The other day I was standing in a supermarket when I noticed a tray of football stickers by the counter.
Acting on a dim but familiar impulse, I picked a packet up and turned it over in my hands. It felt like I remembered: thin, but somehow substantial, the stickers traceably smaller than their paper wrapping.
Sheepishly, I added it to my haul. It could have been a packet of gum or a scratch card, I reasoned. Except that either of those things had a practical purpose. The stickers had no use to me at all, and hadn’t for twenty years.
But boy, did they once. What passes for currency in playgrounds these days? All the trends I remember from school – conkers, marbles, Pogs, Monsters In My Pocket – were collectables that formed some sort of bartering system. How funny that, in the precious years before we had to worry about money, we found so many ways to emulate it.
But football stickers – they were the ones that stuck, year after year, season after season. Other fads came and went, but at the end of each summer, buying that fresh, shiny book of blank spaces was a constant. Then, after enough weeks of pocket money had passed to build up a collection, swaggering into school to get down to the important business of the days trading.
I remember always feeling a bit like my Dad, doing that. He was a market trader at the time, and I was always impressed watching him haggle from behind his stall, convincing skeptical passers by they were getting a good deal on a set of lampshades or a t-shirt. His wad of tens and twenties were my stack of ‘spare-sies’ bound together with a rubber band.
The trading rules in football stickers varied from deal to deal. The black market is like that. But there were certain core principles all 8-12 year olds abided by. Most valuable were the Shiners – club crests framed in sparkling silver. (I believe down South they called them ‘Shinys’, which even now feels too quaint to me for the serious world of commerce).
Next, there were team photos that were separated into two different stickers, that you’d struggle to align in your annual without accidentally deforming Gianfranco Zola’s face (who, frankly, had enough to worry about in that department).
After those were any players from the team you supported. Then the acknowledged superstars of the Premier League – Bergkamp, Giggs, Sutton. Finally, the least valuable stickers of all: average players in boring teams. They were pocket change, make weights in bigger deals. I remember once having enough Denis Irwins to fill a starting line up of Denis Irwins – couldn’t get rid of the man. And like everyone else at my school, there was one sticker I craved above all others.
The Newcastle United shiner. The biggest prize of all. If someone had a spare (unheard of, of course), they could trade it for any Man United or Arsenal player on the table plus demand the entire Fulham, Norwich and Wimbledon first teams, if they wanted.
One of my happiest childhood memories is of standing in Alnwick Post Office, ripping open my latest packet before I’d even left the shop. And there it was, nestled behind a Fabrizio Ravanelli. The Golden Ticket.
Like Charlie Bucket I ran all the way to tell my bemused family – in this case my Dad, still haggling his own wares on the market. He was pleased for me. It was his 20p, after all, that had bought the thing after I’d complained of being bored. Not a bad return on investment for the old man, since it put a smile on my face for the rest of the day.
All this came back to me sitting in my house the other week looking at the packet of stickers I’d bought for no reason other than nostalgia, lying there amongst the wine and hummus and other trappings of my middle class adulthood.
Before I bothered putting any of the other stuff away, I took the packet in my hands and began slowly tearing it open at the corner, feeling the old anticipation.
What if, miracle of miracles, the Newcastle shiner had found its way back to me again after all these years? Wouldn’t that be amazing? How good would it feel? In today’s market, what would it be worth?
Eden Hazard. Mark Noble. Luke Shaw. Three other Premier League journeymen. No shiner – not even a Cheick Tioté. Still, on the plus side, no Denis Irwin either.
Absently-mindedly, I wandered into my kitchen, went to throw the pile in the bin, then stopped for a moment, stacked them in a neat little pile, and slid them safely in a drawer.