Remember when… Subbuteo!

The centre forward was down; his manager was up in arms, complaining to the referee.

It was a goal scoring chance and the tackle had been high, so high in fact, it had taken him across the chest. The ref indicates a direct free kick, and then brandishes a red card towards the centre back. The trainer comes on, takes a quick look. “Its okay, nothing a bit of glue won’t fix!”… Subbuteo, the greatest table football game ever?

Subbutteo - Box Art
My second-hand set.

Yes, Subbuteo is still going, but I have fond memories of playing the game in the early 80’s, and I still get the pitch out every now and again, even now.

So, what was, is, Subbuteo all about?

A short history of the game

Subbuteo, and Subbuteo Sports Games Ltd (SSG) were the creation of Peter Adolph, and an adaptation of a game called ‘New Footy’. In its earliest adaptation it saw cardboard players fixed to plastic bases (known as ‘flats’) that were flicked around the pitch, and it remained that way until the 60’s.

Plastic men fixed to hollow, plastic, bases took over in 1961. These were 00 scale and each had a small metal washer inside the base to aid stability, as well as give the figure a bit of ‘heft’.

The game was heavily marketed, and of course, most of this marketing was aimed at children. With its success in the 60’s & 70’s came competition play; tournaments started appearing with district, county, and national competitions organised by SSG.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Many players preferred using the older ‘flats’, as they gave the player greater control when playing and were generally regarded as technically better. This caused a rift; SSG banned their use for tournament play, they wanted players to use the latest products (obviously, it aided sales!) whilst the European Table Football Federation (Known as the ETF), allowed flats.

1968 though, saw Waddingtons buy SSG, and not long after Peter Adolph resigned.

Then in 1970, the first Subbuteo International tournament was organised- Germany won.

Though the cardboard, and similar celluloid figures were just about still available, they had finally disappeared for good by 1974.

Another change in 1979, but this time it was to the figures. Originally they were all hand painted, and the figure had a nice ‘pose’. These were called Heavyweight figures. But due to the demand, the painters couldn’t keep up. So, the shape of the figure changed to what became known as ‘The Zombie’, and printing was used to provide the colour.

The Zombies weren’t, and still aren’t, popular. They were quickly replaced by the ‘Lightweight’, which was again printed, but had a more suitable pose.

By 1980 an amazing 7 million people were playing, in over 50 different countries; Subbuteo had hit the big time. And, in 1989, it was awarded Toy of the Year, culminating in the 1990 World Cup being covered on TV by the UK’s channel 4.

With the takeover of Waddingtons by Hasbro, Subbuteo began to decline, and they announced that production would stop in 2000. The public however weren’t happy, and Hasbro agreed to continue, but with very limited output – only a handful of teams were produced, and only available in Toys R Us.

Strangely, Hasbro re-launched Subbuteo in 2005 with flat plastic men with photo-quality prints, very similar to the original cardboard figures pre 1960, but again this ended in production being pulled.

2012 saw the re-release – yet again – of Subbuteo, but this time it looks set to stay… maybe! The figures and printing offer a resemblance to the ‘lightweight’ figures and there’s a whole host of stockists around the world, especially on the net. Hasbro has recently released a limited run of ladies teams, though they are not currently for sale.

Subbuteo - On the ball!
Nice Ball!

My Memories

So, the future of Subbuteo looks a little more certain than it was 15 years ago. It’s hard to understand why it’s had such a rocky lifetime. I think a lot has had to do with the emergence of video football games; with their realistic gameplay and stunning graphics, are children really going to resort to flicking little plastic men around a piece of green cloth?

But I can say, this is the game that got the most use when I was a lad. Probably from the age of 10, till I was 15 or 16, I could be found during the school holidays around a mates, re-playing the World Cup.

My friend, Robert, got me into it. He had an incredible amount of stuff – Loads of teams, a couple of pitches, including the ‘Astro-pitch’. He had a stadium, spectators, referee and linesmen, different types of goals and balls, corner kickers, throw in throwers, floodlights, and the all-important whistle! He probably had other things, but at this point I seem to remember I was rather jealous!

Subbuteo - Scoreboard: England 2 Belgium 1
The Subbuteo scoreboard – Is this a prediction?

I managed to get my hands on a second hand set, and managed to accumulate about a dozen or so teams, including my favourite all white heavyweights – which I played as Belgium (they used to play in an all white strip during the 70’s, then changed the shorts to red in the 80’s).

During the summer holidays we would organise a fully blown World Cup, complete with 32 teams. We would have sixteen each, 2 per group, and when our own teams were up against each other, the ‘owner’ would select which he wanted to play.

Now, the rules of the game are very straightforward. The person who has possession flicks his player to hit the ball. If he succeeds, he keeps possession and goes again. A player can only hit the ball three times, and then another player has to hit it. Thus dribbling forward would see you flick your player to hit the ball a couple of times then, on the third flick you’d look to pass, or even shoot. You had to be in the ‘shooting zone’ to shoot on goal though.

Each time the person in possession flicked to hit the ball, the non-possession person can flick one of his players, to move him around the pitch – maybe trying to block a pass or get between the player and the ball. He can’t hit the ball, and if he hit an opposing player then a free kick could be awarded. Basically, the rules are just like real football, but without the aggro!

Now, Robert was good, much better than me. I rarely beat him, especially when playing at his house. Its funny but home advantage really did help, though unlike Brian Clough at the time, I never resorted to water logging the pitch!

We nearly always played at his house, he had all the best bits, so I just brought along my teams.

I always remember the things he could do with those tiny plastic men; curling them around my players with an ease that made Cruyff look like a beginner! His passes never went astray; he rarely missed the goal when shooting, and I only think it was my athleticism in goal that prevented embarrassment.

The goalie was great. He was a little plastic figure, sometimes posed in an acrobatic dive, on the end of a stick. The stick was fed through the goal so he could be moved around with ease. That is until, in the excitement, you wrenched him from on side to the other a little to rigorously and the whole goal took off into the air!

Subbuteo - A great save!
Another great save!

This saw us stick the pitch down on to a good piece off wood; that way the goals could be held down with a few drawing pins. This worked for a time, until the inevitable happened and destroyed the goals.

Needless to say, the cup – and yes, Rob also had a mini ‘World Cup’ – stayed firmly in his hands.

When we weren’t playing together I ran my own tournament. Subbuteo is a simple enough game to play on your own, especially when you’re ambidextrous! I could shoot at goal with one hand, and control the goalie with the other, though there were several mishaps, which ended up with a broken number 1!

It’s funny thing, but we never played league games, it was always internationals, and we both had our favourites. If I remember rightly his was West Germany, he new all the names – Littbarski, Matthaus, Voller, Berthold, and of course the Captain would have to be Rummenigge. I, on the other hand, had Belgium. I didn’t know any of their names, and the actual footy team was rubbish at the time (They did go on to reach the semi-finals of the 1986 World cup though), but mine had won my own tournament twice on the trot!

Subutteo - Inevitable 'glue legs!'
The inevitable “Glue legs!”

And that bring us to glue. Nearly every team we had, had at least one player who had received major surgery. I was never very precise at applying glue back then, nowhere near as careful as I am now with my miniatures. The players used to end up with big blobs of Evo-Stick around their feet; it did nothing for their control, I can tell you.

I hope we see a resurgence in the game, and I don’t see why not, especially with the number of ‘flicking’ games that are currently on the market – ‘Flick ’em up!’ being the prime example.

I don’t think the marketing has been carried out especially well, I can’t remember the last time I saw an advert for Subbuteo, either on TV, print, or on the Internet. It’s such a shame really.

Subbuteo - Man Utd in the box!
Doing what they do best – dribbling in the box!

I can’t remember what happened to the set I originally owned. I now have a EURO 96 set I bought second hand; it came with Man Utd as an extra team (they’ve never been taken out of the box!), and it’s nice to get it out and play a game. It brings back happy memories, and I often wonder what Rob is doing now – I’m sure I could take him!

I also wonder if the children of today still play, or is it just us, the adults, reliving our lost youth?

The actual game play hasn’t changed, not really, from is conception 70 years ago, and that in itself is an amazing feat. I don’t think there has ever been a tabletop football game to come close, and I don’t think there ever will be.

So, if you used to play, and you’ve got children of your own, especially if they’re football mad. Go and get yourself a set, get the kids playing, it’s worth it just for that blast of nostalgia. But it might also prove to be a very special time – having fun, and playing football with your kids…

Image Gallery

2 thoughts on “Remember when… Subbuteo!

  1. Yasmin has just played her first game, and it was great fun! She hadn’t got a clue what she was supposed to be doing, football is not usually something she pays attention to, but she really got stuck in. Players were flying around left, right, and centre, and eventually she got the hang of it. Her excitement at winning a throw in was similar to watching England score a goal, and she even rejoiced at scoring an own goal! She totally surprised be by her enthusiasm, and we had a great time; I can’t wait to play again.


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