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

We chat to Adam Carroll-Smith, who’s written a book based on his achievement.

DO YOU EVER long for those simple childhood days when your biggest problem was, say, the need to complete a Premier League sticker album? If so, you’re not alone.

Disillusioned with the modern game, Adam Carroll-Smith had an epiphany when he came upon his 1996 album when searching through old materials in his attic.

Smith, like many of his fellow Portsmouth fans, had become disillusioned with the sport, largely owing to the club’s financial struggles, in addition to the on-field ineptitude that they partially prompted.

He longed for the past simplicity of the game, before it was explicitly acknowledged as a business, before an elite group of clubs thrived while others badly struggled to survive.

Consequently, the sticker album provided the perfect excuse to revisit those halcyon days — more innocent times whereby not every second player was a millionaire. It thus served as the perfect metaphor for the league’s lost innocence, as Carroll-Smith, author of Six Stickers: A Journey to Complete an Old Sticker Album, tells TheScore.ie.

“The sport is constantly changing and the standard is a lot better, which is great. I’m not one of these people who longs for everything to be back as it used to be. But it just seems as though the attitude had changed slightly. It seemed like the fun had gone out of the game.

“It seemed as if the game I’d grown up with was something I enjoyed a bit more. It was less stressful to be a football fan. I don’t know if that’s because Pompey weren’t in quite the sh*t that they’re in now, but it just seemed like an opportunity for me to explore my relationship with the game — whether it was broken beyond repair, or whether football at its root is still a fantastic game and good fun and I had just got a bit distracted by stuff I shouldn’t have [been distracted by]. It just seemed like a good time to have a think about my relationship with the sport, which I’d essentially grown up with.”

In order to complete the album of course, Smith still had to fill the six spots that were missing. Buying the stickers in question online would have been “too easy,” he says. Therefore, he decided to take a novel route and track the six players in question down, persuading them to pose for a photo in the process, which would then be placed in the album instead of the missing stickers.

The six missing footballers were Newcastle’s Philippe Albert, Blackburn’s Lars Bohinen and Stuart Ripley, Chelsea’s Scott Minto, QPR’s Gary Penrice and Manchester City’s Keith Curle.

“I thought it might be quite cool to meet these guys,” he explains. “They’re obviously from a different era when there weren’t clubs on the brink of extinction, there weren’t excessive wages… It was still the people’s game. So that’s what inspired me to do it.

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(Philippe Albert, in action for Newcastle — Neal Simpson/EMPICS Sport)

“The hardest to track down was definitely Philippe Albert. He’s just a very private man. He’s one of the nicest blokes I’ve ever met. But he came out with some really interesting stuff. He loved being a footballer. He really enjoyed it. But he didn’t ever want to be famous. There’s one picture of him in his Newcastle shirt that’s very small but he doesn’t have a room dedicated to all his caps and shirts. He said he was just a footballer who really enjoyed it but then once he retired, that was it. He wanted to just live a normal life and be a family man and provide for his family.

“He was difficult [to find] because he shuns the limelight and he’s retired. And he’s arguably the most famous footballer that I was trying to track down, so you probably would have thought that he would be the easiest one, but it was difficult. I eventually did find him in the middle of the Belgian countryside,  and it’s interesting to talk to somebody who nowadays would be one of the most famous defenders playing in the game, yet he had no interest in reliving former glories.”

However far from being a shy recluse, Albert was delighted to chat openly about his experiences.

“Even Philippe, once I found him, was great. He was enthused about the whole idea and we chatted away for ages. All of them were such nice blokes despite the fact that it’s a really odd request to get a picture off them for a sticker album. They were all really happy to help out, and if someone writes a similar book to this in 15 or 20 years’ time, trying to track down six former Premier League footballers, I think they’ll have a real job to do it.

“Modern Premier League footballers are like a different breed to the guys from 15 or 20 years ago. They earned good money but they were still very much in touch with the real world and they were all very down-to-earth guys. They weren’t mega stars, they had no ego to them, they were all just happy to chat as much about their past career as I wanted to ask them.

“It was interesting in that respect because the average Premier League footballer nowadays is a multi-millionaire. So if somebody tried to track down Ashley Cole for a 2013 album in 15 years’ time, I might be wrong, but I’m guessing he’d be more difficult to sit down with and just have a coffee with and talk about stupid stuff like I did with the six guys.”

And tellingly, all six players agreed with Carroll-Smith’s suspicion that something has been lost as the league’s finances have skyrocketed.

“When I spoke to each of the six guys, that was something that kept coming up — they just seemed to think that fans enjoyed the game slightly less, players enjoyed the game slightly less, because everything’s just a little more serious as the money involved is so astronomical now.”

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(Ashley Cole: might be difficult to sit down and have coffee with in 15 years’ time — Sang Tan/AP/Press Association Images)

Moreover, finances were not the only significant difference he noticed between football now and then.

“If you go through that album, it’s bizarre to see how much the makeup of the Premier League has changed. Back then, it was still predominantly British and Irish players — there were hardly any foreigners, it’s just the way that it was. After that season, you had a real influx.

“Again, that would make it more difficult if someone tried to do a similar book to this in 20 years’ time because the Premier League is such a global game now. You sort of assume it’s always been like that, but it really hasn’t.”

And for all its perils, Carroll-Smith says the experience ultimately helped him rediscover his faith in the modern game.

“I think I’d just been focusing on the wrong things. It is crazy that the Premier League is this separate entity from the rest of the football pyramid. But actually, at its root, [I asked myself] what did I enjoy about football. I enjoyed just being a football fan, going to games, chatting to my mates about what’s happening in the game at any particular moment and I just enjoyed being a football fan — watching the sport, and that is what I realised I hadn’t been doing enough of.

“It’s very easy to watch so much football now just from the comfort of your own home. I’d become a bit of an armchair fan, I wasn’t going to enough games, I wasn’t being the sort of football fan that I had been growing up when it was all about going to games and that was the real excitement of being a football fan. I’d lost sight of something quite basic amid all the glitz and glamour of the modern game. I’d forgotten that what I really enjoy is going to watch the team I support at the stadium with some mates and keeping it as simple as that.”

The book itself is written in a quirky, distinctive tone, and it figures. Carroll-Smith says he was going for an Arrested Development-esque style that was influenced as much by comedians (including Demetri Martin and Steven Wright) as it was by writers.

The laidback, playful vibe also owes much to his listening habits while writing, with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Pavement in heavy rotation.

“It probably would have been a different book if I’d been listening to Cradle of Filth,” he explains.

And non-football-related influences characterise Six Stickers in general. Despite the occasional obscure reference to a less-than-seminal player, those without a special affinity to the sport would likely relate to the book’s coming-of-age theme.

“That was certainly in the back of my mind, because my wife was reading bits of it as I was writing it and she’s now more into football than she ever was, but she’s not a complete football nut or anything.

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(Gary Penrice: another player that Carroll-Smith befriended — Steve Morton/EMPICS Sport)

“So I just wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a prerequisite that you had to love football just to enjoy the story. At its heart, it’s an adventure book really, it’s me looking for six mementos. And you don’t really need to know too much about Gary Penrice’s Bristol Rovers goals record to enjoy the story.”

And despite the obvious dedication he put into the task (he says he even would have been willing to track down the notoriously private Roy Keane if he had to), Carroll-Smith was ultimately able to move on and definitively put the experience behind him. Accordingly, amid the book’s conclusion, he decided to throw the sticker album into the sea. Again, he cites Arrested Development as inspiration for this symbolic act.

“There’s a scene where one of the characters stands on the beach and tries to throw an envelope into the sea and shouts ‘return from whence you came’ and that was on my mind. But on a deeper level, now I am a married man, I have a newborn baby daughter — the whole point of this was to be a last hurrah in being a complete idiot and dealing in slightly off-the-wall adventures. I didn’t want to be constantly trotting out this album for my use.

“The whole point was — I wanted to finish it, but once I finished it, it was time to move on and grow up. My thinking was that I had been sentimental about it for long enough. I had held on to it since 1996 and had basically gone to all this effort to keep holding on to it and keep bringing it up as something I was still bizarrely proud of — it seems a little immature, given that I was becoming a father and a husband. It just seemed the best way to draw a line under the whole adventure — the most fitting, slightly melodramatic and amusing way to put the final full stop to it.”

On a related note, when I originally rang Carroll-Smith for our pre-arranged interview, he didn’t answer despite multiple attempts to contact him. ‘How inconsiderate,’ I thought. ‘He probably just can’t be bothered answering his phone.’ Consequently, I contacted his PR representative in an attempt to reschedule the interview, who apologised before informing me that: “His wife has literally just given birth.” Oops! Now I was the one feeling inconsiderate.

And while Carroll Smith says his wife encouraged him to write the book, she is surely relieved that he no longer has to be travelling across Europe in an attempt to locate remote footballers, given the recent dramatic changes in their lives?

“She has been incredibly supportive, so if I did want to do anything as ridiculous and feckless as this, she would be incredibly supportive. So when that BBC story went up, she was vindicated in thinking that chucking the thing and moving on was the right idea, because the whole point of the book was about me growing up and about realising some quite simple truths about football and how it’s important just to enjoy the game and not get bogged down in constantly thinking things used to be better. I had stopped enjoying the game because I’d been convincing myself that things were always better in the past.


YouTube credit: thethirteenthmonkey

“And it’s a trap you can fall into — if you think the best things you’ve been involved in are behind you, then you don’t necessarily take chances on things in your present life. The attitude that informed wanting to finish the book is the same thing that informed wanting to move forward with my life and get married and have a child and progress in that way.

“It sounds a bit wanky, but it was an important little journey that I went on and I’m glad that I met Anna and she helped me complete it. Now it’s something that we can look back on and laugh about, but I’m not going to be rooting around in the loft trying to find my 1997 album. It was really good fun but we’re in a different phase of our life now, which is equally as exciting for completely different reasons — now we have to look after a small, crying, shitting human.”

There is just one final question that has to be asked. It seems especially relevant in the context of the modern world, which is rife with all kinds of sophisticated technology. What was it that made something so simple as football stickers such a phenomenon?

“If I could really tap into why stickers are still so revered and evoked such nostalgia, then I’d be busy trying to create a product that did the same thing, because it’s just an absolute gold mine. There’s a simplicity to it that’s just so appealing if you’re a teenage boy and you’re into football. It’s just as simple as — you have an empty book and there are spaces and that’s the pull of it.

“It was so easy to spend 30p back in the day — probably 50p now — to get some stickers to fill in some gaps. It’s competitive enough to appeal to that side of a football fan’s brain — you want to win, you want to be in control. Back in the day, it fulfilled something that probably the internet does now, because it was full of stats and full of detail, so you could find out who Jason Lee played for before Nottingham Forest.

“Stuff like that, which is basically boring to the average person, but there’s something particularly about the male football fan’s brain that loves that level of minutiae and trivia. Football stickers tick that box and scratch that itch in quite a satisfying way. It’s still football and it’s competitive, but it’s also bizarrely educational.”

Read more about or buy Adam Carroll-Smith’s new book Six Stickers here, or read an extract from the book here

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Paul Fennessy

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