We regularly feature guest posts here on the Attic and today sees another, this time by the amiable William Abbs, creator of Saha From The Madding Crowd who takes a look Merlin's first Premier League sticker collections.
One lunchtime at school, a friend whose identity I've sadly forgotten gave me the playground equivalent of magic beans. They were just half a dozen football stickers that he said he had no need for, but they started off my very first collection and one that would grow into a complete set by the end of the 1993/94 season. I didn't quite understand the concept at first - idly swapping stickers with other friends without realising I was giving away players I would need to acquire again later - but I soon realised I'd been given the keys to a whole world of trading, bartering, and one-upmanship.
Once I found out there was a whole album's worth of stickers to get, I started buying them almost on a daily basis. Of course, my parents often bore the cost but my younger brother had agreed to come on board in the collecting so they were at least only funding one collection not two competing ones. I would also think nothing of blowing my weekly £2 pocket money on ten packets all in one go.
Looking back, in relative terms I've never been so profligate with cash as I was during those months. Using my entire weekly income to indulge one obsession at a young age could have had unfortunate repercussions later on, so it's a relief really that football stickers proved to be a gateway to nothing harder than a regrettable dalliance with pogs a year or so later.
Although the Premier League was in its second year, this was actually the first edition of Merlin's sticker collection. The introduction on the first page - penned by Andy Gray, no less - wasted no time in aligning the two brands with the assertion that the album, like the Premier League itself, "breaks with tired, old conventions". That statement seems a lot more ominous now than it did twenty years ago, but that's probably because I was ten at the time so I just skipped straight to the player pages beyond it instead.
Arranged, conventionally enough, in alphabetical order, the twenty-two clubs that made up the Premier League that season were represented by a rather modest fifteen players each. There was also a team photo of every squad to collect as well as a fairly redundant action shot of the side's star player divided across two separate stickers (I lost count of how many copies of Neville Southall's outstretched right boot I had at one time). However, the crowning piece of every team section was obviously the picture of the club's badge on a reflective background. These were universally called "shinies" at my school yet erroneously referred to as "glitters" by those at a rival one, perhaps emphasising the class divide that exists between many Norwich suburbs.
Moving on to the pictures of the players themselves, what immediately becomes apparent is the general propensity of sensible haircuts and unironic moustaches that date the collection as much as the kits and the presence of Swindon and Oldham in the top division. It's also striking how old some of the younger players look, and indeed how old all of the older players look. Coventry's David Rennie, who was actually my final sticker in the collection, was only in his late twenties but already looked like he'd wandered into shot from a veterans' exhibition game taking place nearby. At Southampton, Peter Reid looked particularly grizzled even by his standards, giving him the appearance of Jack Regan working undercover as a veteran midfielder in a lost episode of The Sweeney.
For fans of kit design, an early nineties sticker album throws up a classic on almost every page. Norwich's speckled home shirt, famously worn the night they beat Bayern Munich at the Olympic Stadium earlier that season, is still revered very highly but I'd never noticed that the Canaries' yellow effort was based on a Ribero template also used for Coventry's sky blue version. Similarly, the chevron design on the front of West Ham's shirt (a personal favourite) was a Pony creation used to slightly less impressive effect at Southampton too. Laces around the shirt collar were a popular feature, favoured by Manchester United, Ipswich and Sheffield United. The award for the most daring away kit was a tie between Everton's salmon (it says here) and dark blue stripes and Manchester City's purple shirts with white pinstripes. Conveniently, all of the kits are reproduced as shinies towards the album's middle to be stared at in all their magnificence.
No doubt because of the heavy Sky presence throughout the rest of the collection, Merlin saw fit to include a double page spread on the channel's television coverage in the centre of the album. Entitled "Fabulous Footballing Facts About Sky", the section contained six stickers ranging in excitement from a Sky Sports logo that at least counted as a shiny to the mundanity of a cameraman standing pitchside. In another shot, Clive Allen - still on West Ham's books that season - is pictured sitting next to Richard Keys, who sports a jacket so yellow even the cast of Hi-de-Hi! would've dismissed it as garish. Stickers such as this, and the one of original Goals on Sunday presenters Anna Walker and John Solako posing for the camera, were obliged to be collected even if they were the football equivalent of the "Krusty Poses for Trading Card Photo" gag in The Simpsons.
The album ends on a rather poignant note, picking out eight players for its "Rising Stars" section. Some of those selected went on to enjoy respectable top flight careers but none of them became the superstars that the makers of the collection clearly thought they could be. Steve Froggatt, then a spritely winger at Aston Villa, eventually received an England call-up in 1999 while at Coventry, as did Norwich starlet Darren Eadie in 1997, but neither received a cap and both retired early due to injury. Chelsea youngster Neil Shipperley went on to play professionally until 2007 but never got further than seven U21 appearances. Southampton's Neal Bartlett and Manchester City's Adie Mike, however, had both dropped into Non League football within five years.
Looking back at the 1993/94 season through the medium of stickers offers an intriguing glimpse at the brief period between the formation of the Premier League and Euro 96 when the infiltration of television money and glamour hadn't quite taken full effect yet. Newcastle and Blackburn had both won promotion as a result of wealthy benefactors but Sir John Hall and Jack Walker remained examples of the traditional model in British football of the dominant businessman in the area taking control of his local club. The baggy indie fringes modelled by the likes of Manchester City's Garry Flitcroft and Sheffield Wednesday's Graham Hyde, meanwhile, come across as fairly budget concessions to style next to the sleeve tattoos and bejewelled earrings that would be flashed across our screens in later years.