Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Fri 22 September 2006

Finger Flicking Good

Long, long ago when I was a mere slip of a lad, I used to spend much of my time playing games with dozens and dozens of men, many of whom I knew as old friends but all of which had an intimate relationship with my right index finger. Between the ages of 10 and 14, I liked nothing more than to play Subbuteo.

It's often said that for a man of my age, childhood was all the better for the absence of PlayStations and GameBoys, but I'd have to disagree. I'm sure that in the early 80's I'd have practically wet myself with excitement if someone given me a games console, but of course they didn't exist. So were we downhearted with our distinctly lo-tech alternative? Of course not.

That's because Subbuteo allowed us to enter a world of boyhood imagination and excitement, a world of endless fun and enjoyment. But what made the game so incredibly popular amongst many thousands of kids all over the world? The key was surely in its ability to appeal to the game player and collector alike.

It was relatively easy to start playing Subbuteo Table Soccer. All you needed was a boxed set like the one I had when I was about ten years old. Mine was the 'Club Edition' and it contained a pitch made of green baize-like cloth, two teams (numbered 001 and 002), two sets of goalposts, some corner flags and two footballs - one white and one orange.

With this, you were off and running - as long as you had someone to play with. Subbuteo was never a game for the lone player, but that only added to its appeal. With a friend, you could share the experience of pitting your tactical skills against human opposition which, let's face it, gave you greater satisfaction than playing against a computer ever would.

Subbuteo was a simple enough game to play. You were in charge of a team of miniature plastic footballers mounted on virtually semi-circular bases. Once put into position, you would use your index finger to flick the player in order to hit the ball. If your player failed to hit the ball, you lost possession and your opponent took their turn. If your player managed to hit the ball and propel it into the net - REJOICE! You scored a goal!

Repeat for the allotted time, tot up your goal tally and there you have it - perfection in a box. On the playing side there was much more to the game than just getting your player to make contact with the ball. There were techniques to learn such as curling the player's path of momentum around an obstacle or chipping the ball over a wall for free kicks. For *real* depth of interest, though, a child would only need to wander into his local toy shop and gaze agog at the multitude of teams and accessories on offer.

The general rule of thumb stated that the more teams you owned, the greater the variety you'd get. I was lucky enough to own several teams, most of which I don't remember buying personally. Yes, I had the team I supported - West Ham - and yes, I had the England team. Fair enough, but how on Earth did I end up owning the Crystal Palace team, or West Germany?

The Subbuteo teams I owned (in numerical order):
'The reds'; 'The blues'; West Germany; Crystal Palace; West Ham; England; Watford; Manchester United; Spain; Brazil; West Bromwich Albion (away).

I know how I came to own the West Bromwich Albion team in their yellow and blue away strip. That was when I was off school feeling ill and my Dad came home from work armed with a present to cheer me up. I'll never forget that. I'd never have bought that team if I'd had my choice, but somehow it was all the more perfect because (a) their strip featured new-fangled horizontal pinstripes and (b) he'd gone to the trouble of buying it especially for me. Good old Dad.

Anyway, although I probably owned no more than a dozen teams, I might as well have owned hundreds thanks to my abundant imagination. Take that 002 team, for instance. Now to a ten-year-old, that could have been Scotland, France, Italy, Everton, Leicester... and therein lies the beauty of it. If you wanted to re-enact Ipswich Town's finest hour or make believe that Iceland were your team of choice, all you needed was to drift off to that Shangri-la in your head and you were away.

With such a wide range of teams at your disposable it was perfectly reasonable to then create a tournament that you and your best chum could play out. I must have played loads of tournaments in my time: The FA Cup, World Cup... you name it, I did it. All the results would be written down for prosperity and the scorers names pored over at great length. (We knew who'd scored each goal because of the number transfers that I'd stuck to the back of each player, by the way.)

The documentation of one competition got me into trouble once. I was sitting in my French class at school taking a sneaky look at the results of my latest World Cup tournament when along came my teacher who snatched the piece of paper from my hand. "Ah" he said above the din of my fellow pupils, "What's this? 'Subbuteo World Cup 1984' ... 'host nation Scotland'... 'Italy 1 France 3'... very good, very good..." To say I was embarrassed was an understatement, but you know, I had a sneaking suspicion that he secretly admired the artwork and Letraset transfer lettering on that page of results. I could be wrong, mind you...

Over the years my Subbuteo collection grew, not least thanks to an aunt of mine who paid a visit to us once. She brought with her a whole ton of stuff that her son no longer wanted and wondered if I'd like it. There was a stadium stand, perimeter fencing, some old teams... all kinds of things. I was over the moon! Now I could play my favourite game at an even more realistic level. The sad thing is I can't remember whatever happened to all my Subbuteo gear. Did I donate it to a friend or did it all simply go in the bin one day in my mid-teens? Nah, surely not. I couldn't have treated it with such disdain as that, could I?

Subbuteo was my life back in the early 1980's. Schoolwork could go hang for all I cared. If only I'd kept all that stuff. If nothing else it'd be worth a pretty penny now, especially given the fact that its makers, Hasbro, stopped making it back in 1999. Ah well, at least there's always eBay for those of us that are willing to pay for a piece of our childhood. What's the harm in buying one or two teams to keep us young at heart, eh?

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