Subbuteo: The Game That Made Heroes Of Us All

Invented by Peter Adolph of Tunbridge Wells in 1947 and deriving its name from the Latin word for a bird of prey, Subbuteo was an essential part of growing up in Britain.
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Invented by Peter Adolph of Tunbridge Wells in 1947 and deriving its name from the Latin word for a bird of prey, Subbuteo was an essential part of growing up in Britain.

While it is apparently possible to master Subbuteo and implement swerve, spin and intricate passing moves, to most of us it was an ill-tempered game that lacked pattern, was littered with errors and showcased tactical formations that often resembled a hurricane aftermath.

I’ve paid to sit through 90 minutes of equally uninspiring stuff on countless occasions, but regardless, in the pre-digital age, the rudimentary innocence of Subbuteo and its over-sized balls resonated across the nation.

Summer holidays could conceivably see a 42-game league season completed in six weeks, punctuated with breaks to recreate the home internationals or FA Cup Final, with results that would right the wrongs of the actual matches with uncanny regularity.

Playing the game would see sweeping pirouettes attempted at impossible angles just to avoid conceding a throw-in, the action maddeningly interrupted every two minutes to straighten out the pitch (because Mum wouldn’t let you use the special springy clip things to hold the cloth down as they’d mark the dinner table).

A full team rarely featured a complete set of limbs, and successive applications of treacle-like glue resulted in several players towering above their teammates. Too much glue would see one poor soul dry leaning forward, forever seeking gold medal in the ski jump at Lake Placid.

Extra leisure time of holidays and weekends would enable you to set up plastic fans on the terraces – some in a permanent celebratory state – a painstaking process where two hours would result in recreating only a sparsely-populated reserve match. It didn’t matter, because it was all about dreams. Those 85 fans you’d saved up your pocket money for were your travelling army, and for that short period before Grange Hill, you could be their hero.

The 1970s and ‘80s were primetime for Subbuteo and the accessories market was frenzied, as grandstands, scoreboards, floodlights (that never worked), cameramen and TV gantries became playground currency.

Meticulous imitation became increasingly important. Rather than generic teams which until then could’ve been simultaneously marketed as Everton, Leicester, Italy or St Johnstone, more detail began to emerge, and the Admiral and Umbro classics of the late-1970s became must-haves.

Subbuteo was also a gentle introduction to the harsh realities of young adulthood: losing an epic battle in the last minute because you hadn’t grabbed your goalie quick enough, or arguing whether ‘shoving’ rather than flicking was legitimate. The anguish of kneeling on a player and hearing that unmistakable crunch was as shattering as prepubescent life got, a precursor to teenage angst; personal hygiene, girls and exams.

The Undertones sang about it on ‘My Perfect Cousin’ and Half Man Half Biscuit penned the mighty ‘All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit’ in homage to everything that was finger-flicking good.

2012 saw the game re-introduced to the market after a near 20-year absence, although this was aimed more towards nostalgia-seekers rather than tearing kids away from the Xbox, and the collectors’ market for completists hunting rare teams is now mind-blowing. A quick scan of Ebay sees one established seller asking £7,300 for a vintage set of ST Donawitz, an Austrian lower-league team. His selling history suggests he will get it. Halmstad of Sweden recently went for just shy of £350.

Bogus collectors are known to fake vintage teams; forging authentic boxes, reference numbers and villainously scuffing paintwork. A secretive code is adopted among genuine collectors that reads almost like a nineteenth century polari, where players are ‘heavyweight’ or ‘lightweight’ depending on when they were manufactured, ‘zombie teams’ from the late 1970s are frowned upon because they were made with straight, rigid arms and carried very little detail, and ‘moulding development’ could quite easily form the basis of an 80,000-word dissertation.

Naturally the modern Subbuteo players carry idiosyncrasies like long, slick-black hair and Alice bands, while the figures we grew up with were featureless Boy’s Own hardmen, identikit ‘stoppers’ with newspapers for shinpads. Probably.

Fiercely competitive leagues and international tournaments still take place, where “polishing the base” is not a euphemism but a critical pre-match ritual, and the ecstasy of a long distance strike ignites Tardelli-esque animation. It always did. Friendships made and friendships lost in a game with no final whistle. Bedroom heroes; that was us.