Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Subbuteo: Short-Sided Variations

Think of Subbuteo and you think of eleven plastic men pitted against eleven on a big green cloth pitch. It was ever thus; in its simplistic form, Subbuteo was nothing if not a beguiling interpretation of football on a miniature scale.

What's not so well known is that the makers of this classic football game also made several other variations, each with their own quirks and foibles...

1. Fivesides

"The Replica of Indoor Soccer" as it proudly called itself, this game was launched in the 1950's as a complimentary edition to the regular Subbuteo 11-a-side format. Aimed at improving your playing techniques, Fivesides consisted of a half-size pitch with minimal markings, some tape to act as a low wall around the perimeter of the playing surface, two modified goals and a pea-sized football.

There were three different sets to buy, ascending in price - Introductory, Standard and Deluxe - and the first two of those didn't even come with any players. By using the players from your original Subbuteo set, you could save some money and still enjoy the essence of the game.

With no goalkeepers involved, the aim was to get one of your five outfield players to put the ball into your opponent's goal, but therein lies the twist. Both of the shortened goal mouths were divided into three vertical sections, and if the ball went into the corners rather than down the middle, you scored extra points.

Another eye-catching feature of the game focused on the lack of corners or throw-ins involved. The roll of tape included in your boxed set could be curved around the corners of the pitch using metal clips, so the action was constant and engaging.

This set was available for well over a decade, but it was finally replaced in 1971 by...

2. Football Express

It was time for a radical overhaul of Fivesides, and this one put higher production values at the top of its list of priorities.

Football Express did away with the need to put together your own pitch and fence surround by incorporating the two into the bottom of the game's box. This meant a solid one-piece pitch in later versions of Football Express, but earlier versions had a folding pitch; no doubt easier to store away, but less practical when that centre join started to wear through extensive usage.

To ensure the ball remained accessible throughout, curved plastic inserts were provided for the corners of the pitch, while the goals - located inside the playing area - also had curves fitted to them for the same reason.

In this second version of Subbuteo five-a-side football, goalkeepers were reinstated to the teams, but these were free-standing 'rush' goalies that could be flicked outside their area if required. As anyone conversant with the rush goalie system will know, abandoned goal mouths are often particularly vulnerable and the rules of Football Express insisted goals could only be scored by players outside the goal area. With that in mind, goalkeepers could only block shots if they were back inside their goal area, and even then it required a perfectly timed and accurate flick in order to do so.

That said, free-standing goalies could be replaced by a traditional Subbuteo 'goalie on a stick' when penalties or free kicks ensued. This could be perceived as being more practical or less fun, depending on your appetite for desperate Keystone Cops-style defending.

To maximise interest in the game, a small selection of special five-man Football Express teams were available to buy, and if you supported one of the bigger British clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea or Celtic, you were in luck. If you didn't, there were a few generic kits to choose from too.

3. Targetman

Here was a five-a-side game that aimed to muscle in on the popularity of Palitoy's 'Striker'. Instead of the usual players on semi-circular bases, Subbuteo made players for Targetman that could actually kick the ball. This was in response to Striker where the same was also evident, but instead of pushing down on the player's head to make the foot move, Targetman required you to pull back the player's spring-loaded leg to kick the ball.

Inside the massive box which doubled up as the indoor-style pitch, there were two goals (which were fixed so as to be outside the playing area), two teams, two footballs, some instructions and some curved plastic pieces that fitted into the corners of the playing area. As for gameplay, your job was to merely ensure that when you kicked the ball, it ended up nearer to one of your own players than someone on the opposing team. It was this method that decided who got to pass the ball each time, so a delicate touch was vital to ensure possession was retained throughout.

If there was any drawback to this game, it was perhaps the look and feel of the players provided. Whereas Striker had quite charming players with a cartoon-like appeal to kids, Targetman's teams of blue or stripe-shirted players were bigger, more realistic but somehow less enchanting. And there were just those two kits available, whereas Striker (or Super Striker, as it would become better known) ended up with a range of official teams to buy based on the likes of Aston Villa, Leeds and Manchester City.

Though the intention to provide something a little bit different was noble enough on the part of Subbuteo, ultimately Targetman didn't capture the imagination as planned and just two years after its 1974 launch, it ceased to be made. It was time to return to the trusty men-on-hemispherical-bases approach for their next project, which was...

4. Top Scorer

Like Fivesides before it, Top Scorer was a short-sided version of Subbuteo, aimed at improving your finger-flicking skills. This version, however, increased the playing sides to six and did away with the 'indoor' element, opting instead for a half-size cloth pitch and some handy exercises to help you play better.

On the one hand, this was Subbuteo but on a smaller scale. The players were the same, the goalies remained in their goals as normal, but apart form the absence of a perimeter wall, you were left to play ordinary matches with smaller teams on a smaller pitch.

But that was only half the attraction with Top Scorer. Other than six-a-side games, a pamphlet inside the box invited you and a friend to try out some technical challenges. Based on the disciplines of passing, shooting, goalkeeping, corner kicks, direct free kicks and swerving, your competency in each was awarded points based on how well you could perform specific tasks. To that end, the pamphlet featured a section where you could jot your score down and chart your progress.

Despite this focus on training as well as playing, Top Scorer only lasted from 1978 to 1981, but Subbuteo weren't yet done with their search for a popular variation on the original.

5. Sport Billy

A cartoon character that advocated teamwork and fairness for all perhaps wasn't the ideal basis for a Subbuteo game where the players were too big to control, but there it is.

Sport Billy was an animated American TV series of 26 episodes in which the eponymous hero crossed the globe spreading a positive message of sport as a medium for good health and happiness.


No wonder, then, that FIFA should adopt this nausea-provoking symbol of unattainable niceness and plaster its name all over the 1982 World Cup. Subbuteo, meanwhile, saw fit to create a five-a-side version of its regular game based on the chubby little blighter, complete with oversized, chunky-looking players.

Joking aside, this was a neat way to try and lure the younger brothers and sisters of most Subbuteo kids to tag along for the Subbuteo ride, and thanks to the half-size pitch used in Top Scorer, it seemed proportionally fit for purpose. The only trouble was that the larger-than-usual players were less able to swerve compared to ordinary Subbuteo players, thereby making one aspect of the game largely unattainable.

And if this was a game marketed at children of anearly school age, it would also have been nice to include a perimeter wall around the pitch as in Football Express or Targetman, but Subbuteo obviously felt that if six-year-old Johnny flicked the ball far enough as to reach the gap behind the sofa, then he'd jolly well have to go and fetch it himself.

Using fairly standard Subbuteo equipment, Sport Billy was nonetheless a novelty item of sorts and its shelf life reflected this as per its short run of production between 1981 and 1982. Luckily, this was not to be the last variation of Subbuteo football and the chance to go out on a high note had not been passed up.

6. Subbuteo Indoor Edition

When I was in my early teens, there was always one item on a Subbuteo poster that caught my eye, filling me with wonder and awe - and this was it.

Subbuteo's Indoor Edition belatedly rode the crest of the NASL wave with a Football Express-style walled pitch - bright blue in colour - with corner curves, clip-on goal nets and two six-a-side teams from the American league.

As in Fivesides and Football Express, the rebound wall surrounding the pitch was a useful aid for getting the ball to one of your team members (and keeping the ball in play). Shooting was only allowed in the third of the pitch in front of your opponent's goal, and the goalkeeper was confined to his own small Goalkeepers Box.

Among the instructions that came with the game, you'd have received the advice that "if you have the space, the game is best left permanently erected to save wear and tear." This was largely a reference to the card-mounted pitch which could be folded in half, along with those perimeter walls that could be folded up and clipped in place when a match was in progress.

Asking a child to keep the whole thing fixed up was perhaps asking a lot if space was at a premium, but it goes without saying that the card-mounted pitch could suffer from ridges and creases if overused so that dining room table would just have to remain a dedicated venue for Subbuteo indoor football. Sorry, Mum and Dad.

But who can blame any kid for being besotted with Subbuteo's many and varied short-sided variations? For some, football glory was distinctly unattainable with eleven plastic men and a full-size pitch, but scale things down a little and pretty much anything was possible thanks to the 'flick-to-kick' experts.

-- Chris Oakley


  1. Sport Billy was also a "sponsor" at the 1986 World Cup. For years I thought it was a reference to an Italian manufacturer of fruit juices, the same one that used to sponsor the Olimpia Milano basketball team, of which Alessandro "Billy" Costacurta was a big fan, hence his nickname.


    1. Easy to get confused about that, I suppose, James! :)

  2. do you think that the "Express" in Football Express was taken from the Daily Express 5 a side competition from the 70's-80's?
    How exciting was it staying up late to watch that on Sportsnight?

    1. I think you might be right there, Rob - an excellent point!

      Yes, five-a-side football on TV always seemed exciting back then. There was also this, which I remember seeing...



  3. I used to play this every weekend, the full team one though. Seems so boring now compared to the xbox equivalent!

  4. Very nice mate, between these sets i love targetman and indoor edition. Subbuteo has also produced many sets not related to football (cricket,rugby,motor racing,ice hochey and more) but that's another story.

    1. Thank you! I still love the idea a Subbuteo motor racing set... :)

    2. Yes lovely set. pics here :