Yet another cracking entry in our Hakuna Matata series, Scandinavian football connoisseur Charlie Anderson has penned a reflection on something that conditioned football supporting for many of us in our childhood – Merlin Premier League stickers.
My favourite television period drama is The Forsyte Saga, which aired about a decade ago. Admittedly it’s the only television period drama I’ve seen, so I consider it my favourite in the same way that I consider Hermann Hreiðarsson to be absolutely the best Icelandic left-back ever to play for Crystal Palace. The Forsyte Saga, anyway, is a pan-generational epic about the erosion of social structures as Victorian Britain lurches helplessly toward the twentieth century.
Soames Forsyte, one of the series’ central characters, has trouble moving with the times. He doesn’t understand why London is full of these new-fangled automobiles, or why members of his family have started marrying for love rather than social betterment. He longs for the days of horse-drawn carriages and stifling emotional repression.
A lot of football fans have something of the Soames about them. There is a thick fog of nostalgia around fan culture; nothing is like it was in the old days. That dive wouldn’t have happened in the seventies. Clough wouldn’t have let him wear those orange boots. That was a good pass from Fábregas, but Liam Brady would have done it better – on a mud-sodden pitch as well, and for only tuppence ha’penny a fortnight.
My experience of football exists within the glossy arena of zeal-faced, goldfish-eyed Sky Sports News presenters yapping about transfers while that relentless yellow ticker continues its glacial march across the bottom of the screen. I will never know a time when a football shirt is anything other than a horrid, slithery nylon membrane crackling with sponsorship and static.
But there is nostalgia even for the twenty-something with a lifespan barely as long as Ryan Giggs’ professional career. While English football will always be dichotomised into the pre- and post-1992 epochs, the Premier League has not always been the all-hollering, montage-compiling Best League In The Galaxy.
For much of the nineties it was common knowledge that if you wanted to watch the best players in the world rather than, say, Dalian Atkinson out-sprinting a wheezing Jon Newsome in pursuit of a grubby pig’s bladder, you watched Italian football. And we knew that because James Richardson was there every weekend, with bewildering pink newspapers and unadulterated cake to remind us of calcio’s classy superiority. Every week another silken-haired regista would arc a series of legato passes onto the toes of some impossible congregation of genius. Ravanelli, Vialli and Baggio; a ridiculous array of talent. Batistuta, a whirlwind of thunder and violet.
In the early days of the Premiership world-class players were about as infrequent as foreign players. We had Éric Cantona, but we also had Nigel Spink. The nostalgia of our generation, then, is not built on all-conquering Milanese superteams or venerable old Juventino empires. Neither is it old enough to yearn for the smell of terraces, corrugated iron and stitched leather. No, we pine instead for the days when the Premier League was, you know, pretty good, but definitely not the best. Ours is a nostalgia of exotic-named backup goalkeepers, portly centre-halves and average full-backs.
Now that nostalgia is not an easy thing to pin down to one tangible moment or object, but a 1997-98 Merlin sticker of Stig Inge Bjørnebye will do as well as anything. Not only does he recall the shuffling, got-got-got-got-need obsession of our sepia-tinted childhood playgrounds, but the football sticker a tremendous leveller. There sit Neil Webb and Andrei Kanchelskis ahead of another exciting Rumbelows Cup campaign. There’s no space in Ruud Gullit’s photo for his two European Cups as he takes his place among the Scott Mintos and Eddie Newtons. The magical thing about football stickers is looking back at them fifteen years later and – yes, there’s Schmeichel, there’s Zola, there’s Rush, but there’s also those names you thought you’d forgotten which loom suddenly from the fog. The stickers at which you stare for a few seconds and then say “Oh, yeah” in a tone of mild interest. Francis Benali, who got booked a lot. Vinny Samways, who had that spell in Spain. Jeremy Goss, who scored against Bayern Munich.
Maybe that’s what football should really be – a celebration of the adequate, the unfussy and the perfectly serviceable. The Dmitri Kharines, Ian Culverhouses and Stig Inge Bjørnebyes. Next time you feel like modern football has slapped you round the face once too often, take the advice of this dew-eyed Sky-generation nostalgist, and take a moment to think about average Norwegian full-backs. It’s a problem-free philosophy.
Charlie Anderson is a devout follower of Scandinavian football and a firm believer in pass completion rates – ‘cos that’s what wins you games. You can follow him on twitter (@CAndersonFtbl) and see his writing at Stone by Stone – the site also has a twitter presence @NordicStones – as well as his personal blog: The Carvalho Peninsula.
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