Subbuteoooooo…suh-suh subbuteooooo. Subbuteoooooo…suh-suh subbuteooooo – Phil Collins.
I feel a need to talk about the game which consumed most of my spare time in the mid-eighties. Leon got me into table football, or in our case mostly floor football. He was my best friend between approximately 1983-1987. We used to go down the Goldstone together for every home game, sometimes with my Dad and sometimes with his Uncle. We didn’t miss a home game for years. In traditional schoolboy style we always stood right at the front of the East Terrace and bang in the middle.
Leon introduced me to Subbuteo when we were about 12. Its rather esoteric name came about because the makers originally wanted to call it Hobby; but this had been trademarked already, so they went for the Latin name for the Hobby bird – Falco Subbuteo. Subbuteo wasn’t just football, though. It was religion! No, what I mean is that they did a range of sports including cricket and other games besides the football version, though it’s always football people associate with that name. With the gift of hindsight I think he got me into it largely due to needing someone to play against. He was like the Sheffield FC of Subbuteo in our parts. I was the Hallam FC. I played a few games at his house (away games for me) and loved it from the start.
When he said he was replacing his cloth pitch(which, to my amusement, he used to iron diligently before our matches) with an AstroPitch, he let me take his old cloth pitch home so that I could practice and so he could finally play an away game. It was an auspicious and exciting moment unfolding Leon’s pitch onto the table tennis table in our dank garage, dimly lit by a naked bulb (the floodlights, I guess). With the pitch, Leon included two teams (20 little footballers on semi-circular bases and 2 goalkeepers on long sticks) and 2 goals. The players and goals were very old fashioned – he must have had them passed down from some older family member. This may be an embellished memory, but I’m sure the players sitting on their semi-circular bottoms were in more of a sepia tone, had long shorts painted on and all looked like Stanley Matthews. All the modern teams we usually played with had tight eighties shorts on and all looked like Roy Race.
The goals were old fashioned too, I remember them clearly, and very fondly. Modern Subbuteo goals were exclusively made from plastic. These ones had metal frames, which I thought were better, though maybe slightly less realistic on account of the stanchions being too thin. They were the triangle style goals and had orange nets. The netting was really thick, like hemp, compared to the modern cheap netting. I loved them. With this old stuff I felt like I was performing a re-enactment of a fifties cup final. Having my own set, albeit on loan, was enough to get me hooked and I received my first very own Subbuteo equipment for my next birthday.
My Dad bought me the AstroPitch straight off (no messing about ironing pitches, thank god); I suppose it was the Subbuteo equivalent of a Luton or Preston pitch. He bought the QPR style goals (actually QPR had a plastic pitch too, didn’t they? So, in effect my Dad bought me Loftus Road), white stanchions that curved at the back instead of the usual straight angle, with the nets hanging down between the front and back posts. They were nice goals.
The 2 teams my Dad got were a complete mystery to me and still are. I was expecting Brighton and Palace perhaps, or England and Brazil. No; my first two teams were the startlingly random choice of Monaco and Dundee. Knowing how much my Dad hates shopping and shops generally, he may have just stormed into Beatties and whipped the first two teams he saw off the shelf, without paying much attention. Or he could’ve been being deliberately obscure; that would also be like him, although picking teams not just not from the same division, but not even from the same country, one of which from Scotland? That’s too eccentric even for him. Surely these weren’t a considered choice.
So it was with a touch of surrealism that Leon came round for my inaugural match. I was Monaco, as I liked their kit, the red and white triangle halves; Leon was Dundee in the all blue strip. The final score was Monaco 1 Dundee 10. Surely Dundee’s finest victory ever, real or otherwise. I was humiliated in my home debut. If I’d bought any packs of supporters from Beatties they would’ve called for my head and booed my little self-righting men off the pitch (in French, I presume).
I continued to get soundly beaten by Leon for some time, his experience clearly showing, but the beatings got less embarrassing and I usually kept him in single figures. It wasn’t too long, though, before I was good competition and my teams no longer whipping boys. One advantage he had over me was that he was a strong proponent of blocking flicks. I could never be bothered with them, they were too much like hard work. Andy didn’t bother with them much either, so games with him were a bit more relaxed. To recap the rules, if I remember correctly, you flick your man and if he connects with the ball it is still your go. Each individual man can only connect with the ball 3 times in a row (so great long dribbles are out); a fourth kick results in a free kick to the other player.
So the idea is to build up an attack by passing the ball between players. There were two extra lines on the subbuteo pitch which marked the boundary from where you could legally score from. These were roughly halfway between the penalty area and halfway line. It was to stop players shooting from wherever they were, encouraging a more skilful approach. Mind you, if it deflected off someone who was within the line and went in, the goal would stand. However, doing this as a tactic was frowned upon and considered gamesmanship. I confess it was occasionally employed by me if I was a goal down in the dying seconds.
When your player fails to connect with the ball then it is your opponents turn to flick. The blocking flick was a move you could make while your opponent was on the ball, and it was basically an off the ball run to get players into better positions. I think you had one blocking flick for each of your opponents flicks. I didn’t bother with them, generally, except for the odd token one now and again. Leon performed them extensively and it often annoyed me, sometimes to the extent where I wanted to blocking flick his face! I found they made the game a bit too hectic. I don’t think my lack of them adversely affected my performance, though.
Our leisure time over the next few years became dominated by Subbuteo, with the occasional break to go and watch the Albion – they were halcyon days. We were connoisseurs of the various accessories you could buy. There were a choice of balls for starters. We both preferred playing with the yellow spongeball but in terms of looks my favourite was the plastic orange Addidas Tango. Leon’s was the Mitre Delta. I seriously considered sprinkling my Astro Pitch with icing sugar to create a snowy pitch effect to complement the orange ball I had. The problem with the hard balls, compared to the spongeball, was that close-range shots that hit the net fast recoiled the goalnets to a sometimes farcical extent. The spongeball wasn’t as pretty but it made for a more realistic game.
We had a range of goalposts between us, the ones with triangles in orange and white net varieties, the QPR-style ones and there were some that looked like Chelsea’s at the time. We both bought the scoreboard with the accompanying hundreds of thin strips of card with the names of what seemed like every team in Europe on them. They even had blank spares that you could write your own team names on. We never got as far as adorning our pitches with the stands you could buy, though. I’m sure this was due to our restricted finances. The stands were expensive and to fill the stands with the little plastic figures you could buy, in about packs of ten, put the cost up even more. We could have accumulated the stands over time but that would have meant playing with one conspicuously large stand and nothing else for a while which we didn’t think would look good (a bit like Sincil Bank or Springfield Park).
Leon was a stickler for the kits being accurate, and got his Mum, who was a talented artist, to painstakingly paint the 11 little players in whichever team’s new kit for that year, with staggering attention to detail – they were great works of art. He also taped the crowd noises from Match of the Day and some recent live games to play during our games to create an authentic atmosphere. It never quite worked though as it involved a bit of a break in the game for Leon to press ‘play’ on his stereo which was followed by silence and then sudden crowd noises which always amused me to the point of giggles.
My brother, Andy, got into Subbuteo as well so when Leon wasn’t there I had someone else to play. We went as far as buying the little packs of transfers with the numbers 1-12 on them that, with great precision, we stuck on all the players’ backs. We could now write down the names of the scorers, obtaining squad lists from my ‘Match’ magazine that I subscribed to and came weekly, so had bang-up-to-date information. We also converted our 10 minutes each way games into proper minutes using a bit of simple maths so we had the scorers and the minutes. It’s fair to say we became a tad obsessed with it.
Subbuteo could often be wonderful but it could also be intensely frustrating, and sometimes just shit.
Subbuteo and the frustration of it was expressed marvellously in lyrics by the band ‘Half Man Half Biscuit’ in their song ‘All I want for Christmas is the Dukla Prague Away Kit’.
So he’d send his doting mother up the stairs with the stepladders
To get the Subbuteo out of the loft
He had all the accessories required for that big match atmosphere
The crowd and the dugout and the floodlights too
You’d always get palmed off with a headless centre forward
And a goalkeeper with no arms and a face like his
And he’d managed to get hold of a Dukla Prague away kit
’cause his uncle owned a sports shop and he’d kept it to one side
And after only five minutes you’d be down to ten men
’cause he’d sent off your right back for taking the base from under his left winger
And come to half time you were losing four-nil
Each and every goal a hotly disputed penalty
So you’d smash up the floodlights and the match was abandoned
And the dog would bark and you’d be banned from his house
And your travelling army of synthetic supporters
Would be taken away from you and thrown in the bin
Yes, the players were prone to some horrific injuries, the worst of which and almost certainly career-ending was being detached from your base, usually caused by being trodden on or kneeled on. Superglue only worked temporarily until the player started falling ever so slowly to the horizontal. I remember quite a few players only having one leg connected to the base so being fairly lopsided, due to partial treadings on. Quite a few players still playing first team football were at 45 degree angles.
It didn’t strike me as odd at the time, but when I reminisce about the Subbuteo years it occurs to me that Andy was about 18 when he was turning up with me at Leon’s house, all 6 foot plus of him, to play his away fixture in some cup or other we were playing. Such innocence.