Thursday, March 17, 2005

Cheapo Penny Blacks and Soccer Players Abound

By Hunter Davies

About 20 years ago, I became a born-again stamp collector. By born again, I mean I collected them as a boy, then forgot about them for decades. I was so busy with other things. Such as living.

This is typical of many stamp collectors.What sparked me off again was giving up playing weekend football. I just could not bear to see the lads playing without me. I thought, what shall I do now? Is there a hobby which isn't going to knacker my poor old knees any more?

For about ten years, I collected GB stamps, including a special collection of Wembley 1924-25 stamps. I also collected US Columbus stamps and GB covers for the postmarks, mainly 19th-century Cumbrian. Oh, lots of daft things. Too many, really.

That's what born-agains do. Rush at things.Today, I collect stamps on one theme only - football.

The earliest football stamp, as you've asked (ie, a stamp connected with football), was issued by Uruguay in 1924 to celebrate their footie victory in the 1924 Olympics. It doesn't actually show a footballer. The earliest of these came out from Bulgaria in 1931.

One of the things I used to collect was penny blacks. These are not as expensive as you might think, as 68 million were printed. I specialised in cheapo blacks with thins (meaning the paper had got thin over the years) and poor margins (meaning no margins, and a good black should have four white margins).

I paid no more than £20 each, as opposed to £200 for a decent black in good nick. I collected them for their letters (oh, I'm too tired to explain what that means). To me, the condition didn't really matter much. It was having them that mattered.When I came to sell, I lost money on every one.

Now, if I had been a sensible collector, splashed out and gone for tried and proven quality, I would have bought one half-decent black at £200 instead of ten tatty ones at £20. I would then have doubled my money over ten years.

Are you getting my drift? Are you with me? Or ahead?

Yes, friends, isn't that just like football?

During January, while my back was turned, Martin Jol of Spurs bought nine cheapo players, most of whom I had never heard of. All a bit thin, and poor at the margins, I'm sure. This was in addition to the 15 new signings earlier in the season. Spurs now have 36 players in the first-team squad, enough for three teams, yet I haven't personally seen half of them on the pitch yet.

I'm dying to see a defender called Defendi; read the back of Emil Hallfredsson's shirt, as I'm sure they'll miss out some letters; and salaam to Mounir el-Hamdaoui. As it is, I wouldn't recognise any of them if they turned up in my porridge.Arsene Wenger has also gone for bargain basements, buying unknown kids, all of them very thin.

Several of these have in fact appeared and done quite well - Francesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Robin van Persie, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Jeremie Aladiere - but as the season went on, most of them faded. Jose Antonio Reyes cost a bit of money, but he hasn't proved to be a bargain, so far.Wenger, in reality, keeps on buying the same, as I did with my cheapo blacks.

He has a clutch of midfield players, young, inexperienced, white, slender, medium height, dark-haired, vaguely Latin, who look much the same. When I stare across to the bench to see who's coming on, I can't tell the difference. Or even when they get on the pitch.

At the moment, Wenger has £30m to spend, so we are told, but then he's had this mythical money for two years. Will he be able to change the habits of a lifetime, go against his personality, and splash out on one real, proven, top-quality player at the height of his powers? Or will he buy ten cheapo players, hoping that one will come good?

Alex Ferguson has always been willing to splash out on top players, like Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney. Ah, you say, hasn't done him much good, not this season. Well, Man United would have done even worse without them. But the main point is that, like a good penny black, if you buy proven quality, like Ferdinand and Rooney, you'll more easily get your money back.
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posted by Don Schilling at 5:38 PM