After 34 years – and a bit – on December 31st 2016 I found myself unemployed, having accepted the offer of voluntary redundancy and early retirement.
What do I do now? In truth, as little as possible is the plan but for more years than I have worked, I’ve enjoyed a hobby I have continued throughout, and still enjoy today on an Albion match day – collecting football autographs.
I have more than 7,500 spread across pictures in eight scrapbooks, plus various signed shirts, programmes, flags, trading cards… In fact, if you can get it signed, I probably have, although a friend of mine did get one of The Stranglers to sign his chest and then had it tattooed, not something I’ll ever do!
It all began in the mid-1970s. My first PE teacher was an acquaintance of Trevor Brooking and managed to pick up a football card, the kind you used to get in a packet, with bubble gum, signed for me. I still have it and so the collection began.
My earliest Albion signatures were from the Alan Mullery days, when the squad included Brian Horton, Mark Lawrenson, Paul ‘Tank’ Clark, Sully, Eric Steele and Graham Mosley, the great Peter Ward and my favourite, winger Tony Towner. Great days, waiting outside the players’ entrance at the Goldstone and running down to the West Stand exit to get the away players when the coach pulled up to collect them, but keeping an eye on the top exit for the Albion boys.
Albion seem to have had a happy knack of securing players who generally didn’t mind signing, although over the years there have always been the odd one or two who could be more difficult, either regularly, or if the game or result had not gone their way.
Here are a few examples of the more-difficult-to-obtain autographs:
Gordon Hill: Manchester United number 11 and Norman Wisdom impersonator.
As a closet Manchester United fan, I was really chuffed to get the Shoot double-page spread of the 1977 FA Cup final team fully signed, except for Mr Hill. I had waited after a number of London-based United games and met him on more than one occasion, only to be met with; “I’m late for the bus,” “I’ll come back and sign,” “I’m injured.” I eventually obtained a scrap of paper simply signed ‘Gordon Hill’ by writing to the club, which is now stuck on the picture. It’s the only signature I have ever written off for. Of the modern era, Robert Green, the current Leeds keeper, has often appeared to study the Hill autograph-avoiding manual, although I will admit he signed freely after the recent Amex match – his mum and dad were watching!
Paul Gascoigne: Trouble England favourite
Over the years I have managed to get the ‘cry baby’s’ signature and I’ll never forget, after the England versus Scotland Euro 96 match at Wembley, a somewhat inebriated Mr Gascoigne telling me to ‘**** off’. Oddly enough, despite their disappointment, the majority of the Scotland squad signed reasonably, if not happily.
Franz Beckenbaur: German legend
He literally just brushed me aside, again outside Wembley and during Euro 96. He’s treated like German royalty but I did not see him sign anything for anyone.
Back to the Albion and for me, it is also interesting to see the differences in autographs, not just between players but how they change from season to season. From those early years, it was possible to actually read the signature, the best perhaps being Eric Steele, Peter Sayer, Mark Lawrenson and Gerry Ryan. Just flicking through my oldest book, Stuart Pearson of Manchester United, Kevin Bond of Norwich City, Trevor Francis at Nottingham Forest and David Johnson of Liverpool all had really clear signatures.
Less memorable would be, ‘GG’ by Gordon Greer, the occasional ‘SS’ from Steve Sidwell, although that does change to a full ‘S Sidwell’ from time to time. ‘Rio’ from Rio Ferdinand and ‘Vinny’ from Vinny Jones also stand out. ‘BZ’ does have some pizzazz by the way he signs it, although it had definitely got shorter the second time around!
My wife says: “Why don’t you just sell them all, they are probably not worth much.” So how much do I think they are all worth? I have more than 7,500 signatures but admittedly, there are probably at least 30 to 40 Gary Hart autographs, but he did live with us for a year and a half – but that is another story! There are a number that are no longer with us: Emlyn Hughes, Kazimierz Deyna, Bobby Moore, George Best, our own Justin Fashanu, plus another of my PE teachers, Dennis Foreman – so they can’t be obtained again.
I would certainly put a greater value on my favourites, Johan Cruyff and Pele, as well as Figo, Kevin Keegan, Kaka, obtained last year whilst on holiday in Florida, and George Best.
At the end of the day, to me they are priceless and it will be for my kids to find out the true value when I am gone and they decide to cash in.