General view of stickers from the Panini FIFA World Cup 2014 Sticker Collection. PA Images Contributor/Press Association Images

18 years after vowing ‘never again,’ I’ve decided to start a World Cup sticker collection

Ever feel fanatical about this mid-90s phenomenon? You’re not alone.

I USED TO care deeply about Gareth Southgate.

Keep in mind, I never thought Southgate was a particularly good footballer, nor did I ever support Crystal Palace or Aston Villa or any team he played for. I even used to constantly mock the old Bull Boys shoes that he endorsed and their ads, which overzealously proclaimed the defender to be the “champion of English football”.

In fact, my admiration for Gareth Southgate had almost nothing to do with Gareth Southgate the footballer or Gareth Southgate the person.

What this passion, which some might generously describe as ‘misguided,’ had everything to do with was stickers. Specifically football stickers. And Gareth Southgate was one of the few football stickers I just could not seem to get my hands on. This innocuous-seeming situation drove me slightly insane for a period.

There was a time when the sound of ‘Have… Have… Have… Have… NEED’ became as routine as the bells that chimed to mark the end of lunchtime in the school playground. In an era in which kids can comfortably operate all kinds of sophisticated technology, it’s scarcely believable that not so long ago, swapping pieces of paper with footballers’ faces on it was the staple activity of choice for youngsters such as myself.

This elaborate game, which forced us all to dispense with our hard-earned 20p every week, could become quite competitive. From the beginning of May to the end of August, I was always a perfectly nice, civil and generous child who smiled at the request of old people and helped wash the car when my father asked me to. Yet during the Premier League season, I became a different person — like a mini-Jose Mourinho, I was willing to do whatever it took to taste success in the form of a completed album. I defended my stickers like the Special One’s teams defend one-goal leads, with the no-nonsense attitude of Roy Keane also applied when negotiating swap deals.

My one traumatic memory, however, was an Amelie-esque incident (with stickers instead of marbles) in the school playground, when after acquiring about 30 newbies from a friend, I promptly dropped them all, with the especially harsh wind ensuring I had to do my best Sonia O’Sullivan impression for the next few minutes, as I sought to retrieve my rapidly escaping and all-too-precious cards.

The sticker-collecting period that stands out in the memory was the Southgate year – 1995-96, the same season Kevin Keegan single-handedly lost his team the title race (or something along those lines), by uttering the immortal words, “I’d just love it if we beat them,” and Eric Cantona kept scoring incredible goals and seeming not to care.


(Gareth Southgate — not a very good player but an especially good sticker)

And like United that season, my sticker-collecting habits started off slowly but gathered increasing momentum as the campaign approached its climax. Ultimately, I had just 12 cards left to collect come May thanks to my obsessive buying and fearless negotiation skills in the playground. Yet, much to my eight-year-old self’s chagrin, virtually no one had the 12 cards that were needed to finish the album. Did they even exist? Was I the victim of a cruel marketing ploy destined to be perpetrated on the few people sad enough to actually come close to completing the sticker book?

How did I solve such a dilemma? Reader, I cheated a little. I discovered you could send away for specific stickers and with the season about to finish, I was more desperate than Newcastle’s end-of-season form that year (or indeed, most years).

So yes, I completed the sticker album. It might not have been the most popular way to complete a sticker album, but there’s more than one way to complete a sticker album.

Anyway, upon this momentous occasion, I had always imagined myself lifting my Ajax jersey (even back then, football hipsterism was a thing) over my head and running around my room joyously for hours owing to the sheer ecstasy of it all. Yet instead, I experienced a somewhat hollow feeling upon finally achieving this longstanding goal. A completed sticker album wasn’t going to do my homework for me, or earn the millions that I imagined it would take to make the dream of visiting Disneyland a reality, or buy a Super Nintendo replete with all the Mario games. Moreover, I imagined all of the sweets I could have bought with each of those 20ps, instead of wasting them on frivolous stickers, many of which I’d already bought anyway.

It was then that I vowed never to let myself get mixed up in the mad world of Premier League (or any other form of) stickers ever again. I was now ready to move onto more grown up pursuits like watching WWF and playing Championship Manager.

Yet just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in (‘they’ meaning the sports editor). With the World Cup on the horizon, I have decided to rekindle my past obsession by buying the official World Cup sticker book, and I’ll be updating you on my progress over the course of the tournament.

Of course, it wasn’t easy to get back in the game. I spent 20 minutes unsuccessfully trying to convince the shopkeeper that I was not some weird man-child and the reason for my purchase of copious packets of stickers was ACTUALLY for very serious journalistic purposes.

And the album itself represents a brave new world. Gone are the cheesy photos of Barry Venison and his hideous mullet. In has come Michael Essien and his apologetic half-smile, and a load of Honduran footballers I’ve never heard of. It is a strange disconcerting realm, in which stadium stickers must be bought in two halves, and Andros Townsend is part of the finalised England squad.

Mercifully, they’ve limited each country’s squad to 18 players, meaning there are just 639 stickers between me and glory. They now cost 60 cents rather than 20p, but apart from that, not much else has changed. I feel at home and strangely at ease thanks to this comforting experience — the distinctive, unmistakable and slightly musky smell of the album, the patient minutes spent ensuring that none of the stickers that go in are placed crookedly, it’s all very familiar. Hence, nothing can ruin the nostalgia-induced sense of calm that this new endeavour has prompted — except, maybe, a Gareth Southgate wannabe.

Check out this outrageous free kick replete with FOUR dummies>

Interview: The man who completed his 1996 Premier League stickers album 17 years on

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