'Collecting the football stickers is a bit like Ron Atkinson; wherever you go, you keep on buying the same players'

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The Independent Online
Our household is presently in the advanced stages of addiction. At times, every Saturday morning for instance, the need to feed the habit becomes uncontrollable. As you read this, we will be on our way out of the house in search of a fix. And it is a fix which is easy - all too easy some might say - to obtain.

It's just there, down at the corner shop, sitting on the counter next to the Lottery Instants, winking away seductively. Once ensconced in the shop, we will hand over our cash and receive in return a small paper envelope. This we will tear at with trembling hands to see if it contains within the answer to the question that has been troubling us all week: "Have we got Jrgen Klinsmann?"

Like most addictions, the Merlin Premier League sticker-collecting fad started small-time in our house. Someone at school gave my six year-old son two stickers - of Brian McClair and West Ham's team shirt - and he saw nothing inconsistent about sticking them both on his folder. Then he demanded an album, in which to mount his as-yet unbought collection, and his mother indulged him.

Unfortunately, she bought the rival Endsleigh League collection, which may be a big number in Wolverhampton and Carlisle, but has limited appeal in a school a mile from Highbury. So we returned it for the real thing. And then the sticker purchasing began.

I found myself strangely drawn to the process: by the ritual of opening the packets and sticking new arrivals down in their places in the book. I found the gaps in our Southampton pages insulting, I needed to see them filled. So I started to buy packets for him now and again. But I could handle it.

And then I was caught buying a packet in a newsagent's on the way to work. I thought humiliation was inevitable. But then it turned out the person who caught me was in there to buy stickers himself - for his son, he claimed - and we talked about it. And I discovered there were colleagues who were known to slip out at lunchtime and buy themselves a fix. And I felt comforted there were others in the same position as me. Because that meant we could do some swaps.

Merlin Premier League stickers are the publishing coup of the decade. The proposition is this: collect stickers featuring mug-shots, team shots, action snaps and glittery pictures of team strips of all the Premier League football clubs and stick them into an album. That's it.

What a fantasy league of an idea. A paperback book with mug-shots and action snaps, plus a sprinkling of statistics - the completed album - would retail at no more than £3.99. Cut the pictures out and supply them separately, however, and it becomes a major money-spinner. Each pack of six stickers costs 23p. So far this year 83 million packs have been sold. There are over 529 stickers to collect, which including the cost of the empty album (90p) and the 3D glasses (25p) works out at a cool £21.42.

Except it would be odds only marginally less probable than winning £50,000 on the Instants to obtain all the stickers you need in only 88 packets. A bit like Ron Atkinson; wherever you go, you keep on buying the same players.

In our house, for instance, we have been able to disprove the fondly held theory at Old Trafford that there is only one Denis Irwin. So far, we have had five. In an audacious piece of dealing, my son swapped four of them in one day for Uwe Rsler, Andy Thorn, Andy Hinchcliffe and that geezer from Newcastle with the bad hair.

We have been less lucky with others. The neatly manicured blond thatch of Simon Rodger of Crystal Palace, for instance, crops up in every other pack we buy. Attempts at using him as a transfer makeweight in a deal involving the elusive Alan Shearer or Matt Le Tissier have proved impossible. His face is always met with the cry of "got".

Merlin insist that they print the same number of Alan Shearers as Simon Rodgers, but that children don't swap glamorous stickers like Shearer: they stick their spares on lunch-boxes and bedroom doors, leaving only pedestrian full-backs to be swapped. This means an excha-nge-rate mechanism has developed. At my son's school, five Coventry City players will land you one Andy Cole. Which is roughly parallel to the real world.

To help in the search for the difficult, Merlin has been organising Swap Fairs across the country, to which you can go along and exchange all your Simon Rodgers for the ones you really want. At their last event, the company were expecting 2,000 people to turn up: 10,000 did, including a large number of fathers, punching the air in delight when they finally landed Jrgen Klinsmann.

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