I’m hacked off. No really, I’m monumentally hacked off. All this recent talk about Panini stickers has reopened a wound of mine which had barely healed after almost a year.

In case you’ve been busy shredding Jack Warner’s bank statements for the last week or two, Panini football stickers have got tongues wagging again because the German public have gone mad over a new 2011 Women’s World Cup collection. Apparently Panini had to produce an extra million packets to satisfy demand in a country which has seen its women’s national team become one of the world’s best over the years.

All good news for women’s football and indeed Panini who to this day continue their battle for the hearts and minds of modern children more interested in pursuits such as Nintendo and under-age sex. The thing is, this story has sparked a collective reverie among those thirty- and forty-somethings who last year collected Panini’s World Cup 2010 stickers.

For a while last summer, it seemed as though some sort of clandestine society had been set up that I hadn’t been invited to join. I’d visit friends at their homes and find the topic of conversation quickly turning to the battered pages of the sticker albums they’d been filling. I’d attend a barbecue somewhere only to have thrust upon me a large wad of doubles, tightly bound in rubber bands, each sticker referred to lovingly in somewhat guilty tones.

And there was I utterly oblivious to the phenomenon that was unfolding. Worse still, I wasn’t even collecting those World Cup stickers myself, an ironic twist of fate which still rankles to this day. I say ‘ironic’ as I have something of a history when it comes to Panini sticker collections.

I first became aware of those hallowed compilations of self-adhesive wonderment back in the late-70’s. Friends of mine had owned the albums for Football ’78and Football ’79, but my first collection was Europa ’80. With its black cover and copious spaces inside waiting to be filled with pictures of Bob Latchford, Mick Mills and other international greats of the time, this was where my addiction to sticker collecting began.

Alan Dunn was my schoolmate when I was only 8 years old. He was collecting Europa ’80 too and with him I first enjoyed that sense of justice you could only get by swapping those stickers you’d annoyingly ended up with more than one of. More annoying, however, was the fact that I’d followed Alan’s lead of colouring in the little outline drawings of football players that were on every page of that Europa ’80 album. Little was I to know the words ‘eBay saleability’ would take on greater significance thirty years hence.

Later that year came my first annual Panini collection, Football ’80, which I collected enthusiastically without ever coming close to filling the album, just like Football ’81. Actually sending off a postal order and a letter to buy any remaining stickers seemed like an incredible faff to me, so I never ever did it. The important thing to my mind was that I’d completed as much of the album as possible by buying my own packets (at a not-to-be-overlooked 5p each) and swapping my own doubles. That, in itself, was a lasting tribute to my persistence and patience, thank you very much.

As the years went by, more and more incomplete albums were added to my collection. In 1984, however, something truly wondrous happened. My Dad was a regular down at our local pub back then and he knew an elderly gentleman who would often join him for a pint of mild ‘n’ bitter on a Friday night. One particular occasion saw the old guy ask my Dad if his son collected football stickers. Having replied in the affirmative, he told my Dad he’d pop round to the house one night with something to give me as a gift.

A few nights later, the doorbell rang and there waiting on the doorstep was the old man clutching a Football ’84 album and a Golden Virginia tobacco tin. He explained that since his wife had passed away he’d become a little lonely and had decided to collect football stickers as a hobby to fill the quiet hours. This he had done, even going to the trouble of sending off for the last remaining stickers to complete his collection.

Having filled the album and written notes below some of the pictures to bring them up to date (“John Wark – Now Liverpool”), his work was now done. On that cold winters night, he’d come to hand over his completed sticker book and a tobacco tin full of doubles to a small boy who’d never even seen a full album before. Having told his story and seen the growing smile on my face, he bid me farewell and turned to walk back home again on that dark, cold night. Twenty-seven years later, I can still picture him in my mind, standing there on my doorstep. I also still have that album along with my own incomplete one. Don’t even bother asking which one I like best.

A couple of years later, I found myself attending the offices of a non-descript building in Camden to have my photo taken for Issue 1 of Panini Magazine. Such was my dedication to the sticker-based pastime that I must have written Figurine Panini a letter at some point telling them how much of a fan I was. I can’t actually recall doing so, to be honest, but no matter – I was just the sort of charming schoolchild they were looking for to be in their very first ‘Collectors Corner’ feature.

They told me to bring in all my albums, so with my friend Martin Lewis in tow, we hot-footed it onto the Tube one day clutching carrier bags stuffed to the gunnels with sticker-related ephemera. On arrival, a photographer began snapping merrily away at me, after which a woman from the magazine said: “So Chris, you’ve filled up all these albums of yours, have you?”  Ah. Not actually filled, no. Surely I’d mentioned that in my letter, hadn’t I?

Crestfallen, the woman went away to check whether I remained justified in having so much fuss made of me, but luckily she returned and the photo shoot was duly completed. Some weeks later, they sent me some photos from the day along with a copy of the magazine I appeared in. Aside from the fact that I looked a bit of a dork, I was quite proud of my achievements.

Sadly that magazine went the same way as my Football ’80 and Football ’81albums, a casualty of my Mum’s over-eager attempts to tidy up by bedroom cupboard. I have still got the photos, but trust me, the internet contains enough dubious photographic content as it is without me publishing them here.

In 1987, my school days came to an end and I started working in my first job. To find myself suddenly moving in more adult circles meant I would put away my childhood toys and become a man, albeit a very young one. Football ’87 was to be my last Panini sticker collection for thirteen years and in that time, Figurine Panini lost the rights to make stickers for top-flight football in England and more and more kids turned their attention to the much-maligned video game. Sticker collecting was fast fading into my distant past, but the chance to make new memories arrived at the turn of the millennium.

When Euro 2000 came along, Panini brought out a new sticker album to commemorate the event. Bright and bold with the official logo emblazoned all over it, it caught my eye and got me thinking perhaps the time had come to re-embrace the favourite pastime of my youth. And so it was that as a sheepish-looking 28-year-old, I wandered into my nearest branch of WHSmith and bought a Panini Euro 2000 album and a box of stickers.

That’s right – a box. Never before had I been so privileged but then I wasn’t earning a wage of my own before. The shop assistant seemed a little shocked, mainly because no-one ever bought a whole box in one hit before. Better that than being shocked at the sight of a 28-year-old buying stickers, I felt. Anyway, I took my merchandise home and one by one opened each packet before sticking its contents into the book. I didn’t finish off the whole box in one sitting – that would’ve been plain wrong – but I did heartily savour that long-forgotten feeling of ripping open each packet and pulling out a mystery selection of players, or better still, foil badges.

Sadly I had no-one to share the feeling of nostalgia with. Martin didn’t want to collect Euro 2000 stickers with me (or perhaps couldn’t afford it) and any open invitation to a wider social circle may have resulted in me being admitted to a mental institution. Still, collect those stickers I did, but this time I sent off a cheque in order to finish my album with the stickers I’d missed. Glory be.

I did the same again for Panini’s 2002 World Cup collection and their Euro 2004 collection, too. I even completed my Panini 2006 World Cup collection, but at that point I decided to call it a day and concentrate on buying old Panini albums on eBay. The internet truly is a wonderful thing sometimes.

And that would have been a happy ending to my story, except that many of my friends suddenly decided to jump on Panini’s World Cup 2010 bandwagon and delude everyone with their fair-weather
sticker worship.

Where were they a few years back? Why only come out of the woodwork now after all this time?  Call themselves Panini fans?

It really got my goat, but having missed out on all the fun I can say one thing for certain. If they ever come crawling back to me to collect Panini with them in future, I shall take great delight in telling them where to stick it.