The Art of Subbuteo

The good thing about being exactly 23 months older than your brother is that his birthday is always one month before yours.

There are subtle advantages like for instance I used to give him a birthday card with ten pounds in it which he would then save for exactly 29 days and hand back to me on my birthday, I got my own ten pounds back, every year, it didn’t feel like he’d cost me ten pounds at all.

And the year that I found the perpetual birthday card in a supermarket in France was a godsend, a “bon anniversaire” card with a cardboard wheel inside on which was printed fifteen years worth of birthdays from 40 to 55, you turned the wheel until the correct age showed through a hole on the front of the card – we got years worth of use out of that, in fact if I ever go on Dragons Den I’m going to present that idea to them, its a rubbish idea of course because Hallmark would only ever sell you one birthday card every fifteen years but I’d like to see if the Dragons can spot the flaw.

But no, the best thing about your younger brother having his birthday just 29 days before yours is that you get to tell him, sometimes bully him, into getting the birthday present that you really want on his birthday, leaving you free to pick something completely different for yourself on your birthday without the pressure of having to get the present that your peer group are getting this year.

Subbuteo was a case in point.

It would be around 1968, everyone was getting a Subbuteo set that year, the pressure was on for our household to get one too for what were you to do when your mates turned to you one day with those dreaded words “we’re coming round to yours tonight to play Subbuteo”, how could you then reply “well actually, we don’t have one”.

Now I wasn’t really all that impressed by Subbuteo, it hurt for one thing, it hurt your fingernail when you flicked those silly little plastic men, hence the reason for me shoving them instead of flicking which always resulted in me being penalised in accordance with the Rules of Subbuteo, I got penalised so many times that my mates stopped flicking and started shoving too so that we could scrub that rule from the book – it wasn’t how I wanted to spend four hours on the floor of someone else’s bedroom every night anyway.

So I got our Ned to get a Subbuteo for his birthday, just so we’d have one.

He didn’t want a Subbuteo for his birthday, I don’t know what he wanted for his birthday that year but why should I care about small details like that, it started a couple of weeks before that annual trip to Lewis’s department store in Leeds, the trip where our mother would state, “lets go pick your birthday present from the toy department”.

I nagged at him constantly, pressurised him, bullied him “Go on, get a Subbuteo set, you know you want one, it’ll be great, we’ll play with it every night, you can get extra teams at christmas, its the wonder of the age, etc etc” and eventually and with a subtle steering of his arm in the toy department towards the Subbuteo stand he agreed to get the standard set for his birthday, red and blue anonymous teams, a huge ball which if to scale would have been at least six feet in diameter, and goals that if scaled up would be the size of a house.

And finally with a Subbuteo set in our house I could hold my head up among my peers, bring mates home to my bedroom of a winters evening and get my brothers Subbuteo out from under his bed while simultaneously elbowing him out of the bedroom and jamming the door shut while he stood outside in the hallway crying.

It wasn’t the football that eventually won me over with Subbuteo, but the opportunity to be more creative with the game. Eventually after a couple more present opportunities we had obtained the “proper” white, much smaller footballs and the “proper” smaller competition goals, with pocket money we purchased the referee and linesman set (totally pointless) and a Subbuteo goalkeeper training set which involved you flicking the football at a plastic board covered in rubber bands in the hope that it would bounce back at your goalie – it didn’t really work.

But that wasn’t enough, we needed more teams, our mates all had “proper” teams, proper first division teams, Mick Gamble had nearly all the first division football teams in his bedroom and woe betide you if you knelt on one of them because Mick Gamble didn’t like his Subbuteo players to be stuck down with Araldite like most of ours were.

So I painted our players, painted them with my oil paints, the present of choice for my birthday after I’d got our Ned to get Subbuteo for his birthday, we painted our teams nearly every week until our players were fat with paint, I even painted moustaches and beards on some of the players just for artistic effect.

And when Subbuteo rugby came on the scene did we go out and buy a completely new Subbuteo game ? No did we hell, we just cannibalised one of our teams to make up the extra numbers in two others, repainted them and went out and bought the scrum machine and goalposts – bingo, you’ve got Subbuteo rugby.

I built two grandstands out of cardboard boxes and we bought the Subbuteo trainers bench complete with a manager in a sheepskin coat and at christmas we got the Subbuteo floodlights which were totally useless as actual floodlights because they only had a small torch bulb and the battery ran down after five minutes play, if real first division football teams had used scaled up Subbuteo floodlights then only the corners would have been illuminated and someone would have to pop out to the local corner shop for new batteries every five minutes – they would have fallen over regularly too.

Eventually and many years later, our Subbuteo football players went the same way as most plastic toys in our possession, we set fire to them, proper little arsonists me and Ned were, most of our toys perished in flame in our back garden, not on a bonfire but under real life play conditions, so we’d be playing a game of Subbuteo when suddenly one of the players would burst a-flame followed by all of his team mates as the ran to his aid, the striker being the hero of the moment as he flicked the length of the pitch to score the winning goal with his shorts on fire, literally.

I will never get to appear on Antiques Roadshow with the toys of my youth, “What do we have here ?” they’d ask, “Some ash and some melted plastic” I’d say, “and a photo of my smarting ear’ole after my father found out that we’d been setting fire to our toys in the garden again”


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