Emma Haughton is stuck in the most expensive football transfer deal of her life
What has 1,176 legs, 672 heads and has captured the heart and minds of a million boys across the country?

Answer: The Premier League '97 football sticker collection from Merlin Publishing. Boom, boom.

Not much of a punchline, unless paying through the nose to feed your child's habit is your idea of a good joke. The sticker album itself is a snip at pounds 1.75 for 128 pages packed with football trivia, and a packet of six stickers seems reasonable value at 25p; that is, until you realise it takes 537 to complete the set. You have to spend a lot of money - pounds 22.50 to be precise - to reach your goal, and that's not counting the duplicates.

Football stickers represent pester power at its most pernicious. Once on the bandwagon, there's no getting off, but there's little chance that your kids will last the course. I try explaining to my six-year-old, Joshua, that he's unlikely to get the lot, but he just stares at me in tearful disbelief.

It doesn't take long to track down other parents in a similar dilemma. Carol's six-year-old son, Richard, is sticker crazy. "He got a packet on Saturday and all of them were swaps," she says, "He was so disappointed, he said he was never going to get them all, but I think he assumes we'll send off and pay for all the others. But we won't, it's much too expensive."

So far Richard has got over 300 stickers, plus extras. "Please don't tell me how much that adds up to," begs Carol. I do. "Isn't that terrible?" she groans. "It doesn't seem so much as you go along, it's only when you see the ever-increasing pile of swaps in the kitchen and you start to add it all up that you actually stop and think. It's a real con."

But Carol and I have it easy. Alison's seven- and nine-year-olds boys both have albums on the go. "It's costing us a fortune. At first they spent their pocket money, then when they used it all up, I started buying them. Now they've got to the stage where every packet is swaps. They've both got great piles of stickers they don't need."

She dreads their disappointment if they don't finish their books. "It's become a real obsession. They fight over the stickers, one desperately wants one the other has got. It has caused a lot of unpleasantness, and it's extremely expensive."

I decide to air our views with Merlin, the publishing company once judged the fastest-growing private business by The Independent. Peter Warsop, managing director, is very helpful, telling me at length about the national swap-shops the company arranges, free of charge, to help kids complete their albums. "It's very much a family event," he enthuses. "The dads are very keen, often competing with their kids to put in the next sticker." I start wondering whether that could be grounds for divorce.

How much does he think it costs, on average, to fill the album? "Hmm, let me see, I've never checked, how many are there?" I tell him. "Well, that's about pounds 23 with ... um ... an extra pounds 2.50 to cover swaps," he ventures hopefully. I suggest that pounds 30-pounds 40 might be more of a ballpark figure; he doesn't argue.

Nevertheless, Warsop thinks that's tremendous value for money. We should consider that it keeps children actively involved for six months, that they refer to their albums for years, that there's a huge amount of information in there, lovingly collated by Merlin staff. There's nothing else kids derive as much pleasure from, he says, and it stops them spending all their money on sweets and snacks.

Any parent who thinks their troubles will disappear when the football album is filled is in for a rude awakening. When the appeal of the sticker album wanes, the Lost World collection will pick up the slack. If it's a big budget movie or TV series, Merlin has it covered. Yes, you can get Baywatch stickers.

I'm curious to know exactly how well the company is doing out of all this, but Warsop declines to tell me. Still, I'm getting better at working things out for myself. Let's take the Premier League, that's a million albums at pounds 1.75 and 100 million packets of stickers at 25p - Merlin must be grossing around pounds 26m a year, less the cut for distributors and retailers. Goaaallaaaa!, as the Italians say

* Derby County's Costa Rican striker