Tat’s entertainment

Footballers’ autographs are big business these days. Al Needham went to an exhibition at the NEC to snub Jimmy Greaves and see what an old Tony Woodcock would be worth

The first autograph I ever got was a signed photo of Tony Woodcock kneeling behind the League Cup, in exchange for my Dad moving house for him. I would dig it out now, but I chucked it away when he was transferred to Cologne. I filled up assorted notebooks with autographs purloined at the Nottingham Forest training ground and outside dressing rooms after matches. Brian Clough always wrote “Be good” after his name, Martin O’Neill always had a face like a smacked arse when he did his and John Robertson always said: “Jesus, not you again.”

I’m not sure when I packed in hassling footballers to write their names on bits of paper – and I can’t even remember the last time I asked a celebrity for an autograph – but what I do know is that I was an absolute moron for getting them to sign tatty notebooks in order to show off to my mates at school. What I should have been doing was getting them to sign 50 shirts in one go, which I then framed and locked away for 25 years.

As anyone who’s ever seen the scooter hung from the ceiling in the Chelsea Megastore knows, the mar­ket for foot­ball tat has peaked and people want something more. Something personal. Something meaningful. Sadly, employing retired players as sex slaves is still frowned upon by society, so the next best thing is the booming market in football memorabilia.

And if you needed an example – another example – as to how football has loosed itself from its traditional moor­ings and floated off into the realms of showbiz, you needed to have been at Memorabilia 2003 at the NEC. Billed as Europe’s largest collectors’ fair for the kind of things Comic Book Guy out of The Simpsons prizes above all else, it’s the kind of event where you spend half your time tutting over the gullibility of  a generation who want their second childhood about five minutes into their adulthood and the other half screaming: “£40 for a Six Million Dollar Man doll with a plastic engine? Please – take my credit card.”

Like all conventions of this ilk, the main attraction is 100 or so celebrities who – at a price – will scribble their name on a photo. All the usual suspects are there – cast members of Dr Who, Blakes 7 and Lord Of The Rings, and an entire row of middle-aged Bond girls. Plonked in the middle of this for the first time in its nine-year existence is a “Sporting Arena” filled with ex-footballers and very well known ones at that: Jimmy Greaves, Pat Jennings, Charlie George and Norman White­side, to name but a few. If you want a precise reading as to the state of British football on the national psyche, I can tell you unequivocally: you turn left at Kenny Baker (who was R2-D2) and it’s just across the aisle from Tom Baker and next door to Jaws out of Moonraker.

After barging through a load of people dressed up as Cybermen and being seriously distracted by a full set of Roy Of The Rovers annuals, I chance upon someone who looks like a clean-shaven Eight Ace from Viz, with a ponytail and shell-suit bottoms. By the name-tag on the table (next to a stack of photos and 1977 FA Cup final programmes) it’s Stuart Pearson. Or Jimmy Greenhoff. Or maybe even Martin Buchan. I’d find out if he were actually signing anything, but there’s no one about – they’re all queuing up at the Lord Of The Rings stall or trying to chat up Bond girls. I get really angry about this. Instead of pretending to hack at a man in an Orc costume or pretending to have sex with Roger Moore, Jimmy/Martin/Stuart actually achieved something in real life. I’d go over and talk to him, but he might charge me £15 for doing so.

Instead, I peruse the merchandise stalls, which are so festooned with Man United stuff that I feel like I’m at the most exclusive car-boot sale in Cheshire. You can’t help but make comparisons between the football memorabilia and the more traditional items. A Topps bubblegum card with a tiny square of a match-worn Beckham shirt costs £45. Unless it’s got a bit of his shirt number on, in which case the price doubles.  This makes it £5 more expensive than a square inch of the carpet used on the set of the original Star Trek. Naturally, the serious money goes on England 1966 memorabilia – a Watney’s Red Barrel pennant is on display without a price tag, which means you have to ask the dealer how much before having to sit down when he tells you.

Back at the stall, Greaves, Jennings and Chopper Harris sit about having a natter, waiting for someone to come over. It’s Saturday afternoon, so they won’t see much business until Sunday, a dealer tells me – and business will pick up when the secret special guest arrives (who turns out to be Geoff Hurst). In America, players hit the signing circuit the minute they retire and make an absolute packet by writing their names for hours at a time and refusing to indulge in small talk. There, elderly ex-players brought in for one-off appearances are cheerfully advertised as “dead signatures”, but thankfully we’re a long way from that. The old pros are happy to pose for photos and Greavsie even picks up a cuddly seal and runs through a group of people like a rugby player. I’d ask him how much he expected to earn from the weekend, but I refuse unprofessionally to do so after he accused Forest players of throwing a game in the early Sixties in his new book (£30 gold-embossed special edition, signed).

In any case, the real money in football autographs seems to be with current players, who are too busy playing the sport to sit around signing stuff. Sportizus is a chain of memorabilia shops across the country, which contains the usual stuff – signed glossies of Darth Maul, Ali’s gloves etc – but their dealings in football-related merchandise have gone through the roof. Part shop, part museum, they offload anything David Beckham deigns to scribble upon the minute they get hold of it. “In the past five years, the value of football memorabilia has rocketed,” says Mike McGee, manager of the Nottingham branch. “Since the Premiership boom, it’s become much harder to approach players for autographs – you just don’t get the access to players that you used to, which makes a ball signed on the training ground much more valuable than it used to be.” It’s a frighteningly watertight set-up – they don’t do on-the-spot valuations on the premises and everything they sell has not one but three holograms – one on the back of the pic, one on the certificate of authentication and one that goes to their head office for tracking purposes.

The value of a signed glossy seems to be a combination of celebrity and rarity, but this goes out of the window with football signatures, which is a formulaic process which factors in how famous you are, what team you play for and if you’re married to Posh Spice or not. There’s no better time-killer than going on the Sportizus website (www.sportizus.com) and comparing autographs. Right now, a signed Beckham pic in Real kit goes for £325 – the combined total of Al Pacino, Sebastian Coe, Geoff Boycott, Margaret Thatch­er and Arthur Scargill. Even Wayne Rooney – who, at the time of writing, has won precisely nothing – goes for £245 (or Kevin Costner and George Clooney).

In a list of the top 100 most valuable autographs (which is monitored with Stock Exchange-like precision), the England 1966 squad are the most valuable football-wise, with prices up to £3,500 for a full set (on a par with Judy Garland, Neil Armstrong and the Queen). Obviously, the most valuable single signature is Bobby Moore, what with him being a) the captain and b) the only dead one. Pelé is the top player, at £295 (on a par with Marc Bolan and Isambard Kingdom Brunel). Like Muhammad Ali, his value would be much higher if he wasn’t still alive and signing  every­thing put before him.

According to McGee, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to predict which signatures from the current crop of players will be worth something in the future. “It’s essential that the player has had a successful international career, or is iconic – Best, Moore, Pelé, etc. But it’s all about publicity in the end. Vinnie Jones is a valuable autograph, and how many times did he play for Wales?”

One last tip – it appears that collectors go mental over anything signed on something unusual, such as a sardine tin signed by Eric Cantona, a kebab wrapper signed by Gazza or a sample bottle signed by Rio Ferdinand. And if you think all this is a sign that football has become blown out of all proportion, wait until George Best’s old liver appears on eBay.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month