Something strange seems to have happened to footballers’ autographs.
I wish I still had my autograph book. It was packed with the signatures of just about every Charlton player whose time at The Valley straddled the seventies and eighties, many of them several times over. Some were legible (Kevin Dickenson’s signature was, I remember, far classier and more considered than his performances at left back ever were) while some were little more than angled squiggles (from memory Leighton Phillips signed his name in this way, but what I remember most about his autograph was hanging around the players’ entrance after a game and greeting him with ‘better Leighton never’ when he emerged and him laughing rather than justifiably cuffing me on the side of the head).
Some were enormous – my all-time hero Derek Hales’s signature, of which I must have had about a dozen, was a beautifully flamboyant thing; an enormous ‘D’ giving way to curves and squiggles and ending with a gigantic flourish on the ‘s’- while others were hunched up, tiny and almost apologetic. Nicky Johns’s was a bit like that if I remember rightly, looking as if it belonged on a chequebook rather than in an autograph book.
Recently my pal Dave Roberts, author of two of the best football books I’ve ever read The Bromley Boys (now being made into a film) and 32 Programmes, very kindly sent me a Charlton shirt signed by last season’s League One championship-winning squad.
Now, it’s long time since I’ve seen a footballer’s autograph. Since about 1984 the only one I’ve seen at first hand is Ferenc Puskas’s, which I obtained at the book launch of Puskas On Puskas at Sportspages in the mid-nineties (even a grown-up can be excused for asking the greatest footballer in history, bar none, for his signature, right?)
But when I looked at the signatures adorning the front of the shirt I noticed they’d changed a lot since my day. Most of them had numbers, for a start. Squad numbers. Some of them were just tiny squiggles with the player’s squad number underneath.

Bradley Wright-Phillips just had his initials and squad number (although to be fair writing out ‘Bradley Wright-Phillips’ every time someone asked would become a pain in the hoop, I’m sure).

For all the marketing hoop-la and commercial rannygazoo surrounding the modern game I thought autographs would be one of the few things that wouldn’t change as football did; that the ritual of kids hanging around and asking players to sign their names was set in aspic forever. But no, even autographs are different now. Almost like a brand rather than the deeply personal physical proof of a treasured meeting.
I’m not going to claim that autographs were loads better in my day; this is just yet another sign I’m getting old (and to think it only seems like yesterday that I’d look at the ‘five years ago’ section in the programme and think, wow, one day I’ll be old enough to remember being at matches on this page) and that football’s moving on without me.
Not long after the shirt arrived and I started remembering my old autograph book, I signed a couple of books for someone. I looked at the big sweeping ‘C’ at the front giving way to loops and curves and the flourish of the ‘y’ at the end and realised something: my signature is almost exactly the same as Derek Hales’s. Without realising it, over the years I’d gradually begun signing my name in exactly the same way as the greatest goalscorer Charlton ever had.
Now that’s hero worship.
Having said that, if anyone sees me adding a number 9 to the end of it from now on, for God’s sake tell me.