If you've recently read Greg Lansdowne's excellent book 'Stuck On You: The Rise & Fall… & Rise Of Panini Stickers', you'll know how much detail he managed to cram into 256 pages about the wonderful world of sticker collecting.
Now, especially for Football Attic followers, Greg takes a closer look at a pivotal time in the UK's sticker and card collecting market - the 1991-92 season...
Collectables will eat themselves
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
On reflection it was just the worst.
If you were a fan of football collectables, the Eighties splits opinion. Reading Rob Jovanovic’s book on the subject, ‘Swap Yer’ one would think it was a period in the doldrums.
Perhaps it is just that Rob is a ‘cards’ rather than ‘stickers’ kind of guy, but calling that decade a “barren time” and “dark days” for collectors are assertions that, in part, led me to write a book espousing the virtues of Panini, and stickers of that decade in general.
What followed in the early Nineties is a bit less equivocal.
It was a mess.
For those who had longed for the return of the football card there was a beacon of hope in the shape of Pro Set, yet its bright opening was quickly extinguished – partly by its own hand.
For sticker fans – or, specifically Panini sticker fans - it was the end of an era, encapsulated by the ‘Football 92’ (sic) album.
In fact the 1991-92 collectables season marked such a low point that it merits an unexpurgated retrospective.
It could be argued that having the opportunity to deal in four separate issues (six if you were able to get hold of two dedicated-Scottish versions on top) would be manna from heaven for those of a collecting disposition.
In reality, what was on offer was a dog’s dinner of a Panini sticker album plus three – three! - card collections.
During the previous season, Panini had at least attempted to innovate (albeit badly) in an effort to counter the competition (new entrant Pro Set and the Sun’s ‘Soccer Sticker Collection’).
‘Football 1991’ begat not one but two different packets of stickers.
The red set, called the 'Foil Collection', was for club shinies, managers and Italia 90 World Cup action, coming out early in the season to lengthen the album’s presence. The 'Players Collection', in yellow, were the tried and tested individual head and shoulder pictures and team photo stickers, arriving in the familiar January Panini window.
Panini’s experiment was a failure – Pro Set was the collectable du jour for 1990-91 – but at least they tried.
Here is the crime sheet:
- No Scottish stickers
- Standardised head and shoulder shots had been replaced by action photos
- Lower division football reduced to ‘Twelve of the Best from the Second Division’
- No player biographies
- No foils/shinies!
Panini UK (along with other regions) had seen their budget severely cut – and, indeed, their resources dipped into in an attempt to manage leaks in other areas of owner Robert Maxwell’s empire - and that was reflected in the resultant ‘English Football 1992’.
It was during this season that Panini lost the most controversial leader in their history – drowned at sea. Recovery in the UK – certainly in football terms – would take a number of years as Merlin became the prime mover. But that is another story.
If English collectors felt short-changed by Panini’s offering, at least those north of the border could feel like a wrong of the previous decade had been partially avenged. For many years, Scottish players were reduced to two players per sticker in Panini albums – a slight felt strongly by many.
Now, however, in ‘Panini Scottish Football 1992’, the Scottish Premier Division clubs were afforded a distinction not provided to their English counterparts that season.
With only 12 teams in the Scottish Premier Division, the album was padded out to the lofty heights of 180 stickers (compared to a still-paltry 276 for the English edition) with a section on Scottish players in England.
If Panini really were keen on cutting costs that year, why not produce the same stickers for players such as Chelsea’s Steve Clarke, who featured in both albums. Especially when the shot chosen for ‘English Football 1992’ is more of a crowd scene than a tribute to the now Reading boss.
But for all Panini’s sticker efforts, 1991-92 will go down in football collecting history as the year of the card.
American company Pro Set had capitalised on the over-egging of sticker albums over previous years with an innovative (for this generation of collectors) card set. Having made a successful entry into the lucrative US trading card market in the late Eighties, owner Ludwell Denny’s expansion plans showed early promise as it shifted around 20 million packets of the ‘Pro Set 1990-91 Collector Cards’ series.
With the help of football agent John Smith, Pro Set became the official card of the Football Association as it made a surprising, and successful, move into the UK.
That success was short-lived down to two factors.
Firstly, two rival card sets – Panini’s ‘Official Players Collection’ and ‘Shooting Stars’ – muddied the waters the following season.
Secondly, if the competition didn’t get them, Pro Set did a good job in bewildering collectors by issuing their 1991-92 edition in three different packets (Official Fixture Cards, followed by Player Cards in two parts). Like Panini’s sticker collection, they also chose to issue separately in Scotland.
Each company pinned their colours to the masts of various football publications as they attempted to shout loudest amongst the cacophony of competing voices: Pro Set collaborated with Shoot! and The Sun, Shooting Stars with the newcomer 90 Minutes, while Panini worked with Match Weekly, Roy of the Rovers and the Daily Record in Scotland.
Similarly-proportioned cards had been hugely popular throughout the Sixties and Seventies as A&BC (subsequently taken over by Topps in the mid-Seventies) produced a series of memorable releases.
But whereas those sets were almost exclusively head and shoulder pictures, the latest collections (particularly Panini and Shooting Stars) were a hotch-potch of portrait and landscape action shots where the player represented would often be vying for attention with one or more opponents and/or or team-mates.
With no experience in the industry, Kluge called upon the services of Merlin Publishing to distribute and market the collection. Founded by four former Panini employees/distributors, Merlin had already dipped its toe into the murky football waters, but ‘Team 90’ and their Italia 90 sticker albums had limited success. As a result they had decided to give football a wide berth while the volatile market settled down. To that end they were happy to assist Kluge without putting their name to the product.
As they had advised her, Shooting Stars proved to be a flop – as did every sticker and card collection that year - but it all ended happily ever after.
Kluge ended up taking a sizeable stake in Merlin, as well as introducing them to then Arsenal Vice-Chairman David Dein - who just so happened to be looking for a company to produce a sticker album for the recently-founded Premier League, with which he was also involved.
The rest is history.
While the 1991-92 collectables season had no winners, it did ‘turn out nice again’ for Kluge and her Merlin collaborators as well as, in the long-run, Panini. Even Pro Set had already ensured its place in collectables history for bringing about the revival of football cards in the UK… a legacy that lives on through Match Attax.
Nick Berry had summed it up perfectly just a few years earlier… Every Loser Wins.
-- Greg Lansdowne
Our grateful thanks go to Greg Lansdowne for his excellent guest post, and a reminder to everyone that his fabulous book, ‘Stuck On You: The Rise & Fall… & Rise Of Panini Stickers’, is on sale now via Amazon UK and all good book shops.