The plan had been one packet, just to see what they looked like.
Then it became two, so I could put together a five-a-side team. Then my friend Gavin, a Manchester United Women fan, sent over photos of his sticker album, laden with facts, statistics and analysis. What was all that if not a necessary resource for a women’s football writer? I would buy the book and go no further. I would not be drawn into finding 347 stickers. Not at the age of 26.
This is how the Women’s Super League (WSL) Panini stickers get you. I got the book on December 19. Twenty-seven days later, on January 15, I had completed it.
Why would you bother? There is no golden key to a gilded Panini city, with doors that tear off their hinges like stickers from their backs and wallpapers patterned with the Swaps and Needs lists of those who came before.
But sceptics just won’t get it. “Well done,” they would probably mutter, and then, “What are you going to do with it now?”
But this endeavour tells us something valuable. The demand for England goalkeeper Mary Earps’ shirt, selling out in five minutes once it was finally for sale having been unavailable during last summer’s World Cup, speaks volumes about the demand for women’s football and how retailers are guilty of underestimating it.
Panini produced its first men’s World Cup sticker album in 1970; the women’s World Cup did not have one until 2011, and the stickers were only available in Germany, the host country. Sticker albums for recent tournaments, including the European Championship in 2022 and the World Cup 12 months later, enjoyed wider releases.
“We had been discussing the launch of the first-ever collection with the FA for some time,” says Katie Gritt, head of marketing for sport at Panini.
“With the success of the women’s tournament sticker collections growing with each tournament, it meant we were able to give confidence to retailers that the demand would be there and that the time was right to bring it to market. It’s much more difficult to gain (retailers’) support for a second launch if the first doesn’t perform.
“We felt very confident that the time was now.”
I landed back in my childhood, tearing open packets of Match Attax. Instead, I’m overcome by the adrenaline of seeing Arsenal striker Alessia Russo and Chelsea captain Millie Bright — of women’s footballers now living so decisively in the mainstream — pasted across the purple packaging. Already, this feels like an itch I need to scratch.
This may be a bigger undertaking than anticipated. I cannot find any stickers in the wild. I try a newsagent — well-stocked with men’s football stickers but devoid of WSL ones. Multipacks are sold out on Panini’s website.
A bundle on eBay promised 50 stickers and no duplicates. At £9.95, it’s marginally more expensive than the store price, but it’s the best I can do.
The multipack arrives from eBay. I’m gratified: special cards of Chelsea striker Sam Kerr and Manchester City defender Alex Greenwood, the Manchester United team photo and the WSL trophy sticker.
Is this cheating? Fifty stickers without duplicates would be some streak out of 10 random packets. I voice this and receive a reply from Kelly Simmons, the former director of the women’s professional game at the FA. Her official verdict: “That’s cheating!!!”
I call Duncan, a Brighton Women fan I’m speaking to for another piece. Duncan managed to complete the Women’s World Cup collection in the summer. He and his daughter need 18 WSL stickers, having pre-ordered two of the £44.99 50-pack boxes.
‘Imagine a parent funding your sticker habit’, I think, remembering my year collecting Match Attax with pocket money. I shelled out so often that the newsagent would have packets waiting for me on the days I usually came in.
I head to the nearest branch of Smyths Toys Superstores, three days before Christmas. They have sold out of the smaller £4.99 bundles but have several of the £6.99 eight-packs in stock.
I buy two of them.
Spotting the last single 90p packet left in the store at the checkout, I weigh up whether it is ethical to deprive a child — I have been known to post a lost teddy on the village Facebook group, in hope of a reunion. A moral disintegration has begun.
My joy is tempered slightly by the cashier. “I know which card I’d want,” he says. “Alisha Lehmann. She’s the one all the blokes fancy.”
I limit myself to one packet a day, dispensed by a family member so that I cannot lose control. The strangeness of this — when people I went to school with are becoming parents — is not lost on me.
It could be drugs, I tell myself, as I open my fourth card, Chelsea forward Fran Kirby. I have 71 stickers and need 278.
I tell Gavin, who I update daily with my list of swaps, of my pack-a-day plan.
“That was my intention, until I lapsed yesterday and opened the second box!,” he says. “I need more packets.”
A pack each morning quenches my thirst. I no longer find myself checking eBay as compulsively as before. It is the easiest way: I cannot find the WSL stickers anywhere. It’s wearying when there are rows of Premier League ones.
The market on Vinted is healthier. Someone has listed 11 Manchester United stickers for £1.80. I add them to my basket, but postage and fees bring the cost up to £5. I think twice and bookmark them — only for someone else to snap them up immediately.
That’s the reality of collecting as an adult: swaps take place via post.
It’s the same story. The shelves are full of stickers for NFL, Harry Potter, Peppa Pig and Minions. The only WSL stickers I can find are those in the £4.99 starter packs — an album and 30 stickers. In desperation, I buy a second one from a supermarket, adding to my pile significantly.
In the town centre, Game has 29 single packets in stock, having sold out of multipacks. I buy 13 to keep me going for two weeks.
“You might have to rein it in a bit,” my mum suggests gently, when I tell her of this.
Feeling like a manager besieged by criticism at a press conference, I deflect: “I know — not sure I can put these down on company expenses! No, in all seriousness, you’re right. I have to put some money aside for stamps.”
It’s time for my first swaps. I leave Gavin’s swaps under a plant pot and he posts mine through the letterbox. Among the bundle from Gavin are Manchester City’s Steph Houghton and Lauren Hemp, Manchester United’s Hannah Blundell and a pair of shinies.
I post out my next swaps, having scouted X, formerly known as Twitter, and Vinted for fellow collectors. Those who started early and stormed ahead offload huge stacks of stickers for the few they still need. One X user, Tony, gives me 16 in exchange for Bristol City’s Amy Rogers.
A Vinted user needs just 37 stickers. It seems impossible that one of those is Kirby, given I had four of those within the first week, but it is.
I’ve been added to a WSL swaps group on X. It’s proved useful, but stalls slightly as members, from London to Manchester, find shelves empty of stickers. Every Smyths Toy Superstore in England is sold out of multipacks.
The prices on eBay are a good barometer of people’s desperation. Twelve packets will set you back £20 — an 85 per cent increase on store prices — and another bundle is listed for £31, which is 88 per cent above retail price. A shiny of Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord will set you back £5.
I reach out to Craig Anderson, a senior lecturer in statistics at the University of Glasgow for advice. Anderson ran a simulation on the Euro 2020 Panini sticker album a couple of years ago, looking at how many packets you’d have to buy to complete the set. The cheapest cost across 100,000 simulations was £406.80 (452 packets).
He runs the numbers for my collection: I now have 214 out of the 347 stickers. He simulates 100,000 scenarios of me buying more, based on the assumption that there’s an equal probability of obtaining every sticker.
“You could get five new ones,” Anderson says, “you could be lucky — but there’s only a one per cent chance of that. There’s a nine per cent chance you get nothing new at all. Every time you get a new sticker, the probability that the next one is new continues to drop. It’s diminishing returns.”
I’d have to buy 234 more packets, spending £210.60, before I had more than a one per cent chance of completing the album.
I mention my burgeoning pile of Manchester City forwards Khadija Shaw and Chloe Kelly. How can I have more Kirbys alone than I do Arsenal players?
“You only observe what’s happened to you,” Anderson says. “Someone else probably has five or six of the player you don’t have any of. If you toss a coin 100 times, at some point you’re probably going to get a run of four or five heads in a row. The human brain is designed to identify patterns — ‘Maybe this coin’s not working properly. Maybe this isn’t random.’ Actually, you’re just observing one small part of the overall distribution.”
Time to change strategy. I had assumed that my swap pile would be bolstered by high-profile names like Kirby and Shaw, but a sticker is only valuable if you don’t have it.
I find an eBay seller promising 60 unique stickers for £8. I’m tempted. I’ll soon reach the point where every pack will yield duplicates and am doubly tempted when I see Arsenal striker Beth Mead — one of the stickers I’m yet to find — among the bunch, but they sell instantly. I find another two bundles on Vinted, seduced by the glimpses of the Lehmann and Niamh Charles stickers I need.
I open all my remaining packets, which yield 18 swaps and just seven new cards. I have another Kirby. I am beginning to doubt that there is a 100 per cent chance the sun will rise.
I have, however, inched to 72 per cent completion — 96 stickers now needed to complete the collection.
I take stock. With my swaps pile (of 96) roughly the size of my needs pile (71), I won’t need to buy more packets. I’m hit with a sense of loss. It’s like they always say: you never know something is the last time until it’s done.
Gavin delivers a game-changing announcement: there is a Facebook swap group. The posts are split evenly between people struggling to find stickers, parents helping their kids and those who are just a handful of cards away. I need about 30.
I trade with one family — “it’s like a full-time job helping my daughter with this” — and get a healthy five stickers from someone in Dublin. I feel lighter with each sticker checked off. I think I have got down to two needs — 86 and 167 — and comment as much on one post when I see a reply from Gavin’s wife. Not only the parents, then.
“She’s been busy wheeling and dealing,” says Gavin. “She’s the Harry Redknapp of WSL sticker swaps.”
I realise that I’ve checked off some stickers prematurely. I’m sure I had West Ham’s Lisa Evans; I must have traded her by mistake. I almost put Leicester City’s Sophie Howard into my swaps pile before realising I hadn’t stuck her in the book.
This is not the high that it once was, but I’ve come too far to fall at this hurdle. Like a teenager tearing up their revision guide after exams, I will shred my swaps envelope when this is finished.
The series finale is low-key.
There is no surprise twist, for which I am grateful, because I couldn’t take it. I stick the final four stickers in the book and feel a lightness descend.
In the end, I caved and turned to eBay. Despite it being the cheaper option, I could not spend another minute sifting through groups in the hope of finding someone with all four who also happened to need some of mine. Did this tinge the ending? I’m just relieved to be free and to have achieved a lifelong ambition.
What have I learned? Everton goalkeeper Emily Ramsey had a higher save percentage than Manchester United’s Earps last season. Ella Toone went into this season as United Women’s all-time top goalscorer. After Missy Bo Kearns, Fuka Nagano is the most-requested name on Liverpool Women shirts.
On a deeper level, that there’s an inevitability to completing the album in the social media age. The world is shrinking. No longer are children limited to their social circle.
Secondly, I’ve learned that something about women’s football fandom makes parents a little more engaged. My memory of trading as a kid is that all our parents thought it was daft to spend so much on cards.
If not quite a feminist act, trading WSL stickers feels inherently more worthwhile than collecting Premier League ones. My biggest thrills came when finding players I’d admired for years and knowing they were finally hitting the mainstream.
How much did I spend? The best-case scenario: 70 packets costing £63.
2 x WSL starter packs
2 x 8-pack multipacks
14 single packets
eBay job lot of 50 stickers
Vinted job lot of 12 stickers
Vinted job lot of 28 stickers
2 x books of stamps
eBay remaining cards
The Netflix star, Tiger King’s Joe Exotic, said it best: “I will never financially recover from this.”
That completed album is, aside from furniture, one of the most expensive things I own. Given what others have spent, £80.50 is a decent total. I benefited enormously from generous traders sending over multiple stickers and Vinted bundles with no duplicates.
Maybe I’m foolish, given trading cards don’t always hold their value in subsequent seasons. Complete WSL albums are listed on eBay for £199. Now is the time to cash in.
I won’t, even knowing that 80 quid could have treated me to many other things. But would any of them have brought me this much joy?
Until you’ve opened a Jess Carter shiny, you can’t judge.
(Top photo: Katie Whyatt/The Athletic)
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