He admits it’s not normal. He doesn’t admit how much it all costs. But John Crace will not be deterred in his mission: to collect a programme from every Spurs game ever played

John Crace and his collection of Tottenham Hotspur programmes. Photograph: Martin Argles

Inside one of the function rooms at Northampton rugby ground are 70 or 80 men. Men mostly the wrong side of 50. Men who are badly dressed. Men who don’t appear to have glanced at a mirror before leaving home – or ever, possibly. Men like me.

While most people would probably go to some lengths to avoid them, I have been travelling for the best part of two hours on an icy Thursday morning to join them. It’s a moment of disturbing self-recognition; one best treated by sliding into blanket denial. Besides, I’ve got plenty to do.

I’m here for an auction of football memorabilia, one of seven held throughout the year by specialist auctioneers, Sportingold. There are more than 1,700 lots on offer, and the big items are a programme for the (the first ever, contested by Real Madrid and Stade de Reims-Champagne), which should sell for more than £6,000, and various medals and shirts belonging to Tony Coleman, the former Manchester City player who is selling his collection to fund a new life in Thailand.

It’s no coincidence that Coleman’s medals are up for sale here. Chris Williams, the man behind Sportingold, has been a Manchester City collector for the best part of 30 years. But he grew fed up with being treated like riff-raff by the major auction houses at their occasional forays into sporting memorabilia, so set up his own seven or eight years ago to cater for people like himself. And me. He offers free tea, coffee and sandwiches, and it’s turned into a good business, with each sale turning over more than £150,000.

Williams says hello, and I hand him a copy of the programme from the previous night’s match between Tottenham and City that he’d asked me to get him. It’s the only game he’s missed all season. We laugh about the result (3–0). Well, I do.

I’m a Spurs man. Some might say obsessive. When my son recently came off his bike and we were forced to cancel our holiday abroad, I spent the first day by his hospital bedside trying to get tickets for the two games I’d been going to miss. I’m guessing that’s not altogether normal behaviour.

For my sins, I am determined to collect a programme and ticket from every Spurs game that’s ever been played. It’s a futile mission, of course; some programmes are rare to vanishing and correspondingly expensive, and some games had no programmes or tickets printed. But it gives me a sense of purpose. If I could at least complete the full run of both for the 1960/61 season – the year Spurs won the prized double of Football League and FA Cup – it would be a start.

I wander over to the viewing table and open my catalogue. Winding myself up by looking at something I can’t afford seems a good place to start, so I ask for Lot 634, a programme for the 1915 FA Cup tie against Sunderland. Nice. Very nice. Its estimate is £300-350. Sod it – maybe I’ll just slap it on the credit card. I put a question mark against it in the catalogue. Then it’s down to the serious business. A programme for the away game at Everton from the 60/61 season. A must. Then there’s a fabulous 16×12, 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 have history with Lot 668, the programme for a 1970 friendly against Valetta in Malta. I’ve only seen it up for sale once before, and I missed out. I’m not going to make the same mistake again, which naturally means I will pay far too much for it. Finally, there’s 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 have the red one.

As with most pathological disorders, my Spurs obsession began in childhood. Unusually, it was entirely self-inflicted. Neither my father nor mother had any real interest in football, so there were no tribal loyalties to inherit. There were 92 football league clubs and the choice was mine. The year was 1966, the World Cup was about to start, and I was captivated by , Spurs’ striker and epitome of flair and Brylcreemed style.

It wasn’t easy supporting Tottenham if you lived out in the sticks and your parents refused to make the 200-mile round trip to White Hart Lane. There was the Grandstand teleprinter giving the bare result every Saturday, the radio, newspaper reports and the very occasional appearance on Match of the Day or the Big Match. And there was Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly – or rather, the small ads near the back. Here were the real riches. Programmes for sale from all the games I’d dreamed of going to, many of them at only a few pennies each. This was the slush fund into which almost all of my pocket money would pour.

I never actually did much with the programmes once they turned up in the post. I would flick through them looking at the photos, tick them off in a nerdy kind of way against some checklist, then put them in an appropriate pile in my bedroom where they were left to gather dust.

The collection went on hold when I hit my mid-teens, as fags, booze and girls began to seem a more sensible investment, but the Spurs obsession never went away. I started going to matches, and developed the same world-weary expression of every other tortured Spurs fan. But that’s the deal: you don’t support Spurs because they win everything in sight. It’s not a declaration of faith in the club, but a declaration of faith in yourself – that you can retain some constancy in your life even when things are, well, shit.

I kept the faith, and the collection, although it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began significantly to add to it. Children play havoc with your ability to skive off to matches at weekends, so there were long periods during the 90s and early years of the noughties that I barely got to a game. However, having lost my daughter to Manchester United early on, I was determined the same thing wouldn’t happen to my son. And once we started going to Spurs games together, we would always buy a programme that I would make him store in his cupboard.

It took me about a year to realise that, while his conversion to watching Spurs had been entirely successful, my son had absolutely no interest in the programmes piling up in his bedroom. I removed them to my study, where they were united with the ones from my childhood. It occurred to me there was no need to stop here.

I began with eBay, and soon a huge volume of packages started arriving in the post. Not much was of any value; I was buying in bulk to fill in the huge number of gaps. My family thought I’d gone nuts. They still do. They struggle to conceive of a more pointless activity.

Actually, I’m with them on that. It is pointless. But so is most of the stuff with which we fill up our lives. Collecting Spurs stuff is like collecting my life: the football season is one of the ways I mark it out, and the programmes are my memories. The programmes from before I was born? My collective unconscious.

After about a year of this, I was physically struggling to get into my workroom because of the huge piles of programmes everywhere. To continue my dream of getting a programme for every match played, I would need to get a warehouse to stash them all in. It was time for a rethink.

I’d started by wanting all the big games – the post-war cup semi-finals and finals. But they’re not generally worth that much, because so many people went to them. The really collectable games are the away friendlies – believe it or not, my 1959 away game against Moscow Torpedo is much treasured. So that’s what I focused on. I also started buying old tickets, on the grounds that they are quite rare – they were seldom issued for standing on the terraces – and don’t take up a lot of room.

You may have realised that I am being rather cagey about how much all this clobber has cost me. This is partly because I can’t remember exactly, but mainly because I don’t want you to know in case my wife reads this. Let’s just say it’s rather more than you might think.

Once you start spending more than a few bob here and there, the rationale goes something like this: this is now a serious collection and it deserves serious money. If I had put all the money I have spent on football into my pension (as my wife suggested), it would have lost half its value anyway. So even if the worst comes to the worst and my collection drops to half what I paid, I’m no worse off. And I’ve had some fun along the way without subsidising some fund manager’s bonus. Clever, huh?

It gets better. Because I actually take pleasure in what I’m buying – let’s be kind and call it investing – I spend rather more than I would ordinarily shove into a pension. So I’m squirrelling away more for the future. And here’s the killer. My collection hasn’t gone down in value. Football memorabilia prices have held up well during the recession. Sure, no one is going to make a fortune out of a collection – prices have probably nudged up by about 10% on average over the last decade – but you aren’t going to take a big hit either. My nerdy interest and enthusiasm has outperformed many of the leading banks.

Well, that’s what I tell my wife. Luckily, these conversations don’t tend to last too long, as she will do anything not to talk about Spurs memorabilia. She is embarrassed by my dullness and cannot imagine a more dreary activity.

Plenty of people salt away football programmes as souvenirs, but only about 5,000 seriously invest in their passion. Divide those 5,000 by the 92 league clubs, and you can see just how small the market for each club is. Except it doesn’t quite work like that. Because while there might be only a couple of men – let’s be honest – collecting Rochdale, there are many, many more collecting Spurs. For some reason, Spurs and Manchester United are by far the most collectable clubs. Which is good and bad: everything is always more expensive than it would be for another club, but there is also always a resale market.

And I’ve met some lovely people along the way. There’s Simon who sits in the Paxton Road stand at White Hart Lane. With highlights of a 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.”

Then there’s Trevor, who sits five seats along from me in the East Stand for every home 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 has a great run of 1950s season tickets I’ve been nagging him to sell me. He’s refused so far, but I sense he’s beginning to weaken.

Back in Northampton, my first lot is nearly on. It’s hard to know who I’m up against. The few bods chatting idly by the bar don’t seem interested, but you can never tell. Half an hour ago, a bloke there bought a couple of grand’s worth of Sunderland memorabilia. There are a few others dotted about the room like Schopenhauer’s porcupines, choosing to sit neither too close nor too far from each other. No one gives anything away. It’s a game for poker-faced individuals. Sometimes there are advantages to being non-descript.

The internet bidders drop out early for the Everton programme (you don’t have to be at the auction to bid), so it’s just me against another Spurs collector in the room. I prevail at just under my self-imposed maximum. Next is the signed photo. Signatures can be tricky – especially on shirts – as many certificates of authenticity aren’t worth the paper on which they are written. But this is genuine and I get it for what feels like a steal. Discretion kicks in early for the 1915 programme, though, and I drop out when it hits its estimate. It goes for a lot more.

At the break, I chat to someone near the back. He offers me the 1964 Spurs away at Leicester for £3. It’s not a rare programme but it has sentimental value, as it was John White’s last game for Spurs before he was killed by lightning on a golf course. I take it.

When the bidding resumes, there is fierce competition for my old nemesis, the Malta friendly. Commission bids, internet bids, phone bids, bids in the room . . . I win, but only by paying £20 more than I’d planned. Simon wouldn’t approve, and I know I’ve spent enough for now, so I lower my bidding for the UT Arad programme. I’m way above the estimate but don’t even get close. It’s time to go.

My mobile rings while I’m on the train home. It’s the office. How much have I spent? Trevor’s golden rule comes to mind: never tell anyone what you paid for something unless you absolutely have to. „It’s a bad line . . . You’re breaking up . . . I’m going into a tunnel.” Click.

Read the article on Guardian Unlimited

My obsession with football memorabilia

He admits it’s not normal. He doesn’t admit how much it all costs. But John Crace will not be deterred in his mission: to collect a programme from every Spurs game ever played

John Crace and his collection of Tottenham Hotspur programmes. Photograph: Martin Argles

Inside one of the function rooms at Northampton rugby ground are 70 or 80 men. Men mostly the wrong side of 50. Men who are badly dressed. Men who don’t appear to have glanced at a mirror before leaving home – or ever, possibly. Men like me.

While most people would probably go to some lengths to avoid them, I have been travelling for the best part of two hours on an icy Thursday morning to join them. It’s a moment of disturbing self-recognition; one best treated by sliding into blanket denial. Besides, I’ve got plenty to do.

I’m here for an auction of football memorabilia, one of seven held throughout the year by specialist auctioneers, Sportingold. There are more than 1,700 lots on offer, and the big items are a programme for the (the first ever, contested by Real Madrid and Stade de Reims-Champagne), which should sell for more than £6,000, and various medals and shirts belonging to Tony Coleman, the former Manchester City player who is selling his collection to fund a new life in Thailand.

It’s no coincidence that Coleman’s medals are up for sale here. Chris Williams, the man behind Sportingold, has been a Manchester City collector for the best part of 30 years. But he grew fed up with being treated like riff-raff by the major auction houses at their occasional forays into sporting memorabilia, so set up his own seven or eight years ago to cater for people like himself. And me. He offers free tea, coffee and sandwiches, and it’s turned into a good business, with each sale turning over more than £150,000.

Williams says hello, and I hand him a copy of the programme from the previous night’s match between Tottenham and City that he’d asked me to get him. It’s the only game he’s missed all season. We laugh about the result (3–0). Well, I do.

I’m a Spurs man. Some might say obsessive. When my son recently came off his bike and we were forced to cancel our holiday abroad, I spent the first day by his hospital bedside trying to get tickets for the two games I’d been going to miss. I’m guessing that’s not altogether normal behaviour.

For my sins, I am determined to collect a programme and ticket from every Spurs game that’s ever been played. It’s a futile mission, of course; some programmes are rare to vanishing and correspondingly expensive, and some games had no programmes or tickets printed. But it gives me a sense of purpose. If I could at least complete the full run of both for the 1960/61 season – the year Spurs won the prized double of Football League and FA Cup – it would be a start.

I wander over to the viewing table and open my catalogue. Winding myself up by looking at something I can’t afford seems a good place to start, so I ask for Lot 634, a programme for the 1915 FA Cup tie against Sunderland. Nice. Very nice. Its estimate is £300-350. Sod it – maybe I’ll just slap it on the credit card. I put a question mark against it in the catalogue. Then it’s down to the serious business. A programme for the away game at Everton from the 60/61 season. A must. Then there’s a fabulous 16×12, 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 have history with Lot 668, the programme for a 1970 friendly against Valetta in Malta. I’ve only seen it up for sale once before, and I missed out. I’m not going to make the same mistake again, which naturally means I will pay far too much for it. Finally, there’s 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 have the red one.

As with most pathological disorders, my Spurs obsession began in childhood. Unusually, it was entirely self-inflicted. Neither my father nor mother had any real interest in football, so there were no tribal loyalties to inherit. There were 92 football league clubs and the choice was mine. The year was 1966, the World Cup was about to start, and I was captivated by , Spurs’ striker and epitome of flair and Brylcreemed style.

It wasn’t easy supporting Tottenham if you lived out in the sticks and your parents refused to make the 200-mile round trip to White Hart Lane. There was the Grandstand teleprinter giving the bare result every Saturday, the radio, newspaper reports and the very occasional appearance on Match of the Day or the Big Match. And there was Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly – or rather, the small ads near the back. Here were the real riches. Programmes for sale from all the games I’d dreamed of going to, many of them at only a few pennies each. This was the slush fund into which almost all of my pocket money would pour.

I never actually did much with the programmes once they turned up in the post. I would flick through them looking at the photos, tick them off in a nerdy kind of way against some checklist, then put them in an appropriate pile in my bedroom where they were left to gather dust.

The collection went on hold when I hit my mid-teens, as fags, booze and girls began to seem a more sensible investment, but the Spurs obsession never went away. I started going to matches, and developed the same world-weary expression of every other tortured Spurs fan. But that’s the deal: you don’t support Spurs because they win everything in sight. It’s not a declaration of faith in the club, but a declaration of faith in yourself – that you can retain some constancy in your life even when things are, well, shit.

I kept the faith, and the collection, although it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began significantly to add to it. Children play havoc with your ability to skive off to matches at weekends, so there were long periods during the 90s and early years of the noughties that I barely got to a game. However, having lost my daughter to Manchester United early on, I was determined the same thing wouldn’t happen to my son. And once we started going to Spurs games together, we would always buy a programme that I would make him store in his cupboard.

It took me about a year to realise that, while his conversion to watching Spurs had been entirely successful, my son had absolutely no interest in the programmes piling up in his bedroom. I removed them to my study, where they were united with the ones from my childhood. It occurred to me there was no need to stop here.

I began with eBay, and soon a huge volume of packages started arriving in the post. Not much was of any value; I was buying in bulk to fill in the huge number of gaps. My family thought I’d gone nuts. They still do. They struggle to conceive of a more pointless activity.

Actually, I’m with them on that. It is pointless. But so is most of the stuff with which we fill up our lives. Collecting Spurs stuff is like collecting my life: the football season is one of the ways I mark it out, and the programmes are my memories. The programmes from before I was born? My collective unconscious.

After about a year of this, I was physically struggling to get into my workroom because of the huge piles of programmes everywhere. To continue my dream of getting a programme for every match played, I would need to get a warehouse to stash them all in. It was time for a rethink.

I’d started by wanting all the big games – the post-war cup semi-finals and finals. But they’re not generally worth that much, because so many people went to them. The really collectable games are the away friendlies – believe it or not, my 1959 away game against Moscow Torpedo is much treasured. So that’s what I focused on. I also started buying old tickets, on the grounds that they are quite rare – they were seldom issued for standing on the terraces – and don’t take up a lot of room.

You may have realised that I am being rather cagey about how much all this clobber has cost me. This is partly because I can’t remember exactly, but mainly because I don’t want you to know in case my wife reads this. Let’s just say it’s rather more than you might think.

Once you start spending more than a few bob here and there, the rationale goes something like this: this is now a serious collection and it deserves serious money. If I had put all the money I have spent on football into my pension (as my wife suggested), it would have lost half its value anyway. So even if the worst comes to the worst and my collection drops to half what I paid, I’m no worse off. And I’ve had some fun along the way without subsidising some fund manager’s bonus. Clever, huh?

It gets better. Because I actually take pleasure in what I’m buying – let’s be kind and call it investing – I spend rather more than I would ordinarily shove into a pension. So I’m squirrelling away more for the future. And here’s the killer. My collection hasn’t gone down in value. Football memorabilia prices have held up well during the recession. Sure, no one is going to make a fortune out of a collection – prices have probably nudged up by about 10% on average over the last decade – but you aren’t going to take a big hit either. My nerdy interest and enthusiasm has outperformed many of the leading banks.

Well, that’s what I tell my wife. Luckily, these conversations don’t tend to last too long, as she will do anything not to talk about Spurs memorabilia. She is embarrassed by my dullness and cannot imagine a more dreary activity.

Plenty of people salt away football programmes as souvenirs, but only about 5,000 seriously invest in their passion. Divide those 5,000 by the 92 league clubs, and you can see just how small the market for each club is. Except it doesn’t quite work like that. Because while there might be only a couple of men – let’s be honest – collecting Rochdale, there are many, many more collecting Spurs. For some reason, Spurs and Manchester United are by far the most collectable clubs. Which is good and bad: everything is always more expensive than it would be for another club, but there is also always a resale market.

And I’ve met some lovely people along the way. There’s Simon who sits in the Paxton Road stand at White Hart Lane. With highlights of a 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.”

Then there’s Trevor, who sits five seats along from me in the East Stand for every home 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 has a great run of 1950s season tickets I’ve been nagging him to sell me. He’s refused so far, but I sense he’s beginning to weaken.

Back in Northampton, my first lot is nearly on. It’s hard to know who I’m up against. The few bods chatting idly by the bar don’t seem interested, but you can never tell. Half an hour ago, a bloke there bought a couple of grand’s worth of Sunderland memorabilia. There are a few others dotted about the room like Schopenhauer’s porcupines, choosing to sit neither too close nor too far from each other. No one gives anything away. It’s a game for poker-faced individuals. Sometimes there are advantages to being non-descript.

The internet bidders drop out early for the Everton programme (you don’t have to be at the auction to bid), so it’s just me against another Spurs collector in the room. I prevail at just under my self-imposed maximum. Next is the signed photo. Signatures can be tricky – especially on shirts – as many certificates of authenticity aren’t worth the paper on which they are written. But this is genuine and I get it for what feels like a steal. Discretion kicks in early for the 1915 programme, though, and I drop out when it hits its estimate. It goes for a lot more.

At the break, I chat to someone near the back. He offers me the 1964 Spurs away at Leicester for £3. It’s not a rare programme but it has sentimental value, as it was John White’s last game for Spurs before he was killed by lightning on a golf course. I take it.

When the bidding resumes, there is fierce competition for my old nemesis, the Malta friendly. Commission bids, internet bids, phone bids, bids in the room . . . I win, but only by paying £20 more than I’d planned. Simon wouldn’t approve, and I know I’ve spent enough for now, so I lower my bidding for the UT Arad programme. I’m way above the estimate but don’t even get close. It’s time to go.

My mobile rings while I’m on the train home. It’s the office. How much have I spent? Trevor’s golden rule comes to mind: never tell anyone what you paid for something unless you absolutely have to. „It’s a bad line . . . You’re breaking up . . . I’m going into a tunnel.” Click.

Read the article on Guardian Unlimited

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