It won't be long before the domestic football season starts again. Hopes of success will be uppermost in our minds as we finally put to one side the pre-season tournaments given hollow reverence by Sky Sports or the endless prattle of 'experts' on Twitter in favour of real, proper football.
Back in the day when comics and sticker collections took precedence over seemingly everything else, the acquisition of Shoot! every week brought about a feeling of quiet contentment. Our thirst for football knowledge was satiated by the news, interviews and features held within its pages, to say nothing of its team pictures and player profiles. In short, it was a pocket-money package of football delight.
Towards the end of every summer, however, Shoot's front cover featured two words guaranteed to send a tingle of frenzy into every corner of our brains: 'Free Inside.' Something good was bound to follow, and inevitably it did in the form of those legendary League Ladders. They were nothing more than a series of T-shaped tabs ready for slotting into pre-printed empty league tables, yet somehow they symbolised the exciting potential of well over 120 English and Scottish League clubs. All we had to do was collect the tabs and place them in the correct order every week.
There would soon be pitfalls to overcome. To begin, you had to buy Shoot! every week until you'd obtained every set of tabs for every team. It sounds easy enough, but there was always the potential for your local newsagent to run out of issues when you least expected it. Seeing Division 4 lying empty while Scottish Division 2 was complete would always rankle with you as the season progressed, so a full set of team tabs was a must for any supporter worth their salt.
Having obtained all the tabs, your next job was to make sure none of them ended up in the dustbag of your mum's Hoover Deluxe, or worse still, be eaten by your pet dog. Making replacement tabs out of a breakfast cereal box was always possible, but it was never going to better the real thing.
If you could get past that obstacle, there were a number of things you could do with your pristine set of League Ladders before the season got into full swing. Some people liked to arrange the teams in the order they predicted for the end of the competition. This usually meant placing your own team at the top of Division 1 while their greatest rivals were at the other end.
As a lasting reminder, some were known to write the number of their predictions on the back of each tab - a clever idea, assuming they'd not thrown the whole thing away out of sheer boredom by Christmas. More of which later...
Once the season was underway, however, you had but one responsibility, and that was to update the positions of every team tab in every division - from August until the following May. For me, that meant taking the two-minute walk every Sunday morning down to the home of Dean and Michael Potter. Once there, we'd sit outside on their front doorstep, changing the order of our tabs in accordance with the tables printed in the Sunday Mirror, recently acquired from the clutches of their no doubt displeased father.
We'd do that for a few weeks and then stop, because quite frankly there are few things as boring as rearranging the positions of dozens of pieces of cardboard that you'd only rearranged the week before. Oh sure, it was fun for a short while, but after that you realised that it was merely stopping you from doing something else more interesting, like playing football in your local park or devising an index system for your C60 cassette collection.
For the most committed, Sunday morning was far too long to wait before updating their League Ladders. For them, the challenge was to do so just after 5pm on a Saturday afternoon when Grandstand showed the updated league tables. Quite how they managed this is something of an enigma as the tables were never displayed for more than ten seconds on screen. For those with Ceefax TV sets, however, the 'Hold' button on the remote control was a useful tool, as long as your parents were prepared to miss the first 20 minutes of The Little and Large Show.
Despite the added allure of being able to fill in your team's results or plot their league positions on the Progress Chart, the number of people that kept their League Ladders up-to-date throughout an entire season was nil. Our interest in those little cardboard tabs quickly dwindled every season, yet year after year we rediscovered League Ladders with all the relish of someone that had never clapped eyes on them before.
Why? Was it the regularity with which they appeared year in, year out without fail? Certainly the history of League Ladders goes way back to a Rover comic of 1923, after which it appeared in publications such as Lion and Roy of the Rovers right through to the modern era with Match magazine and many others. Even The Football Attic has paid tribute to the League Ladders legend in admiration of its lasting appeal.
Nowadays, you can find online versions and magnetic versions if you're so inclined to be entertained, but let's face it, nothing can beat the Shoot! version... except perhaps the Shoot! version itself. Every year they'd produce the same item (albeit slightly redesigned), and every year we should have told them where to stick it. We knew we'd probably get bored of playing with our tabs and ladders all too quickly, and yet we'd always ensure sure we had one every season without fail.
Designed to provide joy for no more than a month (but what joy), we salute the illogically wonderful League Ladders, in whatever form they take. A triumph for enduring brilliance over sustained excitement, you can be sure someone will be writing something similar to the above 50 years from now.
Our sincere thanks to Alan Jenkins of the wonderful Football Cartophilic Info Exchange for allowing us to reproduce the above images.