Football cards fall victim to top flight obsession

Talking Point
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The Independent Football

The house is filling with football cards – now known as Match Attax – providing an excuse to raid the loft and dig out a collection that originally came with bubble gum.

Looking through them reveals an early Sam Allardyce moustache, a hirsute Sammy McIlroy and a fresh-faced Harry Redknapp. More sobering is how many players of the mid-Seventies – the likes of Alan Ball, Billy Bremner, Cyril Knowles, Terry Hibbett, Ian Porterfield, Chris Balderstone, Peter Houseman, Dave Clement – are no longer with us.

It is a look back to a time when few players were more exotic than Ipswich's South African-born midfielder Colin Viljoen, when Carlisle United were in the top flight, and when sportsmen such as Jim Cumbes could combine playing cricket for Warwickshire with football for Aston Villa.

One of the more depressing aspects is that in the modern set only 20 teams exist: those in the Premier League. Topps' 1976-77 set features players from 42 teams, including clubs such as Wrexham, Oxford and Lincoln – all then of the old Third Division.

This would be inconceivable now. Modern sets include multiple versions of names like Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, but even a club as big as Newcastle United is unrepresented. This is typical of a game in which the focus is overwhelmingly on the top flight.

The same bias is apparent in sportswear shops with local clubs lucky to get a place on the rack amid the Manchester United shirts. It is true that with more television coverage than ever before, young fans of smaller teams are more likely to see their heroes on screen. But it takes a boy, or girl, of considerable self-confidence to stand in the playground and proclaim their support for, say, Oldham if in Manchester. With so few acknowledgments of such teams' existence in the wider world, it is no surprise many kids fall for the lure of the big clubs.

The answer? Get into the Premier League. Stoke City shirts are now more visible in the Potteries than for years. But it is not a solution available to all, and clubs can be bankrupted in the attempt. Better to follow the example of clubs like Bradford City, embed themselves in the community and use imaginative marketing and pricing to attract, and retain, young fans.

PS: Anyone swap Shay Given from this year's Match Attax, or Graham Cross from 1974-75?