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Football - going, going, gone to the middle classes

WHO WOULD have thought, 10 years ago, that copies of Shoot, the children's football comic, would be on sale at Sotheby's. But they will be, tomorrow, 232 of them from the Seventies. They are estimated to fetch pounds 150-pounds 250. Hurry, hurry! No need to hurry for LS Lowry's football painting, Going to the Match. Too late. It went last week for pounds 2m, the most expensive piece of football memorabilia so far. A neat painting, yah, but has the world gone football daft?

Among the 604 football lots in tomorrow's sale are David Beckham's jock- strap (with DNA certificate) valued at pounds 2,000; an item of chewing gum as spat out by Sir Alex Ferguson at White Hart Lane on 23 October this year when Spurs thumped Man Utd 3-1 (comes with copy of dental records), estimated at pounds 5,000; a half empty shampoo bottle, as used by David Ginola, plus a lock of his lovely hair, with video of him saying "I am a Footballer, not a Poofter." Expected to make pounds 6,000.

OK, so I've made those items up. But it could happen soon. After all, the Victorians collected locks from famous heads. Keats, Byron and Wordsworth could hardly go out without someone trying to snip a few strands.

So what is the reason for this sudden passion for football memorabilia and prices, which are rising more quickly than many sections of the traditional fine art world?

Firstly, the arrival of the middle classes. We've spotted them, heard their braying voices, seen them stuff their faces with smoked salmon bagels in the West Stands at Arsenal and Spurs for about 10 years now - but the massive rise in football memorabilia values is clear and factual evidence of their existence, putting their money where their braying mouths are.

Football souvenirs have existed for a hundred years. Postcards of famous players are almost as old as football. I was talking to my dear chum, George Graham, over the weekend and he is awfie proud of his collection of Arsenal postcards from 1904. He has only got 18 out of a set of 30, but thinks it's probably the best in private hands. (Woolwich Library, he says, have a whole set).

When such things were produced, they were cheap souvenirs, bought by kids, then mainly thrown away or lost. Grown-up fans didn't collect them because grown-up fans were working class, with no money or space to spare for collecting.

Hence there was no market, no dealers.

The first major sale of football memorabilia was held in 1989 in Glasgow by Christie's. Everyone was amazed when an FA Cup medal owned by Alex James, estimated at pounds 1,000, went for pounds 5,000. Since then, all the auction houses have joined in, big and small.

The middle classes know about auctions and are used to dealers - I mean art dealers - and they have bags of spare cash. Having arrived in football, they are now throwing their money about, looking for treasures and trophies, as proof of their passion and loyalty.

The other strand is modern football marketing. In the last 10 years we have seen the arrival of megastores, not just at Man Utd but at all professional clubs, selling every conceivable form of football tat.

Fans are now used to forking out for repro rubbish at every match. It's only a small step to forking out for interesting old stuff, once they realise just how cheap and nasty is the modern junk. At both Spurs and Arsenal, you now get many street stalls selling old programmes, handbooks and photographs.

I'm all for it, of course, as a collector. My only worry is what might happen next. At the moment, I would say that everyone buying football stuff is a genuine football fan, buying for fun, amusement, possibly even knowledge.

But if prices keep rocketing, investors and speculators will come in, with no interest in football. That's what happened in stamps. Then it could all collapse. All the same, have a look in the attic for those old Shoots.