Peter Adolph was a clever man. Not only did he invent a brilliantly immersive game in Subbuteo, but he also catered for the comforting need to collect that is found so often in the young.
I can’t remember exactly when I started playing Subbuteo. I was probably 9 or 10 years old, and as far as I can tell, it all started when I received a Club Edition set as a Christmas or birthday present.
It was a good place to start. The basic kit contained two teams, two balls, a cloth pitch, two goals and some corner flags. Having made extensive use of that, I was ready to indulge my interest by buying more teams and more accessories, usually from my local toy shop – Worrickers in Barking.
It was the sheer variety of stuff available that made the game the joy that it was. Over many years, I collected all manner of wonderful miscellanea, so I thought it was high time I told the world what my five favourite bits of Subbuteo ephemera were.
Unlike m’colleague, a younger chap and only too happy to remind me of the fact, I played Subbuteo in an era before Adidas Tango balls became commonplace. This frustrates me because those Subbuteo Tango balls really were as much a thing of beauty as the full size ones used in the 1978 and 1982 World Cups.
Anyway, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for me in my flick-to-kick youth because those nice people at Subbuteo brought out an alternative – FIFA Balls. Not the name of a Sepp Blatter-penned in-house newsletter, these were white footballs that had a pleasing ‘circular’ arrangement of six coloured hexagons – one in red, one in blue and one in green.
To the best of my knowledge there never was any proper ball designed to look this way, but frankly I didn’t care. Compared to the standard white or orange balls that came with the old Subbuteo sets, these were as exciting, futuristic and modern as a kid could ask for in the early-1980’s. Sadly my favourite, the red one, saw its printed hexagons fade with wear fairly quickly, but no matter. This was a classic piece of kit and a much-valued one in my collection.
Having got your hands on a fine set of balls (ahem), what better than to flick them into a goalmouth to match?
At some point, I came to acquire a pair of World Cup Goals to replace the standard ones that were sold with my Club Edition, and no bad thing in my view. The originals had a rather restrictive bar across the back bottom edge of the net which meant if anyone flicked the ball high into the corner of your goal, your keeper couldn’t reach up sufficiently to stop it. Perhaps that was a deliberate ploy to encourage more goals to be scored. If it was, you wonder whether anyone thought to notify the aforementioned Mr Blatter.
The World Cup Goals had nice, rounded posts (rather than the square, angular ones from the Club Edition) and, if memory serves, coloured nets too. Most importantly, that wretched horizontal back bar had been removed. From here on in, it was total unfettered access to all four corners of the goal for our keepers, even if it was an unrealistic slant on the real world being simulated. Bliss.
Small, but perfectly formed, the clear plastic Trainers Bench provided that extra little touch of class to every game.
Four players in green tracksuits and their manager wearing an old-fashioned brown coat looked every inch the authentic article when placed pitchside. To be ruthlessly honest, one never saw players warming up in green tracksuits in real life and the stereotypical manager wearing a sheepskin coat was probably becoming more of a rarity when this item hit the shops, but somehow it worked.
Much like the Stadium Grandstand (see below) with all its disparate spectators, the addition of a Trainers Bench seemed to give the impression that the game you were playing really mattered. There were people watching in the crowd and there were substitutes ready to replace their injured teammates, should the occasion arise.
No-one need be deluded that this was just about two people flicking bits of plastic around. This was a proper match with proper detail, and the bench – even two benches if you were a connoisseur – helped to retain that air of authenticity. Quite how the modern-day equivalent – three rows of colour-coordinated Recaro seats – would look is anyone’s guess. Thank heavens, then, for simplicity of design.
I’m proud to say I once owned a Stadium Grandstand section, but it wasn’t something I’d bought with my own money. My budget didn’t run to that.
No, luckily for me, my family home was once visited by a distant, rarely seen aunt who struggled into our front room with two bulging carrier bags. “Here you go” she said. “These belonged to my son, but he doesn’t want them anymore. He’s far too old for them now.”
I emptied the bags and found, along with various teams and other items, an entire Stadium Grandstand. Yes it looked a little old fashioned with its white serifed text printed along the top edge and dowdy terracing coloured in a shade of Heavy Smokers Cough, but at a stroke it elevated my average Subbuteo playing experience to a whole new level.
It even had a few randomly placed spectators dotted hither and yon, glued permanently in position and painted accordingly. Now, my hastily arranged matches with invited school friends would be watched by a crowd in a stadium stand. Hardly Wembley, granted, but it was a crowd that added immeasurably to the make-believe world we played our Subbuteo in.
This always brings back special memories of my late father. I must have been about 11 or 12 years old when I once found myself struck down with tonsillitis. I was at home feeling poorly and not a little sorry for myself, my absence from school being a sole reason for any happiness on my part.
Things, however, were to take a turn for the better. My Dad, never a well-paid man in all his working life, was aware of my plight and had decided to go via a nearby toy shop on his way home from work. His motivation: to buy me a get well present to lift my spirits.
Having arrived home, Lambretta parked outside, he came in, took off his coat and handed me the present. “There you are” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve already got that one.” It was clearly a Subbuteo team, but one I wasn’t familiar with. The players were wearing yellow shirts with blue horizontal pinstripes, blue shorts and yellow socks. A quick check of the label on one end of the box confirmed it was The Baggies in their latest change strip.
To be honest, he couldn’t have picked a weirder team out of all those on sale, but I loved it for its modern pinstripes and the yellow and blue colour scheme. If nothing else, it could double up as Sweden, but regardless of all that, I loved it because he had thought of me feeling under the weather at home and had wanted to cheer me up. My Dad didn't really know anything about Subbuteo, yet despite this, his choice was somehow perfect.
For that reason, I'd like to dedicate this post to his memory with my thanks and love always.