30 March ~ We're up to 1988 in our look back at 25 years of WSC history. For issue 20 Andy Lyons visited Panini's offices with some football sticker queries

Back in the distant days when this magazine was still being written out with quill pens, we ran a feature on the various pleasures and pitfalls associated with collecting football cards. A few questions remained unanswered. Recently however, we discovered that Figurine Panini's headquarters lies within the giant shadow cast across London EC1 by the imposing Gothic spires of WSC House. An exhaustive probe seemed in order.

With the aid of the company's marketing director, Kelvyn Gardner, we are now able to expose the inner workings of the football stickers world. Firstly, let's plonk down a few hefty statistics. Panini began their British operation ten years ago. Around this time their competitors, FKS ran into financial problems. The latter squeezed out a 1978 World Cup book, but spluttered to a halt shortly afterwards, leaving Panini as the sole guardians of the flame.

They suffered a big decline in their sticker sales over a three year period from 1980, concurrent with a drastic fall in the popularity of the mainstream football magazines. The past five years have witnessed a progressive resurgence in interest. Italy registered the highest turnover of stickers in the company each year until 1987 when they were outstripped by sales of the British album.

Every season, the cards are collected by around 2 million people, 80% of whom are aged between 7 and 12. The average age of a collector is nine and half. At this juncture some readers might be expected to shuffle their feet, cough nervously and make yet another mental note to look up "anal retentive" in the dictionary.

The football albums usually prove to be half as popular again as any other collection produced. Other sets include film and TV spin-offs, such as ET and Transformers. Doubtless a few diehard collectors get itchy fingers whenever they spot a box of stickers on a newsagents counter. Presumably, confessional boxes are frequently jammed with sobbing middle aged men requesting penitence for having plunged into the frankly depraved world of the Care Bears.

A cricket collection launched three years ago sank without trace in all areas of the country without a first class county side. They apparently propose to have another go when England and Australia clamber back up to the top of the international rankings and meet each other in a Ashes series. No one reading this of course is likely to still be alive when it happens.

Market research apparently suggests that some purchasers would like to see action pictures in place of the rather staid head and shoulders shots obtained from the pre season photosessions. However this seems to be the only way of ensuring that the images used are completely up to date. The frequency of summer kit changes make it impossible to include action photos taken in the previous season.

The flexible nature of the copyright law in this area means that anyone could put together a collection using library pictures. The Daily Mirror for example have run a rival series for the past two seasons, partly to counter the Sun's association with Panini. Making the best of an evidently hurried job they even launched a "Spot The Deliberate Mistake" competition, in which purchasers were asked to identify all the players not wearing their authentic club strips. Sales may also have been affected of course by the stipulation that Robert Maxwell had to appear in every photograph.

Similar problems often beset Panini's predecessors, the aforementioned FKS. For example, recent scrutiny of the intermittently bizarre 1969-70 "Action" collection revealed a hitherto unnoticed bit of jiggery-pokery, which leads one to wonder whether Andy Warhol was employed as a design consultant. The picture of Coventry's legendary Dietmar Bruck is exactly the same as the Johnny Giles card, save that Bruck's head has been stuck on Giles' tubby torso, which was then coloured an appropriate shade of sky blue. One of the great art forgeries of the 20th Century revealed.

The players and clubs featured in each collection receive payments for their involvement through Panini's contracts with the PFA and League. Players are thus understandably keen to grace the stickers. Adrian Heath, omitted from the 1985-86 album, due to prolonged transfer speculation, expressed his disquiet to Panini representatives at an awards dinner. He could surely have found a niche for himself in the Care Bears collection, had he been a bit more shrewd.

The format is modified slightly each year with the inclusion of a different supporting feature. Presumably they have not yet decided on what is to appear in this section in 1988-89. Several possibilities spring instantly to mind. It would be easy enough to whip out a thickish volume incorporating "Spectacular England Failures", featuring, say, a Phil Neal action portfolio. Or how about a rundown on all the players to have made only one international appearance? Even the most diligent researcher, however, might be hard pressed to fmd a photo of, for instance, Segar Bastard, who allegedly played against Scotland in 1880.

If memory serves, there was once a concerted whispering campaign to the effect that certain stickers were deliberately withheld in short supply. This notion, evidently the product of some form of mass hysteria, is firmly rebuffed by the company. They point out that any profits made in this area are restricted by their not charging postage costs on any orders returned. The packing process is designed to ensure that each box of stickers will contain one complete set thereby blowing another myth that buying from different newsagents would drastically reduce the accumulated mountain of swaps.

We ought to end by repeating a plaintive request first made over two years ago. If any loony/person should happen to have swaps of Eugene Kabongo and Roger Raeven from the Belgium 85 series, please get in touch. We might be inclined to cross your palm with silver.

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