Sign, seal, deliver: the booming business of autograph hunting

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Begging stars for their signatures is no longer the domain of local children out to meet their heroes. Instead, it has been invaded by money-hungry entrepreneurs

22 October ~ The 2018-19 Premier League season was just three days old and already it had faced its first outrage and immediate trial by social media. The condemned this time was Mohamed Salah, for allegedly ignoring requests for autographs as he drove slowly away from Anfield after Liverpool’s victory over West Ham United. He was then filmed scrolling through his phone as he sat behind the wheel of his stationary Mercedes while waiting for the traffic to move.

Recriminations followed, with Liverpool referring Salah to Merseyside Police when it became known the authorities had seen the footage via rival supporters who had tagged them via Twitter.

By then, Salah had already been convicted as a millionaire footballer who does not care about his own fans, with few stopping to consider the obvious safety risks attached had he decided to attempt to stop and start on a busy road with his young family in the car and so many youngsters outside.

On the video, Salah reacts nervously and looks for easy distractions when the person filming him appears at his window, a self-styled “professional autograph hunter” who runs his own memorabilia website which has since been taken down for “maintenance”.

Witnesses would claim that the individual in question is known to Liverpool’s players and that there are others like him who have transformed one of the most innocent of childhood recreations into a nifty business enterprise. Earlier in the summer he had sold signed autographs of other Liverpool players including new signing Fabinho. Whenever conflicts such as these arise, the focus falls on the footballers and the clubs they play for, with conversation immediately linking the obscenity of wages to the idea that the average supporter is being pushed further and further away from the players they purport to idolise. It is rarely assessed to what extent the average fan – or, in this case, the new autograph hunter – is contributing towards a collapse of standard sensibilities and an overall unhealthy environment.

Liverpool is a convenient base to relate the discussion around changing attitudes because the stories about kids waiting outside the Melwood training ground for autographs are legendary. In the 1960s manager Bill Shankly would take as long as it took to sign whatever and speak to whomever was waiting for him at the end of a working day.

Today, Anfield is one of Merseyside’s prime tourist destinations with circuits of the stadium running every half hour most days and match tickets available through Thomas Cook at inflated prices. Linger outside Melwood for long enough and you appreciate the demographic has swung, with camera-armed day-trippers of increased age in replica shirts replacing local children and their pencils.

According to the staff that secure the training facility, you can spot the difference between the tourist and the professional hunter because the latter usually stands alone in civilian clothing and a rucksack filled with unsigned souvenirs. They are skilled at finding their way to the front of the pack, pushing others out of the way, and shout the loudest and most aggressively as soon as a footballer winds down their window. “Players recognise their faces,” said one steward whose primary focus is to ensure the safety of the crowds that wait at a gate which opens into a tight space where traffic passes on the busy Deysbrook Lane.

Geography has had a significant influence on this issue. Whereas clubs such as Liverpool used to have training grounds in urban areas where lots of families live, many have since moved to sites that aren’t quite as accessible, ones deemed too far to travel for children but not necessarily for determined adults trying to make money.

Since relocating to Halewood on the edge of the city from the more central Bellefield a decade ago, officials at Everton have conceded that one of the costs has been its daily connection with the city and its youngest inhabitants. Visit Finch Farm and the numbers waiting outside for autographs are fewer but they are also older than they were. Considering Liverpool plan to move their training operation from the West Derby area of the city to the Kirkby fringes in a few years’ time, it seems unlikely that a traditional order will restore there and instead, the pursuit of financial interests will only accelerate. Simon Hughes

This article first appeared in WSC 379, October 2018. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here