Alive & Flicking

By Jonathan Paxton  |  18 Mar 2015

This article first appeared in Issue 1 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2010

I was eight or nine years old when my Dad asked me what I would like for my birthday.

It didn’t take long to let him know: I wanted the game I had read about in magazines and seen friends bring into school on the last day of term. The one that involved small football figures being poked around a felt pitch, forcing an oversized ball into tiny goals. I described it as “flicking football”, which, after a few seconds, he recognised as a game from his own childhood, surprised that it still existed in the mid-eighties. He used a strange, foreign-sounding word which, even on the big day when I got handed the present, I struggled to pronounce: Subbuteo.

My first ever set was a simple club edition and, although it only came with the basic accessories, it was vital to make sure the pitch and surroundings were perfect. Flattening out the baize (or “astro pitch” as a school friend optimistically called it) was crucial, and the surface underneath was just as important.

My parents’ undulating shag pile carpet created peaks and trenches for the ball to roll randomly around, so my Dad glued the pitch down to a large piece of wood that could be placed across the dining room table. Mum was not impressed with the large board propped up against the wall throughout the day and during our family meals, but it could have been worse: The original – designed by Peter Adolph – included just a piece of chalk and directions on how to draw the pitch markings onto a domestic blanket. You can imagine the number of disgruntled mothers who found their bed covers smeared with chalk lines. Thankfully, at our place, no such problems arose and once dinner was over, the table cleared, the room became a theatre for the nightly father versus son battles.

During my father’s youth, Subbuteo would have been in its infancy. Basing the concept on a similar, postwar game called Newfooty, which used small cardboard characters attached to lead bases, Adolph created a lighter, plastic foundation and more rounded characterisation of the players, which would eventually take on similar adaptations of rugby, cricket and snooker.

However, none would see the lasting success of the football game. England’s World Cup victory in 1966 – an event my Dad was lucky enough to have witnessed – would be a defining moment in the history of Subbuteo. England’s success meant demand for sets grew, and the company employed an army of outworkers across Kent and the South-east, many of them housewives in need of extra money. Boxes of figures, washers and bases would be delivered to their homes for assembly and painting before being packaged for sale and returned to the warehouse as fully-formed teams. How sad to think of the thousands of tiny players created for the game in this way; crafted and painted in fine detail, only to be trampled underfoot, lost behind skirting boards or swallowed by Godzilla-like pets.

By the 1970s, with televised football now in colour and club replica strips becoming more marketable, Subbuteo produced individual team kits from Britain and around the world. Alongside the popular teams of the day such as Leeds and Manchester United, certain clubs’ strips would attract popularity by virtue of a cup run or a good performance that happened to appear on the BBC’s Match of the Day.

Following dinner, and once the table was moved to the centre of the room underneath the light, our family’s very own match of the day would commence. My Dad and I would start with a perfectly symmetrical and organised formation but this would very quickly descend into a random scattering of players. We did, though, stick as best we could to the rules and tactics of football. He taught me about the offside law, lining up a defensive wall for a free-kick and we would even huddle the players together in the centre circle for penalty shoot-outs. More importantly, however, we had really competitive matches.

Admittedly, despite some convincing wins against him, my Subbuteo talent mirrored my regular football ability, and compared to my school friends I wasn’t particularly good at the game. One of my friends, who played with a striking green and white Celtic team, was able to chip the ball towards the goal, a physics-defying phenomenon I could never master. I did, however, occasionally manage to use a swerve, spinning a player around an obstructing opponent to get to the ball, a move that Dennis Bergkamp would have been proud of.

After passing my A-levels and being hypnotised by a new set I had seen in a shop window, I treated myself to a brand new 1994 World Cup edition. Defending champions Germany, in their traditional white kit with flag across the chest, took on a US side that wore a garish red, white and blue shirt – presumably included to boost sales in the host nation. My sisters, both bitten by the early 90s football bug, were confirmed fans by now and afforded me fresh opposition, even if it now created more rows than when playing against my Dad – a bit like Subbuteo-loving siblings Liam and Noel Gallagher.

Assembling the perimeter fencing, advertising hoardings and (for those of us lucky enough to have grandstands) arranging the spectators in the seats, became as much a part of the experience as playing the game itself. The obsessive fan could have an entire stadium surrounding their pitch with floodlights, dugouts, policemen, and even a streaker to add to the big-match atmosphere. As railway enthusiasts had scale model train sets, motor racing fans had Scalextric and lovers of aircraft had their Airfix kits, now football fans could create a diorama of FA Cup or World Cup finals in their own homes. Indeed, tedious chores such as attaching minuscule transfers for numbering the players took time, but were necessary to make the recreation as true to life as possible.

But as home computers and games consoles became more affordable and accessible, the football industry was an obvious market for electronics companies to target. Several versions of Subbuteo were launched for computers in the 1980s and early 90s but they were never able to translate the tabletop realisation to the screen and lost out to other football games of the time; Sensible Soccer, with its overhead view, easily editable strips and straightforward gameplay, became one of the most popular games for fans of Subbuteo’s simplistic qualities.

Unfortunately, large toy stores don’t stock Subbuteo sets or accessories these days but the game still survives into the twenty-first century. There remain thriving communities of players around the globe taking part in regional and even international tournaments, but attempts to update equipment and player characterisation have not been met with total approval amongst hardcore fans, as most traditionalists prefer the standard, anonymous looking players to replicas of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

However, whilst the pleasure of lovingly laying out a green, felt pitch on the kitchen table or bedroom floor may not be as popular with future generations hooked on electronic gaming, fans can still at least hope that one of the best-loved traditions of the 20th century – over 60 years since its invention – still has some life left. Especially when it comes to playing against, and beating, your Dad.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2010

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