My two Panini football sticker albums that illustrate the society we once were, and the vastly different one we are now - Simon Carter

It’s 40 years old now, and unsurprisingly showing its age; a bit dog-eared, the staples are rusting, the centre pages have come loose. But it remains, four decades on, an evocative portal for football fans of my generation into a lost world, a 576-sticker book reflecting the society we grew up in.

By Simon Carter
Tuesday, 25th January 2022, 4:51 pm
Two albums, 40 years apart - Panini's 'Football 82' book and the 2022 Premier League version with a selection of stickers.
Two albums, 40 years apart - Panini's 'Football 82' book and the 2022 Premier League version with a selection of stickers.

‘Football 82’ - the fifth Figurine Panini album dedicated to the English and Scottish game - showcases the era when, before Sky invented football, our top teams were made up of players called Colin, Ray, David, Graham, Peter, Gary, Gordon, Frank and Dennis. I’m loathe to call it a more innocent age, because there was nowt remotely innocent about terrace culture back then.

There were hardly any foreign imports; of the 264 players featured across the 22 top flight clubs, only nine (3.4 per cent) had been signed from abroad. Only two clubs - Ipswich (Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen) and Tottenham (Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa) - had two foreigners. Simple maths tells you 15 of the 22 clubs had none.

There were hardly any players either from black, Asian and multi-ethnic communities (BAME); of the 264, just 14 (5.3 per cent). Only Notts County - yes, younger readers, the same Notts that now reside in non-league football - and Tottenham had as many as three. Fourteen clubs had none.

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A selection of Panini's 2022 Premier League stickers

Today, Manchester United can boast an Official Global Lubricant Partner and Fuel Retail Partner (Gulf), an Official Digital Transformation Partner (HCL), an Official Paint Partner (Kansai) and an Official Global Mattress and Pillow Partner (Mlily). In ‘Football 82’ they didn’t even have a shirt sponsor. Even Middlesbrough had one of those.

The team groups also reflected the much smaller squads of the early 80s. The Aston Villa sticker featured just 14 players - the same 14 players Ron Saunders had used en route to winning the 1980/81 First Division title, a fact that is even more astounding now than it was then.

Up at Anfield, Bob Paisley poses with a squad of 20 players and the European Cup. In 1981/82 Liverpool would draw my team, Exeter, in the second round of the League Cup. Despite winning the first leg 5-0 at home, Paisley still fielded a strong side in Devon for what was (obviously) a foregone conclusion. Of the starting XI that had faced Manchester United the previous weekend, eight started at Exeter, virtually all Anfield legends - Grobbelaar, Neal, Lawrenson, Thompson, Hansen, Ray Kennedy, Dalglish, McDermott. And the three young reserves he brought in - Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan and Kevin Sheedy - didn’t have bad careers either!

It would never have dawned on Bob Paisley to do anything else. The dreaded phrase ‘squad rotation’ didn’t exist when I used to hand over my 5p coins for packets of ‘Football 82’ stickers 40 years ago. There was proper respect for lower division clubs back then, none of this ‘let’s field the kids’ malarkey.

The Liverpool stats pages in the 2022 Panini album - there are another two pages for the squad stickers

Four decades on, Panini stickers don’t cost 5p a packet any more. Now they’re 70p. For five stickers. My ‘Football 82’ stickers cost 6p a packet. For four stickers. That’s inflation for you. This year, you’d have to buy 128 packets (almost £90) to get the 636 stickers you need to complete the album, and the chances of not having any swaps are nil.

If I close my eyes, I can easily take myself back to school playgrounds circa 1979-82. I picture groups of friends huddled together holding huge bundles of swaps, hundreds of them at times, held together by elastic bands. There were five main ways of spending playground time - kiss chase (involving girls), re-enacting Star Wars battles (one girl only allowed - Princess Leia!), Rubik’s Cubes, playing football (with balls made up, at times, of elastic bands) and stickers. Of those, the latter took priority when the new Panini album was released in mid-January. From memory, not many girls collected stickers. I hope they do now.

‘Football 82’ wasn’t devoted exclusively to the 22 top flight clubs. Teams in the Second and Third Divisions were represented via a ‘shiny’ club badge and a pre-season team photo. North of the border, the 10 Scottish Premier Division clubs had a page each - 12 players featuring in smaller stickers than their English counterparts - while even the 14 Scottish First Division clubs were included via a team group.

Among the 120 Scottish Premier players, not one was foreign and not one was from a BAME background. This was, I repeat for emphasis, a different world, the one I grew up in which no one under the age of 45 can possibly remember or, more importantly, understand.

Something you thought you'd never see - Brentford take their place in a Panini Premier League sticker album

This year, the Panini stickers album is devoted entirely to the Premier League. Well, we can’t have any youngster believing footie actually EXISTS, let alone thrives, outside of those who furiously milk Murdoch’s cash cow, can we?

I know it’s exclusively Premier League because the other day I went into my local supermarket and bought it. For £3.99, I got a shiny 100-page album - 34 more pages than ‘Football 82’ - and four packs of stickers. And yes, I did think to myself ‘the album used to be free with Shoot! magazine and four packs of stickers in 1982 was 24p!’

The stickers are of a far higher quality than they were ‘back in my day’. Each one has ‘Footy Facts’ on the peel off back. For example, did you know Brentford’s Zanka got his nickname from a character in the film Cool Runnings? I had no clue, but then in my defence I’d never heard of the player and I don’t watch many films.

Also, each player has their Instagram account listed at the bottom of their card, a nod to 21st century living. When ‘Football 82’ came out I’d never used a computer other than to play Space Invaders or Asteroids. On the back of the Brighton team group sticker, I’m told the average height of their squad is 1.83m and only 16 per cent of their squad is left-footed. You can have too many stats …

'Footy Facts' on the back of each Panini sticker in 2022

In my school playground, some cards were valued more than others. If you had a spare Kenny Dalglish, you could ask for more than one card in return. Well, you could at Ladysmith Middle School. When I moved up to an all boys school - against my wishes, thanks mum and dad! - life got a bit tougher. You were more likely to get a wedgie if you had a card the class nutter needed.

I’m guessing numbers 366, 423 and 543 could be this year’s ‘must have’ playground ‘needs’ - Salah, Ronaldo and Kane respectively. Or perhaps sticker number 336, David Beckham - one of Panini’s ‘six legendary superstars who shone brightest’ in Premier League history (so, no chance of finding a Kenny Dalglish in my 70p packets). For interest, the other five are Thierry Henry, Gianfranco Zola, Wayne Rooney, Alan Shearer and Jurgen Klinsmann. Not sure about the last one, but football’s always about opinions.

I have to admit, it did feel good opening a Panini packet again for the first time in four decades (the ‘Espana 82’ World Cup represented my last sticker-buying frenzy hurrah). I didn’t get a Ronaldo or a Kane, but amongst my 20 stickers I did get a shiny Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and a Virgil Van Dijk. Of the 16 player stickers, 10 featured foreign signings - more than the entire overseas contingent in ‘Football 82’.

It is easy to say for someone of my age – I celebrated my 53rd birthday last week - that our childhoods were better than today’s youngsters. It is hard to pit two completely different societies against each other. But one thing I do know for certain is that my generation loved Panini stickers. As well as ‘Football 82’, I had the completed albums in 1979 and 1980 but somehow, down the years, have (sadly) lost them.

I hope today’s 10/11/12/13-year-olds covet their Panini collections as much as I did (and don’t lose them). I wonder if you’ll see group huddles in playgrounds up and down the country with bundles of swaps held together by elastic bands? I’d love to think so. Football stickers, after all, are an innocent hobby and surely there remains a place for some of those in today’s technology-dominated society?

As for me, I glance at my ‘Football 82’ album and see Alan Hansen surrounded by 12 other Liverpool player stickers. In my newest album, another classy centre half, Van Dijk, sits all alone, surrounded by 21 empty spaces. It will stay that way, though the child that still sits in all of us, whatever our age, would dearly love to open more packets. And it is a great album, stuffed full of stats. If I was 11 again and crazy about the Premier League, I’d love to collect all 636 stickers (and the extra 48 that will be released in March rounding up the January transfer window moves).

The Swansea City pages in 'Football 82'

Once this is written, ‘Football 82’ will take its place in a dusty cupboard once more, alongside programmes, newspapers and other footie memorabilia. I’ll make sure the centre pages are tucked safely inside. They feature Swansea City, who in their first ever Division 1 season sat top of the table in mid-March. They eventually finished sixth, the lowest they were all season, with a bunch of Colins, Bobs, Johns, Davids and Jeremys (and one of the nine foreign signings in the album, Dzemal Hadziabdic).

Imagine Brentford - the current Panini album’s new kids on the block - top of the Premier League this March? Imagine them finishing sixth. No, you can’t.

But that was football four decades ago. Panini stickers showed players like Tommy Hutchinson, who was 34 but looked in his 70s. The few foreign imports included interestingly-named Nottingham Forest defender Einar Aas, and players had bubble perms instead of a tattoo sleeve, nicknames from bobsleigh-related films and social media accounts.

It is easy to look back and laugh, but it was also an era when Liverpool, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest won the European Cup between them seven years in a row, and Ipswich won the UEFA Cup. Had a penalty shoot-out gone their way, Arsenal would have won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1980.

Domestically, between 1978-84, Forest, Wolves, Ipswich, West Ham (as a Second Division club) and Everton won domestic trophies. Watford, Brighton and Southampton reached major cup finals. Compared to today, there was little cosmopolitan flavour, little diversity among players’ backgrounds, but there was more competition, more scope for romance. Ideally, today’s Premier League would be an amalgam of the best of then and now, but I appreciate that’s wishful thinking in the extreme. We can’t have it all, can we?

Thankfully, Panini stickers are the glue - literally and metaphorically - that happily binds the two eras together. And long may playgrounds ring out to the cry of ‘Got, Got, NEED!’

*The nine foreign players in ‘Football 82’ were: Toine Van Mierlo (Birmingham City), Arnold Muhren, Frans Thijssen (both Ipswich Town), Einar Aas (Nottingham Forest), Ivan Golac (Southampton), Loek Ursen (Stoke City), Dzemal Hadziabdic (Swansea City), Ricky Villa, Osvaldo Ardiles (both Tottenham),

Before the money men arrived - the Manchester City pages in 'Football 82'
The Portsmouth FC stickers in 'Football 82' when, as now, the club were in the third tier.
Simon Carter's prized stickers in his 'Football 82' album - the Exeter City 'shiny' badge and team picture