Thursday, 8 October 2015

Subbuteo: My who/what/where/when/why

I was very lucky to have enjoyed Subbuteo when it was surely at its peak. Over a period of five or six years, I built up a small collection of items and played dozens of games, and not once did I fail to be charmed by it. Subbuteo is responsible for some of the happiest times of my childhood. This is what I remember.


It must have been my parents that bought me my first Subbuteo set, not to mention most of the items that made up my eventual collection. Towards the end of the 1970’s, well before I’d reached the age of nine, they got me a Subbuteo Club Edition starter kit. Though basic in its content, it had everything I needed to get started: a pitch, two goals, two teams, two balls and some corner flags (not strictly necessary). Thanks to my mother and father, June and Ron Oakley, Subbuteo quickly became one of my favourite pastimes.

Having attained all manner of teams and accessories over several years, I was then lucky enough to find a regular playing partner. Alan Young, one year my junior, lived only a three-minute walk away and was just as keen on flicking little plastic men as I was. Alan didn't have any Subbuteo equipment of his own, but that didn't matter as I was only too happy to transport all my important bits and pieces to his house every weekend in an old LP carrying case. Together, we’d organise FA Cup and World Cup tournaments, playing them alternately and endlessly on the floor of his bedroom. Happy days indeed.

One of our World Cup tournaments caused considerable embarrassment to me, thanks to my teacher of French, David McKelvey. During one lesson, I decided to relieve a pervading sense of boredom by reading a sheet of paper I’d brought with me to school. It contained all the results from a World Cup competition that Alan and I had played the previous weekend. Highly decorated by my own fair hand (using felt-tip pens and Letraset rub-down lettering), it’s hardly surprising that it caught the eye of Mr McKelvey. Walking around the classroom behind me, he sneaked up, saw me reading my score sheet and snatched it out of my hand. “Ah, what’s this?” he announced to the class. “Subbuteo World Cup 1984? Host nation, Scotland... Group A - Brazil 1, Italy 0... England 2, Sweden 2...” and so he went on, reading out result after result on my piece of paper. It would have been enormously convenient for the ground to open up and swallow me at that moment, but alas it didn’t. Oh the shame…

One final person worthy of mention is a distant aunt of mine whose name I don’t even know. I think she was from my Dad’s side of the family and lived with her family in Kent, miles away from our modest abode in north east London. From what I can recall, she only ever visited our house once and when she did, she arrived carrying three plastic carrier bags stuffed full with something. To my surprise, she handed them to me and said “There you go - these are for you. My son’s too old for these now, so I thought you might like them.” The bags contained a Subbuteo stadium stand awaiting assembly, lots of ‘heavyweight’ teams including Ireland and Scotland, two floodlights and all manner of other paraphernalia. It felt like I’d won the lottery jackpot.

Thank you, ‘mystery aunt’, whoever you were...


So what did I end up with in my Subbuteo collection by the time I called it a day at the age of 15? Well let’s start with the accessories. I had one standard pitch, a stadium scoreboard (brilliant), two floodlights (ornamental, but ultimately useless), a TV tower, a Trainers Bench Set (beautifully rendered in clear plastic), a FIFA World Cup trophy, the FA Cup trophy, three FIFA balls (lovely), three Tournament balls (unusable due to the self-adhesive coloured patches that made the ball roll in random directions), a First Aid Set, a Stadium Grandstand (essential for capturing any sense of realism), two Tournament Goals, several packets of number transfers, two Throw-In Figures (crap), two Corner Kick Figures (only slightly better), six Ball Boys (dig those yellow tracksuits, fellas) and a VIP Presentation Set (featuring five people, one of which looks like Her Majesty The Queen holding the FA Cup. Not ideal if you were playing a World Cup tournament, but there it is.)

As for the teams, well first I had ‘The Reds’ (#01) and ‘The Blues’ (#02) that came with my Club Edition set. They were both brilliantly versatile as you could pretend they were many different teams. The Reds could be Denmark, North Korea, Tunisia, Nottingham Forest, Bristol City, Austria (away)... the list goes in. Similarly, The Blues could be Everton, Japan, Leicester City, Birmingham City, Ipswich Town, Cardiff City, Italy… even Scotland and France, at a push. Enough to play an FA Cup and World Cup on their own.

Luckily, I could call upon more variety than that. I also had Liverpool (/Brechin City/Scunthorpe), Spain, Brazil, Manchester United, West Germany (or Ipswich away, Man United away, etc), East Germany (but more usually Tottenham), Crystal Palace (with the classic double diagonal sash), my beloved West Ham United (in late-70’s Admiral attire), Watford, England (which came in a fancy polystyrene-inset box) and West Bromwich Albion away (1983-84).

The latter of these teams I must single out for special mention as it was bought for me by my Dad. My West Brom team, resplendent in yellow shirts and blue shorts, was bought as a ‘get well’ present as I’d been suffering with tonsillitis for some time and my Dad thought it would cheer me up and lift my spirits. It did, and although I now smile at such a random choice of team, I don’t think he could have picked anything better. Horizontal pinstripes were very much the ‘in thing’ at the time, and this team, number 473 in the Subbuteo catalogue, was easily the most modern-looking of all those I owned. Not only that, but I could also use it as Sweden in my World Cup tournaments. Thanks Dad...


As mentioned previously, Alan Young’s bedroom floor was where I had much of my fun as a 13-year-old (stop laughing at the back). Later in life, I discovered that most people played Subbuteo on a table of some sort when they were younger, but this never happened for me. My green cloth pitch was always smoothed out on the carpet wherever I played, and I’d be sat on my knees throughout an entire match, scrabbling around hither and yon to follow the action.

Many was the time I’d visit Alan’s house on a Sunday afternoon to play Subbuteo, especially during the dark Winter months. For the big games, like FA Cup Finals or World Cup Finals, we’d set up the stadium stand and the floodlights (that couldn’t illuminate an ant’s head) along with every accessory in my possession. For regular games, however, we’d make do with the trusty old scoreboard and maybe the TV Tower for a little bit of basic authenticity. As we played, we’d commentate in the way you do when you’re young, writing down the scores for each match along the way. When the opening bars to the Bullseye theme tune could be heard from downstairs, however, I knew it would soon be time to pack everything up and go home.

Apart from Alan’s house in Rowe Gardens, Barking, where most of my Subbuteo playing took place, there were only a couple of other places where flicking and kicking ensued. On a few occasions, I played in the spare room at Martin Lewis’ house. Martin was another good friend of mine and if my poor memory serves, we played Subbuteo on his snooker table, although I could be wrong. One thing I do recall is that he had the Tottenham team in their pale blue away kit. It doubled up as Club Brugge, which no doubt would have been handy for any UEFA Cup tournaments that went on.

Then there was another school friend of mine, Trevor Scannell. I had a brief spell hanging around with him circa 1983, and one time I recall visiting his house during the school summer holidays. I was delighted to discover that he, too, played Subbuteo but when he unveiled his Astropitch, rolled up in its cardboard tube, I felt an envy so strong, it almost bordered on physical violence. I wanted that Astropitch more than anything else for, ooh, the next 20 minutes, and would happily have stolen it if I knew I wouldn’t be the sole suspect for the crime.


I was very fortunate in that my early obsession with football coincided with the introduction of Subbuteo’s ‘lightweight’ teams. These were more modern-looking than the previous ones whose players wore baggy shirts and shorts and look like they were designed in the 1950’s (which they probably were). The early-80’s heralded the arrival of this new sleeker version of Subbuteo player along with a wide range of accessories to complete your immersive experience.

I can’t say for certain when I got that first Club Edition set, but my best estimate is 1979. I remember its vivid green box sat on top of the wardrobe in my bedroom, but at the age of only eight, I probably played it rarely. It was only when I attained more teams and a regular playing partner in Alan that the big green box was regularly brought down from its lofty position.

As for the end of my playing days, that would have probably been around 1986. By that point, Alan Young and I had gone our separate ways and my twelve years of school education were coming to an end. I would soon be leaving school to get my first job as a young adult, which meant other seemingly juvenile pastimes like Panini sticker collecting were looked upon as being ‘kids stuff’. But oh, what great pastimes. To have those days back again would be a pleasure beyond compare.


Why should Subbuteo be such an addictive thing to get involved with? Put simply, it offered a make-believe world that couldn’t be penetrated by life’s dissatisfactions. Whether you were building your collection of teams and accessories or playing a game with your mate, Subbuteo was a football world created just for you and enjoyed specifically by you.

Quite why children have a necessity to pretend and envelop themselves in a false reality I don’t know. It makes more sense for adults to keep the real world at arms length, what with all the stresses that come along via marriage, children, families, mortgages, work and heaven knows what else. Maybe that’s why those silly ‘adult colouring books’ have finally made an appearance. By focusing on one seemingly trivial activity, the brain forgets all the bad stuff... and yet as kids, we don’t see certain things as trivial. We see them as valuable - valuable in that they make us smile and be happy. Nothing more, nothing less.

Subbuteo did that for me when I was young. Whether it be the hope of finding a new poster or catalogue at my local toy shop or the turning of a wheel behind the Stadium Scoreboard, Subbuteo was sheer and utter unadulterated bliss. This much I remember.

-- Chris Oakley


  1. Spent many school lessons hunkered down at the back of the class picking my team for my weekly Subbuteo match. I think setting the whole thing up was often as much fun as the game. I take a couple of battered sets into the school I work at and the kids love it. Sometimes I think it serves as a dolls house for boys!

  2. Great post. I loved playing Subbuteo (from about 1981 - 1987). I had the scoreboard, floodlights, corner kicker and about eight teams. We used to paint odd players from incomplete sets and also used to put the tiny numbers on their backs (the adhesive ones). I always played it on the carpet.