Remembering Gazza’s inclusion in the Sainsbury’s WC98 Medal Collection

Paul Gascoigne’s omission from England’s 1998 World Cup squad got the whole country talking – and not just because we wouldn’t get to see him play in France.

We’ve all been there: standing at the checkout for a Chomp, only to realise you’ve brought Nigel Martyn instead of a 10p.

But the England World Cup 1998 Medal Collection brought with it bigger catastrophes, such as the premature inclusion and last-minute erasure of Paul Gascoigne.

The minting of the Geordie playmaker was one of the more slow-burning football disappointments of the 90s but only came about thanks to a frankly brilliant promotional campaign, the likes of which you’re unlikely to see these days.

In the months leading up to France 98, Sainsbury’s announced its role as the “official supermarket” of the England football team, a partnership that resulted in something pretty special for supermarket shoppers: a set of 23 commemorative medals, ostensibly representing each member of England’s 22-man squad plus coach Glenn Hoddle.

You could get the medals free inside certain Sainsbury’s food products, with multipack deals or with every £15 spent on petrol. Four-packs of the collectibles, whose player identities were obscured with wrappers, were also available to buy for 99p.

Given the number of these things knocking around on eBay, you can probably conclude that the promotion was a success, and friends I spoke to remember their parents buying petrol in ocean-size quantities in order to beef up their collections. In fact, by June 1998, Sainsbury’s had sold more than two million units of the four-packs.

Factor in the glossy A4 book for storing the medals, and it’s easy to see why people got on board with the collection.

Only there was a pretty obvious catch: neither Sainsbury’s nor the minting and marketing companies behind the collection had any real idea who Hoddle planned to select for the tournament.

The 22 players turned into medals? Guesswork. Cue the brilliant yet meaningless coinage of Nicky Butt, Andys Cole and Hinchcliffe, Phil Neville and, of course, Gazza.

That’s quite the five-a-side team, but only one player would count himself truly unlucky to be part of it.

Breaking Gazza’s heart

Of course, the story of Gazza’s omission from the 1998 World Cup squad is recalled frequently, and its long-term consequences for the player often speculated upon.

And while the France tournament would eventually produce more heartbreaking moments for England fans, it’s hard to find anyone who didn’t sympathise with the then-Middlesbrough midfielder on May 31.

“Paul had…just run out of time in terms of us not being able to get him as we needed for the World Cup,” Hoddle told press at England’s Spanish training camp. “I am as disappointed as anybody about it.”

With hindsight, it’s easy to imagine how much damage the decision inflicted upon Gascoigne, whose life and career already appeared to be on a downward trajectory.

At the time, though, we were only thinking one thing: that our medal collections were ruined.

Thankfully, Sainsbury’s had our backs, and shortly after the final 22-man squad was announced, collectors were given the opportunity to purchase “The Final Five”, a separate medal booklet containing the five selected players not featured in the initial collection: Rio Ferdinand, Paul Merson, Rob Lee, Darren Anderton and Les Ferdinand – presumably one of the few players who wouldn’t miss Gazza in the dressing room.

This miniature collection was, and remains, the strangest part of the promotion. It’s somehow both touchingly generous (Panini was never this arsed about getting its squads wrong) and downright mean at the same time.

Just read what it says on the inside of the booklet:

“On June 1st 1998, Glenn Hoddle announced his long-awaited final squad of 22 players to represent England in World Cup France ’98. Twenty-two men with the hopes and dreams of a nation. We wish them well.”

Forget Gazza, forget Hinchcliffe, we’re wishing these men well.

Now I don’t want to come across like a conspiracy theorist – obviously we wanted the actual World Cup players in our medal collections – but if you squint hard enough, you can sort of see this second half of the medal promotion as one big wind-up at Gazza’s expense.

Hear me out.

A bit of digging through the archives of the JS Journal, the Sainsbury’s in-house magazine for employees, unearths some pretty interesting perspectives.

The June 1998 issue, for example, reveals that Paul Ince actually starred in a commercial for the Medal Collection – who knew? – but the Ince story also contains a wholly unconcealed dig at Gazza:

“With a few of the Hod-squad indulging in late-night rave-ups in the run-up to France ’98, England coach Glenn Hoddle must have been delighted that his midfield maestro, Paul Ince, kept himself out of mischief by appearing in JS’s ad for football medals.”

Rave-ups? Mischief? Ince the maestro, not Gazza? Hod-squad?

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READ: Gazza, Fowler, Cantona & 12 of the best goal celebrations of all time

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And in the very next issue, in an update on the supermarket’s secret “Medals Swapshop” (yes, Sainsbury’s employees were cheating), the same magazine laughs about how nobody wants Gazza medals anymore.

“We may have to disappoint colleagues looking for the five medals minted after the first batch, as no one’s sent in any at all so far. Still, we’ve plenty of Gazzas.”

Was this part of the “official supermarket” role? To get young cashiers and shelf stackers on side with Hoddle? Or was Gazza doing promo work for Tesco?

We haven’t even gotten to the worst part either.

Now of course you can rationalise the thinking behind the “Final Five”. It gave collectors a sense of completion, and resulted in a more accurate historical document of the World Cup. All good.

But included with the five-medal set was a sheet of “player name stickers for your album”. So rather than keep the Final Five as a perfectly self-contained sequel, representative of the twists and turns of the summer’s events, you were actually encouraged to cover up the names of the omitted players with the new ones.

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READ: 23 of the most brilliantly awful adverts starring footballers

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Just weeks after having his World Cup dream shattered, Gazza was being well and truly shunned by a supermarket.

Sort of.

In truth, the World Cup 1998 Medal Collection promotion was brilliant fun, and near-masterfully executed by Sainsbury’s. After all, 17 of their 22 selections were right on the money (Panini had Robbie Fowler on the plane), and the supermarket was even given credit for popularising “half-time snack food” during the campaign.

Sticker albums may come out on top in terms of numbers, but it’s the 1998 medal collection – produced during the high water mark for coin-themed entertainment – that seems to have stuck with many fans.

Perhaps that’s because the collection always seemed inherently valuable. After all, it literally looked like money, setting it apart from Panini sticker albums and other collectibles. Twelve years later (via one global financial crisis), an Esso-sponsored collection for the 2010 World Cup contained “medals” made of card.

With that in mind, Sainsbury’s deserves credit for running a promotion that – while obviously not altruistic in its motives – brought a huge amount of enjoyment to many England fans.

And for what it’s worth, Gazza takes David Batty’s place in my collection.

By Benedict O’Neill

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