too quickly and the school gates creaked open once again. One year older and a new sticker season would soon take its grip on its innocent and hapless followers. Long forgotten were the days of Michael Laudrup and Igor Belanov. But wait….a messenger approaches with news of the grail. Someone has what I’m looking for!
Do I believe them? Is it a hoax? Is it a mistake? Could it be that some other desperado is hanging onto his dream in the mere hope that he too would attain his Panini nirvana? I approached him with caution, fearful yet full of excitement.

-“Someone says you’ve got Demianenko of USSR is that right?”

-“Yeah”

-“Gonna show us?”

-“Yeah”

And ‘lo it was thus, Anatoli Demianenko appeared to me in sticker form, in all his understated Soviet glory. My heart jumped through my school sweater.

-“I’ve got over 200 Mexico ’86 swaps. They’re all yours for Demianenko. Deal?”

-“Deal”

I could hardly wrench the elastic-band-bound pile of swaps from my school bag fast enough to complete this most satisfying of transactions. I had done it. I had filled Mexico ’86. When I got home that afternoon I took more care than ever before in placing that sticker into its position.

Although I carried on buying and swapping football stickers for another three or four years after that time, the feeling of contentment I had that day was never replicated. But for that one perfect moment in the life of that 10-year-old swapper, I will never forget or be able to give enough thanks to that unremarkable left-back from Ukraine.

MARK GODFREY

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