Sunday, 3 June 2012

Topps 'Footballer' cards, 1978

Ask anyone about collecting pictures of football players and they’re likely to mention one name and one name only – Panini. Go back to the latter half of the 1970’s, however, and you’ll find a different name vying for the attention of school children everywhere – Topps.

Forget stickers and albums: between 1975 and 1982, the American company were tempting kids across the UK by selling packets of soccer picture cards containing their very own USP – a stick of Bazooka chewing gum.

Topps were the creators of Bazooka gum. When they started out in 1938, sales of the chewy substance were slow, but in the 1950’s they hatched a master plan to include sticks of the stuff in packets with picture cards of well-known baseball players. Sales rocketed and the rest, as they say, is history.

The 1978/79 collection

Left: Ooh look - it's Thin Frank!
Right: John Gregory - for the
man that doesn't have to try too
This post concentrates on the 1978-79 series of Topps ‘Footballer’ picture cards, known as ‘orange backs.’ Starting from the 1975-76 season, Topps released two ‘Footballer’ card collections, one featuring English players, the other Scottish. Each card typically showed a colour picture of a player on the front while the back gave statistical details relating to that player. In the case of the 1978-79 season, the backs were printed with orange ink, hence the name ‘orange backs’.

They were sold in newsagents virtually everywhere and stood out easily in their bright blue packets. Having attempted extreme mastication with the unyielding pink Bazooka gum, you could happily turn your attention to the cards which, in the case of the English collection, mainly featured players from the First and Second Division.

Artistic intervention

Docherty and Kindon: Green tint
The great and the good were on show; former World Cup winners and great internationals rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi. Like many card and sticker collections of the era, the visual appeal came from the sheer variety of poses, compositions and locations, and here the Topps 1978 Footballer collection didn't disappoint.

That said, the card designers could be said to have had a momentary lapse of reason from time to time. For a start, many of the images feature green tinted backgrounds, giving a somewhat otherworldly atmosphere to a natural, if dull, match scenario.

Left/middle: The 'Hamptons take the 'P';
Right: Don Masson in fictional kit
Yet if you thought that level of photographic doctoring was bad enough, that was nothing. Some cards showed players wearing kit that for some reason didn't quite look right. On closer inspection, it was apparent that someone had been employed by Topps to artistically correct an inappropriate image – sometimes with hilarious consequences. Though the collar on Chris Nicholl's shirt was fairly passable, the one on Mike Docherty's most certainly was not… and as for Don Masson, his Derby County kit bordered on the ridiculous.

One other final foible could be seen on the name banners at the top of each card. Though the designers did well to cram in long team names like 'Manchester Utd' or 'Middlesbrough', some names like Southampton and Wolverhampton simply had the 'P' taken out of them…

Stat attack

Turn the cards over and a wealth of information was available at your fingertips. The basics were all there – name, height, weight, birthplace – plus a summary of personal statistics in recent seasons.

Orange backs: Fun, facts and
quiz questions galore.
There was also room for one or more handy facts about the player, although 'facts' was something of a loose term. Finding out that Mel Machin is "a very versatile player" was hardly headline news, and it's barely earth-shattering to learn that Ray Lewington "is red-haired." We can see that from the picture, thank you very much. At least we were informed that Mick Lambert of Ipswich "was once on the Lords Cricket groundstaff and was picked as 12th man for a Test match!" although whether we choose to believe it is another thing entirely.

On the left of every card was a small area set aside for quiz questions, pictures and club profiles, although the postage stamp-sized area didn't allow much room for detail. Not that this was much of a problem for the Who Am I? questions – a conundrum where the identity of a well-known player had to be deciphered by clues shown on five different cards. Even if you had all five clues, you still needed a sixth card to find out what the answer was and with clues like "I relax by playing my guitar", the whole thing seemed to be rather futile.

World Cup history cards.
World Cup Fever

This being the season following the 1978 World Cup however, it was perhaps no surprise to see that some of the 396 cards in this collection cashed in on the history of the event.

These World Cup cards featured a blue-tinted picture on the front along with the score from the Final, while on the back there was a very concise outline of the tournament, the four best teams and the leading scorers.

For serious collectors only...

All in all then, a comprehensive collection and one that required a lot of patience to complete. Assuming you were happy to either consume or dispose of a lot of chewing gum, you then had to buy around 100 packs to complete your collection, and that was assuming you didn't get any swaps. Luckily, Topps provided you with several checklist cards to help you identify which ones you owned and which ones you needed, although it still needed a bit of luck to come across those as well.

With no album to house your collection, your junior self had to carry your cards to school if you wanted to compare them with those of your friends, and they could make a sizable pile very quickly, rest assured.

Perhaps this was their key appeal though. The cards were far bigger than Panini stickers and made you feel like you really owned something substantial. These were large-scale cards for large-scale football enthusiasts, regardless of age.

The pictures were bright and colourful (if comedically altered at times) and there was lots of information to read on the backs too. In fact, Topps' Footballer cards had an identity all of their own – a far cry from the Topps soccer cards of today, but no less appealing for football nostalgists everywhere.

With grateful thanks to Nigel's Webspace for giving us permission to use the wrapper image above.


  1. Great post thanks, i used to have plenty of these as a young boy. As they were larger i, in many ways, preferred them to panini. And as they were more rigid were better than my pile of sticker swaps for pretend matches using the cards to flick a subbuteo ball into it's matching goal. I'd have twenty two cards laid out, two teams facing each other in whichever formation i fancied and stage pretend games.
    Sounds childish now but when i was little.......

    I was too young to remember the kits being touched up but it's hilarious now and is similar to panini's enforced efforts on the England national side!

  2. Algordon_cafc - there's no need to apologise for your childhood games. We all played them! Still sounds like fun, actually!

    Of course, you're quite right about Panini's touching up policy these days! I'd forgotten about that parallel... :)

    Thanks for the kind words, by the way - much appreciated!

  3. The Mick Lambert fact is indeed correct. No reason to doubt that.


  4. I'd asked for the latest Panini book and ended up with Topps' Footballer 81 effort fairness it was quite fun - but hard work.
    As they were cards instead of stickers, you had to sellotape the blooming things into the album...
    The cards weren't individual, but 'as three', so you tore them apart. And as if to make matters even more confusing for a six-year old, some of the players had international kits on rather than of their club.
    I vividly remember the evolutionary step up to the Espana '82 Panini album!

    1. Hi Kevin! I can honestly say I didn't collect the Topps cards in 81, but I think I've seen them on eBay. The 3-on-1 approach looked quite distinctive, but I can see how the international kits would confuse a juvenile mind!

  5. Is there anyone who wants to swap these cards? Like for like?