Hanging around outside public buildings asking strangers to scribble on bits of paper can become an obsession, as John Hall explained in WSC 7

Right, we’ve had the Confessions of a “Wonderful World of Soccer Stars” Collector (WSC 3) but own up, some of you, it’s only half a tale, isn’t it? What did you do with all those albums full of colour pictures and all those swaps? Did you ever hang around public buildings in order to talk grown men into scribbling over those pictures? And did you buy magazines containing colour illustrations adorned with banal captions (eg “Beatle-haired Peter arrived from Hibs a month ago and already he’s been voted a hit at Highbury!”). And did you attempt to collect scribbles all over them, too?

What makes someone want to collect footballers’ autographs? Do we blame the publishers of Goal and Shoot! or Jimmy Hill and Charles Buchan with, respectively, their Football Weeklies and Monthlies, and all those colour pictures? And from there, back to WD and HO Wills and their legions of football cards, which also screwed your Dad and your Grandad’s lungs, as well as inspiring great chunks of that sloppy “commonman” stuff from Roy Hattersley and Keith Waterhouse?

Or was it just that we loved football so much, and had time to love it so much, that we couldn’t bear to leave it alone, until the players had driven away smelling of hair-cream or “Cossack”, having first signed their names in your book? God knows, the sloppy commonman stuff doesn’t half sneak up on you sometimes.

The first footballer’s autograph I ever asked for was either Kevin Randall’s or Alan Stevenson’s (both of Chesterfield) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The last was probably Peter Swan’s when he returned to Hillsborough, still in the shortest shorts that ever were. Stevenson’s was the only one I ever forged as well. He buggered off to Burnley, leaving me with a gap on my team picture. Now it can be told, folks!

One thing I could never bring myself to do, though, was approach a player and ask them, as some did: “Would you sign it ‘best wishes’ please?” God, what a thing to do. “Sure kid!” says Bryan Conlon of Blackburn Rovers. “Best wishes to my old mucker, John (aged 11), one of the best, yours, B Conlon.”

Another thing I came to feel a bit funny about was presenting a player with a picture of himself in the colours of a former, more glamorous or successful club. “Oh no, here’s a picture of me on the first day’s training at Villa, three years ago. I got a bloody free, and now here I am trailing up the M1 with a busload of gits in the pouring rain to play at this bloody hole.”

An interesting variation on this theme came my way at the Queen’s Park, where Derbyshire were playing Yorkshire at cricket. In the car park we join a long, long queue which leads to Geoffrey Boycott’s car, from where the great man is doing the honours. Noticing a few disgruntled faces and moans, we ask what’s wrong. It turns out that Geoffrey, eagle-eyed in his new contact lenses, won’t sign pictures of himself in which he is wearing glasses!

Very few footballers told us to chuff off. David Wilson (Chesterfield, Walsall, Grimsby, Burnley, Forest, Carlisle) once muttered “sign my arse” under his breath at me, but still drew his usual Arabesque. Other favourites around the car park at Chesterfield were Alan Hunter of Blackburn and Northern Ireland, Andy Lochhead and Chico Hamilton of Villa (lots of loops in Chico’s signature, very nice) and our own two Alberts, Homes and Phelan, whose tight, bank-card sized signatures were as compact and deliberate as their styles of play.

Once, to my delirious joy, Roger Hunt came over with Bolton Wanderers. Roger Hunt! He stood scrawling away in our books 20 minutes or more, and what he wrote looked just like the duplicated autographs on all the 1966 World Cup souvenirs. I don’t think he turned anyone away that night.

My last brush with this smudged, inky underworld, was at Matlock Town, 1981-82 season. We were busy losing 7-2 on a filthy night to that season’s Northern Premier League champions, Bangor City. Into the souvenir shop, where I’m sheltering and buying away programmes, comes this kid, whose dad, it turns out, is the ref.

This kid says how he gets shown round every ground on which his dad performs and gets his programme signed by the home team! And he’s got two! I swear to you, I didn’t ask him for it, but he gave one of them to me. It must have been something in my look, or my tone of voice. (There should be an ex-Autograph Nutters club, with an enamel badge bearing the member’s own unreadable signature.)

Anyway, I was delighted, but I only mentioned my coup in passing to my mates, in case they thought I was off the wagon. Collecting autographs, you see, has never been a hip vice for adults. It might get you on local radio as the eccentric with the out-of-control hobby, or you might have made the Football League Review between “Ground Call — Reading FC” and an interview with the only female turnstile operator in the Second Division, but usually a big autograph collection will only get you stared at.

Having the classic kid’s autograph collection around the place can cause a twinge of embarrassment in even the most hardened blase hoarder of football booty. People will bind their old Huddersfield Town programmes and stick them on the shelves between Hesse, H and Hurst, G; they will invite mates and strangers alike back from the pub to pore over the Rothman’s and the Charles Buchan’s; but they will cringe corrugated at the suggestion that, in the back of the cupboard, there might be a Rupert Bear Scrapbook, backed with brown paper and full of signed cuttings, signed tickets, signed programmes and signed “Soccer Stars” pictures (swaps, of course).

As for me and my mates in the car park, our collections all stop dead at much the same point. We stopped hanging around the dressing room doors at the same time as other kids stopped hanging around goods yards and British Rail platforms. Not all of them, though, threw away their Ian Allen books at once. There is a point where the train spotter can become a Railway Enthusiast. But the autograph junkie can do nothing but quit cold, unless he gets into engraving, or forgery.

I suppose we stopped because we wanted to be somewhere else, and because it was “only for kids” and “a waste of time”. And because in a short while, Saturday nights would be completely, unimaginably different, and we, unwittingly, had to rehearse for it by sitting outside village hall discos, chip shops, pubs and off-licences, instead of doors marked “Players and Officials only”.

I’m sure there were exceptions. I remember from my days as a stage-door Johnny at Chesterfield, a smallish, round man in glasses and a trilby, who could often be seen brandishing a biro as part of a crowd gathered round Tony Hateley or the like, muttering “ Tony... Tony…”. He must have been well into his 30s then, the brazen little bugger. He was an Autograph Enthusiast, and he knew no shame.

And why should he? The man was a pro, dedicated to the business of accumulating illegible scrawls on bits of paper. He’d already gone beyond the stage that we were to fall at, as we jostled with him, in our grisly parkas to get our books under one moderately famous nose or another. He’d passed through the shame barrier, beyond self-consciousness, gawkiness and the wishing to be somewhere else. He was Superfan! Or maybe he was just a berk. No, I was right the first time. Best wishes, mate. John Hall

07 7

This article was originally printed in WSC 7, April/May 1987. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here

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