John CraceComment


John CraceComment

This is completely normal isn’t it? Isn’t it?

I started collecting things as a kid. Brooke Bond tea cards, stamps, old pennies, Biggles books, World Cup Panini stickers, Esso World Cup plastic figurines and, of course, the Spurs programmes I’d got from Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. You name it, I almost certainly had a small hoard of it somewhere in my bedroom. If a child did that kind of thing nowadays, he’d probably be taken to a shrink and diagnosed with an obsessive compulsive disorder, but back in the 1960s and 1970s it was considered relatively normal. At least, in my family.

The collections petered out as I reached my late teens. I took driving lessons within weeks of reaching seventeen, passed my test a few months later and bought an old beaten-up mini off my sister; I now had an exit from the sleepy Wiltshire village where my dad was a vicar and my life could begin. I did make it to university, but after that things went downhill. My idea of what having a life meant didn’t really coincide with anyone else’s, and the highlight of my twenties was selling ice creams on Oxford Street. I did try to get slightly more interesting jobs, but I was beyond clueless. At one interview I was asked, ‘Why do you want this job?’ I replied, ‘I dunno. I don’t, really.’ The nadir was working on commission for a dodgy life-insurance set-up, during which, as I have mentioned, I managed to mis-sell myself a crap mortgage endowment policy.

Things improved in my thirties. I’d finally worked out that one of the secrets to life was not actively trying to kill yourself, I was making a decent living as a freelance writer (it’s one of the few jobs where no one ever asks you to explain the ten-year hole in your CV), I was married, had two lovely kids and a room where I worked at the top of the house with a pile of stamp albums, Panini stickers, Brooke Bond cards, old pennies and football programmes stacked up in the corner, though I dare say if they had been worth anything I’d have flogged them some time in my twenties. The Biggles books were on the bookshelf, by the way.

And then my dad died and left me £20,000; more than enough for a decent holiday, but not exactly a gamechanger. It wouldn’t buy a new house or pay off the mortgage. My wife was in no doubt what I should do with it. ‘You need to put it in your pension. You’ve got next to no savings at all.’ This was true; my most recent pension projection, based on the £100 per month I had been salting away for the previous few years, suggested I was in line for an annuity of just under £1,000 per year by the time I retired, a sum even I could tell would barely keep me in Mars bars. The way I saw it, though, was that tossing another £20,000 into the pot was not going to make much difference to a pension fund so substantially underfunded as mine. So I ignored her.

I’m not sure exactly when I decided I’d spend the money on adding to my collections. Or even if it was a decision in the normal sense of the word. I definitely didn’t discuss it with Jill. My recollection is that I was looking through an old stamp album and thought it would be nice to buy one or two of the more expensive stamps that I’d always wanted as a kid, but had never imagined I would be able to afford. I’m fairly sure it was meant to be a one-off thing – a sentimental nod to my father who gave me his old, worthless stamps when I was a child – but things rather snowballed.  Or to put it another way, I kept on buying more and more stuff so that, by default, my collections became my pension. Which is one of the few financial decisions I’ve never regretted, because had I dumped the £20,000 into my pension it would almost certainly be worth half that now if my friends’ pensions are anything to judge by. As it is, I’m fairly sure my clobber is worth at least as much as, if not more than, I paid for it, so my own mismanagement of my assets has for once proved significantly less disastrous than leaving it to a professional to fuck it up for me. It’s also worth pointing out that I’m much happier spending cash on stuff I can see and want than having it siphoned off via direct debit for some anonymous suit to play with, so my collections, aka my pension, now benefit by considerably more than £100 per month. Though how much more you’ll have to guess, as I’ve made a point of never telling Jill. There are limits to her tolerance.

My collection of Spurs memorabilia expanded rapidly when Robbie started coming to games with me. Every match I would buy a programme from the same seller on Tottenham High Road and, when we got home, I’d put it away neatly and unread in Robbie’s bedroom cupboard. It wasn’t long before there was a huge heap of them and I imagined that they mattered to him, a visible, physical reminder of time spent together. Then one day I realised he didn’t give a toss about the programmes, and that he’d be a lot happier if they weren’t cluttering up his room. At which point I transferred them upstairs to join all my old ones from the 1960s and 1970s that were gathering dust in my study.

None of my collections have ever started out with a proper plan: I’ve just bought things fairly indiscriminately – call me a sucker – until I’ve worked out exactly what it was that I did want to collect. So I began with the vague idea of setting out to get a programme from every game the team had ever played. It wasn’t long before I began to run into massive problems. You can pick up most programmes from the late 1960s onwards for next to nothing – as usual, it turned out that none of the ones I had kept for the best part of forty years had any real value – and soon I had boxes and boxes of them filling up my study and spilling out on to the landing. The main problem, though, was that the early ones – from the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – were expensive, ranging from about £40 for the later ones in average condition to upwards of several hundred quid for the early ones. And that’s if I was lucky enough to find them. I could spend a lifetime bankrupting myself and never get close to completing the collection.

I needed to specialise. A logical first step was to start with all the games Spurs had played in European competitions – the European Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup – since they had first qualified in the early 1960s. It seemed a reasonable ambition; it also turned out to be a pricey one. The point about old programmes is that it’s not always the big games – the finals – that are the most expensive, because they tend to be played in big stadiums and a lot of people buy programmes as souvenirs. So there’s plenty on the market. There are exceptions, mind. A programme for the second FA Cup final played at Wembley in 1924 will cost you a lot more than the one played in 1923 because, after the success of the previous year, the organisers got greedy and doubled the price of the programme; most fans said thanks but no thanks, and thousands of programmes were pulped. But as Spurs weren’t playing in either of these cup finals, who really cares?

The tricky games are the away games – especially those played behind the former Iron Curtain, as very few Spurs fans made the trip. It took me an age to find the programme for the away leg of the 1963 Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against OFK Belgrade. It took even longer to find one at a price I was willing to pay; and that was a great deal more than I wanted to pay. When something is vanishingly rare, all it takes is one other bidder to push the price sky-high. Come to think of it, a programme doesn’t even need to be rare for the price to rocket. Chris Williams, who runs the auction house, Sportingold, once told me that some years back there were only two people who seriously collected sporting memorabilia from their club – I think it was Mansfield Town, but I can’t be sure – but they hated each other and would regularly try to outbid the other on everything. For a while, prices for anything from this club were astronomical. Then one of them died and they fell again.

There’s not much chance of that happening with Spurs, though, as the club – along with Manchester United – is one of the most collectible. No one has ever been able to explain exactly why. I prefer to think that Spurs fans have a keen sense of history; Chris Williams, a Manchester City fan incidentally, reckons it’s just that Spurs fans have deep pockets. Either way, the upside is that there will always be a market for my stuff; the downside is that there’s often a lot of competition. It took me several auctions to find the OFK away programme at the right price, though looking back it might have been that it took several auctions for me to reconcile myself to paying so much. Still, I got there in the end.

Then there were the other cup competitions. It seemed silly not to try to complete the full run of matches in the years we won the FA Cup or League Cup. Again, I baulked at handing over the far too much I had to pay for the 1921 FA Cup final, but needs must and all that, though I’ve still drawn the line at the many thousands of pounds a programme from the 1901 FA Cup final would set me back. Well, I say I’ve drawn the line, but it’s a totally theoretical line as I’ve never actually seen a 1901 programme at auction and, if I did, I couldn’t guarantee not to take out a bank loan to fund it. Interest rates are still very low . . .

Tracking all these programmes down was a slow process, so it seemed daft not to use the downtime to fill in a few of the other cup runs. Getting to the semi-final isn’t so bad, after all. Then I became interested in friendlies, especially the ones played in odd parts of the world that very few Spurs fans were likely to have seen. Who would have gone to see Spurs play Liverpool in Swaziland in 1984? Or Western Australia in 1976? My favourite is still the programme from Spurs’ trip to play Torpedo Moscow when the Cold War was at its coldest in 1959; I haven’t a clue what it says because it’s in Russian, but it’s a mini-masterpiece of Soviet art.

After a few years of all this, with still more programmes cluttering up the house despite my efforts at rationalization, it was time to call a halt. And so I started collecting old match tickets because they took up less space. A whole season’s worth of tickets could fit easily into one medium-sized brown envelope, and there was no need to set any limits; all the tickets from every game the club had ever played would fit inside one box. Finding them was another matter: before all-seater stadiums became standard after the Hillsborough tragedy, most people either had season tickets or just paid cash at the turnstile. And of the comparatively few people who did buy seats on the day, most never bothered to keep their old stubs, which made the tickets much rarer than programmes. With my unerring instinct for haemorrhaging cash, I’d stumbled on a yet more expensive obsession.

I can confidently say the collection will never be complete. My earliest ticket is from the 1921 FA Cup final; only the insurance company and the vendor know how much I paid for that, but I’ve no regrets as I’ve never seen one on sale since. Then there’s a twelve-year gap to the 1934 third-round FA Cup tie against Everton. And that’s it for the 1930s. From the 1940s I have just two tickets; the home league game against Fulham in the 1947–8 season and the away game against Arsenal the following year. The 1950s are only slightly less threadbare with just twenty or so tickets across the decade, but then the collection bulks up exponentially – apart from the double-winning year of 1960–61, which is still a bit thin as tickets from this season are like gold dust.

So there’s plenty of room for growth. How much is anyone’s guess. It seems reasonable to hope I might one day have a full set of everything from 1960 onwards, but were any tickets printed for all the missing games before that? And if they were, has anyone bothered to keep them? Probably not, though there’s always the tantalizing thought that someone has a drawer full of them stashed away somewhere. It probably seems odd, but it’s this uncertainty that generates much of the pleasure; the not knowing if I’m ever going to find what I want. If I knew that what I want is definitely out there somewhere, and that if I only had enough money and looked hard and long enough then I could fill in all the blanks, then it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. You see, it’s the gaps in my collection that keep me going because the actual tickets are fairly dull in themselves. There’s a momentary excitement when a new one I’ve bought at auction turns up in the post, but to be honest once I’ve looked at it for a few minutes, added it to my catalogue and then put it away in its relevant envelope, I’ve exhausted most of the fun I’m likely to get from it. Only Matthew has ever expressed any interest in seeing my collection, so few tickets ever make it out of their brown envelope, and even he got bored after a few minutes and couldn’t resist a sarky remark.

‘Brilliant move, John,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows the stock market is permanently fucked. You’re definitely going to clean up.’

Collectors often like to justify what they do. It’s an investment. It’s an important archive. Blah, blah. I’ve done it myself when forced into a corner by my family. They and I know that’s bollocks, really. Collecting is fundamentally a pointless activity. You can’t argue your way round that. I once got chatting to a trainspotter at Clapham Junction for an article I was writing, and asked him what his goal had been when he started out.

‘To clear BR,’ he replied. ‘To see every piece of rolling stock in the country.’ ‘And have you done that?’ ‘Yeah. It took me years and years, and I had to sneak into a shed at Doncaster to tick off the last one.’ ‘How did you feel then?’ ‘Fantastic. For an hour or so. And then I felt a bit disappointed. As if my life had lost some of its purpose.’ ‘So what did you do?’ ‘I decided to start again.’

And he was very happy with it, ticking off for a second time all the rolling stock he’d seen before. At first, I thought he was a bit nuts but by the time I got home I reckoned, ‘Fair play.’ Because almost everything anyone does in their spare time – and a fair amount they do in their working life, come to think of it – is a bit pointless. Collecting is just another way of filling in time, like watching TV, reading a book or listening to music, which I also spend a lot of time doing, and who is anyone to judge which is the most worthwhile?

I’d willingly concede that collecting feeds an obsessional part of my personality, but compared to almost every other habit you can acquire this one is fairly benign, and I still get a visceral kick from looking through eBay listings or auction catalogues. However, increasingly relief comes as polar opposites: relief that I’ve got everything on view and won’t be tempted to shell out cash, or relief that I haven’t got everything . . .

Most auction houses specializing in sporting memorabilia are run by enthusiasts who got fed up with being treated like shit by the big auctions on the rare occasions they branched out into this area, so they tend to be smallish, informal affairs. The first one I went to was Sportingold, held in one of the function rooms at Northampton Rugby Club on a freezing-cold winter’s day. It was a steep learning curve. Inside were seventy or eighty men. Men mostly the wrong side of fifty. Men who were badly dressed. Men who didn’t appear to have glanced at a mirror before leaving home. Or ever, possibly. Men like me. While most people would probably have gone to some lengths to avoid them, I had been travelling for the best part of two hours on an icy Thursday morning to join them. It was a moment of disturbing self-recognition; one best treated by sliding into blanket denial and a cup of coffee.

I then wandered over to the viewing table and opened my catalogue. Winding myself up by looking at something I couldn’t afford seemed a good place to start, so I asked for Lot 634, a programme for the 1915 FA Cup tie against Sunderland. Nice. Very nice. Its estimate was £300 to £350. Sod it – maybe I’d just slap it on the credit card. I put a question mark against it in the catalogue. Then it was down to the serious business: a programme for the away game at Everton from the 1960–61 double season. A must, as it was one of the ones I was missing. Then there was a fabulous sixteen-by-twelve-inch black-and-white photo of the triumphant Spurs team holding the FA Cup at Wembley in 1961, signed by seven of the players. Also a must.

I had history with Lot 668, the programme for a 1970 friendly against Valletta in Malta. I’d only seen it up for sale once before, and I had missed out. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again, which naturally meant I would pay far too much for it. Finally, there was the away 1972 UEFA Cup game against Romanian side UT Arad. There are two versions of this programme: one printed in red, the other in black. I already had the red one; this was the black.

Well, that was the plan. No one sits next to each other at football auctions – buyers of sports memorabilia clearly work on the principle of Schopenhauer’s porcupines; close enough to keep warm, but far enough apart to avoid the intimacy of spiking one another – so I found a lone seat and waited for the bidding to start. I managed to resist the 1915 FA Cup programme – largely because it went for a lot more than its estimate – and then settled down for the rest. It took a long time; with some 1,700 lots the auction went on for the best part of eight hours, and I found myself getting bored. So I started bidding for stuff that I had expressly told myself not to, just to fill in time before the lots I had really earmarked came up. And with two of the three, I ended up paying more than I meant to, because there was just me and this other bloke bidding by the end and it seemed a shame to drop out. And I was buggered if I was going to stop.

The only upside was that the auction went on so long, I had to leave before the UT Arad programme came up. I left an-over-the-estimate bid with the auctioneer, and wasn’t altogether disappointed when he told me the next day I had lost out. I’d already spent a great deal more money than I’d intended. So now I just bid online as it involves no travel, reduces the temptation to bid on stuff I don’t really want and makes it sometimes easier to drop out when the bidding gets out of hand. I still can’t believe how much I paid for a pair of home and away tickets for Spurs versus Northampton in 1965–6 season – the only season Northampton played in the First Division. It was the away ticket that was so rare. The one consolation was that there was someone else out there willing to pay just £10 less.

For all its nerdiness, collecting Spurs memorabilia has turned out to be a surprisingly social activity. If you exclude Robbie, that is. I’ve learned never to tell him I’m planning to meet one of my fellow collectors before a game as he goes berserk, ever since he was forced to listen to me and another bloke witter on for half an hour while he ate a dodgy burger. I now know it’s far better just to take him by surprise; the rows are so much shorter. And he could learn so much . . .

There’s Simon, who sits in the Paxton Road stand at White Hart Lane. With highlights of an 1898 share prospectus, an almost complete run of club handbooks from 1904 and a complete run of programmes from the double season, his collection makes mine look amateurish. Simon has rather taken me under his wing, advising me on prices and bidding. ‘Always hold back right till the last minute,’ he says. ‘And if the price goes too high, let it go. Chances are another seller will see there’s a market and put a similar item up. With any luck, you’ll get it cheaper next time.’ I can’t say I always follow his advice. There’s Pete H., who I often bump into at the Hay Literary festival; there’s Pete C., who has provided an invaluable service as a European-tour travel agent this year.

And then there’s Trevor. We met online – this sounds dodgy but bear with me – via eBay, and, as I have mentioned, it turned out he had a season ticket in the same row, five seats along from me in the Lower East stand. So we chat every game. Trevor just likes collecting, so once he’s completed one line of Spurs memorabilia, he’ll flog it to fund a new line. He recently got me interested in cup final banquet menus. Take the 1971 League Cup final: Les Scampis Newbourg, washed down with Liebfraumilch Crown of Crowns 1967, followed by dancing to live music from The Gaylords. This isn’t Spurs memorabilia, it’s social history. Trevor also had a great run of 1940s and 1950s season tickets – fabulous, old Bakelite badges rather than the booklets they moved on to in the 1960s – that it took me the best part of a season to persuade him to sell to me. He’s now trying to sell me a Jimmy Greaves tankard. I’m resisting.

And for all its inherent pointlessness, collecting Spurs memorabilia does have meaning for me. It’s a way of collecting my own life and giving it some order. It helps make sense of a past that never really had a sense of purpose. I’ve never had a life or career plan; I’ve just gone with the opportunities that presented themselves. It’s not that I’m not ambitious or competitive: I am. It’s just I’ve never had the organizational skills, the self-confidence or the self-discipline to do much about it. My tickets and programmes don’t just fill in the gaps between the matches I did see and those I would like to have seen, they fill in the gaps in my life; the things I would like to remember and those I would prefer to forget. They put the years back into order in one brown envelope after another. And as for all those Spurs items I’ve got from the years before I was born? Let’s call that connecting with my collective unconscious.


This article is an extract from ‘Vertigo – One Football Fan’s Fear of Success’ by John Crace, published by Constable. 

As you can see, John is a Spurs fan, but don’t let that put you off.  It’s rare for us to encounter a football book that carries quite as many laugh out loud moments and towards the end we were keeping a five bar gate to tally the ‘I thought it was just me’ comments we expressed.  In the days of bland, puffed up player autobiographies, this is a wonderful antidote and a reminder of who we are, even if there is no explanation why we do it.   Crace taps into the perpetual neurosis of the football fan and identifies us as a doomed and desperate bunch.  Yet you’ll feel all the better for knowing it.  Soul warming and great fun.  Wholeheartedly recommended.

You can buy Vertigo via Amazon, here.