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Matthew Ketchell

‘Dear Nigel Martyn…’: Rediscovering the childhood letters I wrote to footballers in the '90s

A collection of footballer fan mail sent to FourFourTwo Deputy Editor Matt Ketchell in the 90s

Was my generation too polite to make big signs, hold them up at football matches and unflinchingly ask footballers: ‘CAN I HAVE YOUR SHIRT’? Or were we just not as enterprising as ‘Generation Alpha’, the latest cohort off society’s conveyor belt. 

This young group have hacked a route to money-can’t-buy matchworn shirts. Up and down the country, and across Europe, cardboard signs are yielding some of the most coveted memorabilia in the game. Some clubs like Ajax have taken the step of banning supporters from bringing them into the stadium.

I’m fuming. Why didn’t I think of this as a pre-teen in the mid 90s? I would’ve self combusted if Pavel Srnicek turned to me after another entertaining Newcastle United home win, read my cardboard sign and tossed me a giant, multi-coloured keeper top. 

In the 90s of course there was no social media, barely any internet, and NFT were Newcastle’s shirt sponsor.

Instead of handmaking signs, I handwrote letters to footballers. LETTERS! Remember them? Amazingly, some players wrote back to me…

I was polite yet brazen in my handwritten dispatches. A typical communication would be along the lines of: “I’m Matthew, I’m X years old, I want to be a footballer, do you have any advice, can I have a picture, oh and I don’t suppose you have a shirt I can have?

Number of shirts received: zero. Number of autographs received: about a dozen. Total bits of specific advice received: two.

I wasn’t prolific, this was manual work, but I estimate I sent out around 20-30 letters over a two or three-year period. A recent foray into the loft has unearthed the dozen or so responses I received. 

As a young goalkeeper, living in North East England, my hitlist was mainly Premier League goalkeepers, and Newcastle players. It was a quality over quantity approach, stamps were cheap, but cashflow was an issue for 10-year-old me.

There's only two Darren Peacocks (and three Shay Givens) (Image credit: Matthew Ketchell)

I posted my letters then weeks turned into months, and I soon forgot I had posted anything. Then we went on holiday to Tenerife and when we got back there was a letter waiting for me, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HANDWRITING. A footballer had replied.

Remember how exciting it is receiving post as a kid? Times that by a thousand. Aston Villa’s Mark Bosnich had replied to me with a signed picture of himself dripping in Reusch goalkeeper gear.

Just a signature, no personalisation, no compliments slip, but I didn’t care. The photograph is a quite worn now because I remember taking it everywhere with me. The excitement floods back when I look at this battered bit of cardboard now. The system worked. If Bossie had replied surely other’s would too.

Emboldened and sent another batch of letters out that summer. Replies began trickling in.

Signed photographs of Neil Sullivan, Tim Flowers, Trevor Sinclair, Steve Harper, Shay Given and David Batty landed on the family doormat. Darren Peacock sent two images, one for me and one for my dad. Looking back, I vaguely remember telling him in my letter that he was my dad’s favourite player so Darren kindly sent him an autograph too.

On one occasion, one of my stamped addressed envelops came back within 24 hours of my posting. Wow! I opened it to find my original letter to David Seaman and an envelop addressed to Highbury stadium. A devastating, anti-climatic administration error on my part.

Richard Wright was the most exciting, young goalkeeper in English football at the time and performing incredibly for me on Championship Manager 97/98. His autograph came back with a brief but extremely polite reply on official Ipswich Town FC headed paper: “Dear Matthew, Thank you for you recent letter and the kind wishes it enclosed. Please find enclosed your photographs autographed as requested. Yours sincerely, Richard Wright, GOAL KEEPER” (sic).

"There is always hope" Paul Jones' letter to a young fan (Image credit: Matthew Ketchell)

Two other players took time to pen personal letters. Nigel Martyn, then at Leeds United, wrote his note on a LUFC compliments slip in block capitals explaining that his break in football came when he went in goal as a favour to his brother’s pub team. His advice? “Train hard, watch the game and shout at your players”. Brilliant.

Probably the best reply came from Southampton and Wales’ keeper Paul Jones. He typed out nine lines in Comic Sans, an exciting, modern, new font that was all the rage on Microsoft at the time. 

His advice was to enrol in some local goalkeeping courses and write to clubs asking them to send scouts to watch me play. He explained that is what he did to earn his break. “Keep trying and never give up,” he said. “It took me till I was 24 so there is always hope”.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in the practice of writing to footballers, especially in the pre-Instagram, pre-cardboard sign age. As you can imagine, in the pre-internet era it was wildly exciting to imagine Nigel Martyn taking the time to write out a couple of lines of encouragement to me.

I’m glad I kept these old photographs and letters, they’ve brought back fond memories and given me some content to write about for my day job almost 30 years later!

Video messages to fans are probably more common in 2023, rather than handwritten letters. But you do occasionally hear about footballers who still take the time to write replies to fans. I hope this always continues, it can mean the world to people.

Just like Nigel, Tim, Paul, Darren, Richard, Mark, Shay, Steve, Trevor and Neil's replies  did to me. (I’m not including Peter Schmeichel as his autograph was a photocopy).

Have you ever written to a footballer and received a reply? Let us know

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