Subbuteo’s Second Coming

Subbuteo is an odd name for a football game. Coined in 1947 by Englishman Peter Adolphe (possibly an unfortunate surname to have had in the 40s), the word is latin for the Hobby Hawk – Adolphe’s original choice of ‘The Hobby’ having failed to get past the Patent Office. The early players – cardboard figures on a semi-cirular base – competed on utility blankets marked with chalk.

The blankets gave way to properly marked pitches in the 60s and new accessories saw the game take off in the 70s, when the glamour of the baize, authentic scoreboard and floodlights, not to mention a bewildering choice of team colours, attracted this eight year old. Five years on, I was a member of a local league in Northants, in a series of occasionally foul-tempered contests conducted on the bedroom floor with players at risk from misplaced knees and a malevolent family cat. Morrisey may have had poetic intentions “spending warm summer days indoors” but time idled away in similar fashion playing childhood tournaments probably runs into months.

As players grew up the game wound down, with potential new recruits preferring Gameboy to green baize. Subbuteo moved via Waddingtons to Hasbro in the 1990s with a savage cutting of the accessories range and the teams available. There were 200 or so different kits produced in the late 70s from the two blues of Bishop Auckland though Barnet amber to the bumble bee hoops of Berwick. But after 1996, when the last team poster was issued, the players were given a flat base and a narrow appeal with just Premiership sides plus England and Scotland available – a disapppointing move mirroring the blinkered approach of the football media.

The standard of painting had certainly improved since the old days when a Barcelona / Crystal Palace strip might have had two players in standard red and blue stripes, with the rest in variations of purple. That said, my Coventry City “blue braces” outfit from the seventies (which I still have) has barely a brush stroke out of place. Eventually, the players were boxed up and almost forgotten. Almost that is, until Radio 4 broadcast details of the Yorkshire Open, run by the Wakefield-based Yorkshire Phoenix club.

If all this conjurs up images of shady characters scurrying to the Drill Hall under cover of darkness, like something from the ‘Scoutrageous’ episode of The Goodies, then you’re wide of the mark. Yorkshire Phoenix is one of around 20 clubs nationwide, whose players have carried the torch through years of Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Phoenix play regular matches with other clubs and are well-established enough to attract speakers like Eddie Gray to their social evenings. Clubs covering the length of the country include the M.U.P.P.E.T.S (Marsham, Udimore, Playden, Peasmarsh & Environs Table Soccer League) – proving that while things can be intense at the top level, not everyone takes themselves that seriously.

For the tournament itself, my Anderlecht XI (no 55 in the catalogue) – mauve-shirted veterans of the bedroom carpet contests – were dragged out of retirement to face the slick, lightweight, non-swerving usurpers of the modern game. Twenty years with little practice had left me rusty and the table-top setting and strict refereeing were a culture shock – not to mention the quality of the play. After all, I was sharing a table with some of the country’s best – the top 20 containing seven Yorkshire players – who were well practised enough to knock half a dozen goals past my lads without breaking sweat, so to speak.

The players drew looks from my rivals akin to visitors in a museum, their feeble, wobbly efforts saw them swiftly exchanged for a set of flat-based modernistas, which I mastered sufficiently to claim runner up in the plate – AKA second worst in the competition. Out had gone the Liam Brady swerve of old, replaced by the slide-rule passing and metronomic efficiency of Bob Paisley’s Liverpool – a change some traditionalists say has reduced the game to little more than shove ha’penny.

But regional tournaments like this have left their mark. After years out of the mainstream, Subbuteo is centre-stage again after a relaunch in January at the London Toy Fair, where an appearance by John Barnes welcomed the new era. There is also a new range of teams, but sadly the new Sky-orientated selection of Premier League colours is unimaginative to say the least. Maybe an anorak-inspired internet campaign could broaden the range – not that I’m going to start one of course.

World Cups are held annually, with the next scheduled for July at Manchester’s Eastlands, (sorry, Etihad) Stadium, after ‘problems with organisation’ – lack of suitable stadiums, perhaps – ruled out original hosts Greece. The England squad includes Phoenix stalwart Martin Hodds, though with little chance of breaking into the squad myself, I can stay relaxed. I have adopted the early Corinthian Casuals approach, playing cup matches only with a strict ‘no practising’ policy between tournaments. Flicking my life away on the attic floor perfecting the Kenny Dalglish turn isn’t my idea of fun, though I am tempted by a forthcoming meet with fellow flickers in Leeds. I might even rehearse some free kick routines for that one. Now where’s that utility blanket?

Post Script

The World Cup took place in late July, and was organised by the curiously named “FISTF” (Federation International of Sports Table Football, since you ask); the table-top version of FIFA. It comprised team and individual events, with categories from under 12 to veterans, and an international tournament featuring the cream of the world game.

In Subbuteo’s parallel universe, Malta breezed through the group stage; their hundred percent record including clean-sheet victories over Denmark, Germany and Scotland that the island’s football team could only dream about. But in the tradition of fast starters in big tournaments, they were derailed 3-0 in the quarter-finals by trackside vandals Spain – who else?

England topped their group – including a win in the ‘derby’ with Gibraltar. The Three Lions reached the semis with a four games to nil whitewash of Greece in the last eight, but then succumbed to Belgium by the same score. Spain won the trophy.

In an echo of Euro 2012, the final of the individual open was won by Spain’s Carlos Flores, who beat veteran Italian Massimiliano Nastasi(a man obviously born for greatness), 6-3 in the final. Maybe it should have been played over five sets.

The competition caught the eye of the media with the Manchester Evening News and ITV giving comprehensive coverage. Recent reports suggest a Subbuteo version of ‘Scorpion King’ Colombian ‘keeper Rene Higuita is in the offing. Things are on the up, and once embarrassed middle-aged men are emerging from the back bedroom, green baize in hand, blinking into the sunlight. It’s alright fellas, they won’t laugh, Subbuteo is serious business again.

Author Details

Paul Caulfield

Freelance football writer with 25 years experience of preview and feature writing for listings magazines City Limits and Time Out, as well as 90 Minutes, Backpass and several non-League publications. I have focussed mainly on the non-League game in my magazine work, with online articles covering professional and international football. I also have experience as a club official with Clapton FC (of the Essex League), and learned the realities of running a club at that level.

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