How Subbuteo made flicking to kick part of the vocabulary of football
The table football game Subbuteo is now 76 years old, but despite its age it still holds a place in the hearts of a broad church of enthusiasts.
Perhaps the high point came on April 10, 1980. At the start of that evening’s Top of the Pops, after a chart rundown came a studio appearance by Irish band The Undertones performing their newly-released single ‘My Perfect Cousin’, and at the end of the second verse came the line that would come to stick in everybody’s head.
“He always beats me at Subbuteo/’Cos he flicked to kick, and I didn’t know.”
When the single had been released two weeks earlier, the cover featured a painting of a Subbuteo player in the colours of the band’s local football team, Derry City. It went on to become their biggest hit single, reaching number 9 in the charts in both the UK and Ireland.
And everybody knew what Feargal Sharkey was referring to.
More than 40 years on, now at the ripe old age of 76, this game has now been part of football culture for generations. It’s been cancelled and picked up again, bought and sold, and it currently has both a revamped version for sale in toy shops and a thriving cottage industry in accessories, and although its fame is obviously diminished from that peak it seems to retain a place in people’s hearts. But why should this be, and how did it become a phenomenon in the first place?
Devised by Peter Adolph upon his return from the Second World War, Subbuteo first hit the marketplace in March 1947. Adolph had originally wanted to call the game ‘The Hobby’, but this was rejected by the patent office for being too generic. Not dissuaded, he returned with the name “Subbuteo”, taken from ‘falco subbuteo’ – the latin name for the British bird of prey, the hobby. The bird was later incorporated into the game’s logo.
Originally sold by mail order with orders fulfilled from a spare bedroom, the first version of Subbuteo was very different to the game with which later generations would become so familiar. The players themselves came on a cardboard sheet which had to be cut out and affixed to small plastic bases. The goals were made of wire with paper ‘netting’ attached. Most significantly of all, there was no pitch. Instead there was only a stick of chalk and instructions of the recommended dimensions for the game to be drawn onto an army blanket, of which there were many floating around shortly after the end of six years of war.
Adolph had an immediate hit on his hands. He had placed an advertisement in the Boy’s Own Paper the previous August at a cost of seven shillings and sixpence (37.5p in decimal currency), and orders immediately started pouring in. A delay in the order of the cardboard figures to attach to the bases meant that they couldn’t be sent out immediately, and Adolph had to place a second advertisement in the Boy’s Own Paper apologising for the wait after receiving a large number of complaints following his first.
The game’s evolution throughout the next few years wasn’t particularly quick. A pitch had been added by the early 1950s, but it would take until 1961 for the players to become the now familiar three-dimensional, hand-painted, plastic models rather than being pressed out from a cardboard sheet. This only seemed to make the game more popular, and in 1969 Adolph sold out to Waddingtons for £250,000 (£5.25m, adjusted for inflation to 2023), in the middle of its boom period.
With the muscle of the producers of Monopoly and Cluedo behind it, Subbuteo continued to grow. The game expanded into rugby, cricket, hockey, speedway, snooker and angling (yes, angling) versions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the peculiar array of sports offered, far from all these would be successful. But it would be the accessories that would really start to reel people in. Those who played the game naturally wanted to play with the colours of the teams they supported, so it hadn’t taken long for other teams to be offered for sale, and by the 1970s this number had grown to the hundreds.
But it didn’t end there. Waddingtons soon recognised that this was more than ‘just’ a game. It had become, somewhat ironically, a hobby, and it was clear that there was a market for players who wanted to start developing their Subbuteo pitches into Subbuteo grounds. The infamously battery-hungry floodlights were introduced in 1971. In 1977, these were joined by plastic grandstands and terraces. By this time, just about anything associated with the match-day experience of a real football match could be purchased: a fence to go around the pitch; different styles of goalposts and match balls; even bags of spectators – available hand-painted or in plain plastic to paint yourselves – to put in the stands and on the terraces you’d just bought.
And the level of attention to detail could get granular. Advertisement hoardings, scoreboards, television gantries, corner flags, the St John’s Ambulance people, the police, special figures to take throw-ins and corners, ball boys, VIPs, scaled-down replicas of major trophies. If it was associated with the actual game of football itself, it could be added to your collection. In 1974, they even released a recording of various crowd noises and songs so that you could play your game to a more authentic soundtrack, as long as you had a record player nearby.
But it wasn’t all good news. Everything was hand-painted by a large network of home-workers living in the Tunbridge Wells area, but when a damning article claiming that these homeworkers were paid “slave labour wages” was published in a Sunday newspaper in the mid-1970s, the government’s Low Pay Unit became involved. The story was slightly exaggerated, but the damage was done. It caused problems at the Subbuteo factory and a combination of this, issues with maintaining the wage bill, and a desire to expand abroad resulted in the company part-mechanising the process instead. The new, machine-based figures required a different shape of player, and they soon earned the nickname of “zombies” for their rigid, lifeless gait. They lasted from 1976 until 1981.
The rise to prominence of video games in the 1980s put an obvious dent into sales. In 1994, shortly after Adolph died, the Waddingtons games division was bought out by the toy giants Hasbro. They withdrew the game from sale in 2000, citing too much competition in the marketplace, and a 2005 version of the game featuring cardboard players with real players printed on them flopped five years later. But the game has returned since, with Hasbro licensing out the rights to produce it to external companies, with the latest version coming in numerous officially licensed versions related to clubs and competitions.
The biggest single reason why it survived the video game boom was the hobbyists, who kept Subbuteo’s flame alive throughout the years when the game wasn’t widely available. The internet has brought these people together, and there are now numerous blogs and websites devoted to the subject. And the hobbyists can go deep. Very, very deep indeed.
It’s a little simplistic to suggest that the longevity of this particular game is purely down to nostalgia. Subbuteo certainly persisted while many others didn’t. Rivals such as Striker, more technologically sophisticated as it was – pressing down on the head of a Striker player made them kick the ball – were popular for a while during the 1970s but went the way of the space hoppers. Even video games couldn’t destroy it completely. Indeed, in 1990 a video game version of the tabletop version of Subbuteo was released, and this wouldn’t be the last.
A big part of this is that an extremely broad spectrum of players get involved and do so in different ways, from the highly competitive – there is a World Cup, and it’s being held in England next year – to the casual player. At the other end of the spectrum are the stadium design and model-building community, those who are mainly there for the accessories. There comes a point when building a stadium around a Subbuteo makes it more difficult to play the actual game itself on it. There are people who will bend themselves into an uncomfortable position to play while surrounded by paraphernalia. There are others who may not even play actual games at their main stadium.
You can build an entire stadium with floodlights, spectators, security, commentators in a gantry, safe-standing areas and as of 2020 even – if you’re a pervert – a VAR monitor. You can even build the immediate surroundings to your ground, perhaps a model railway set or some houses and shops. The only restrictions are the size of your wallet, the amount of space you have available, the limits of your imagination and, in some cases, the patience and understanding of your significant other.
But why didn’t video games completely kill it off? Well it might even be argued that they did in 2000. Video games at home started to proliferate from the late 1970s on, but they were still very much a minority interest then, whereas a decade later they were far more commonplace. By 2000, Hasbro had pulled the plug on Subbuteo altogether. But then it came back, failed, came back again, and this time it found a different groove. There is something about the game being tactile and three-dimensional, too. It’s not difficult to imagine how, during a power cut in the 1970s, a Subbuteo game played by candlelight or under the game’s own floodlights could have carried an atmospheric sense of mystique about it to children, especially if dad was sitting away in the corner huffing away on a cigarette and sending a (toxic) fog across the pitch.
Subbuteo survived because it found itself a niche in the market. There remain enough dads, uncles and grandads with unsuspecting children who may or may not be crossing their fingers for Nintendo vouchers, enough middle-aged men with enough disposable income and a desire to try and relive a bit of their youths during varying degrees of midlife crisis, enough analysts of the game who’ll use it for illustrative purposes, enough competitive players, enough casual players, and enough people who just want to build a stadium and maybe some surroundings, and who have a patient and understanding partner. It’s a broad church, but they’re keeping a venerable game alive.
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