Flick 2 Kick: A potted history of Subbuteo

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It was the perfect timewaster for then pre-teens and tweens. My Dad pasted the green baize cloth onto a large piece of chipboard, around which was the fencing, stands, scoreboard, floodlights. Accessories would arrive in the post via a lot of saving up pocket money. I actually cut my right hand open eagerly opening a package I remember.

A childhood photo here (you can tell it’s the seventies by the shirt!)…

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And how many times did your Mum hoover up your star striker or tread on the poor tiny heads, rendering them unfit for the trip to Blackpool? On our estate there were leagues going on in the days before you discovered girls. I grew up in Farnham (Surrey) and so naturally was an Aldershot fan and tried my best to create my home ground as near to the Rec as I could get it. In this photo, someone has three stands side by side at one end to give that big stadium effect…

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And this one’s even more impressive… my guess is it’s maybe Malaga?

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There were other table-top games back then, namely one called Striker which I think was made by Chad Valley. In that game the plastic figures were far bigger and to kick the ball you had to position it by the player’s foot and press down on his head!

Subbuteo ventured into other sports as well, namely cricket and rugby and I tinkered with both but they were never as big as the Subbuteo football game which fascinated children and grown up children in the seventies, eighties and beyond.

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The balls were weird too. I mean, to scale the standard balls were almost the same size as the player and the larger ones were… just way too large! And who couldn’t be excited about ordering a set of new goals – look at these, one in red netting and one in blue – ideal for Shots fans!

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Your teams, when you could afford a new one, came in a cardboard presentation box with a plastic insert – here’s the Shakhtar Donetsk team of vintage…

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Subbuteo has also touched the music industry with a Subbuteo football figure gracing the picture sleeve of The Undertones 1980 single My Perfect Cousin and referencing the game in the lyrics:

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Now I’ve got a cousin called Kevin
He’s sure to go to heaven
Always spotless clean and neat
The smoothest you can get them
He’s got a fur lined sheepskin jacket
My ma said they cost a packet
She won’t even let me explain
That me and Kevin were just not the same

Oh my perfect cousin
What I like to do he doesn’t
He’s his family’s private joy
His mothers little golden boy

He’s gotta a grade in economics
Maths – physics and bionics
He thinks that I’m a cabbage
’cause I hate university challenge
Even at the age of ten
Smart boy Kevin was a smart boy then
He always beat me at Subbuteo
’cause he flicked the kick
And I didn’t know

Oh my perfect cousin ..

His mother bought him a synthesizer
Got the Human League into advise her
Now he’s making lots of noise
Playing along with the art school boys
Girls try to attract his attention
But what a shame it’s in vain total rejection
He will never be left on the shelf
’cause Kevin he’s in love with himself

Amd better still, family favourites Half Man Half Biscuit wished for a Dukla Prague Away kit for Christmas!

 

The game

Playing Subbuteo is a physical simulation of association football, involving dexterity and skill in flicking the playing figures, which stand on weighted bases, across the tabletop pitch towards the ball.

What makes the game different from most other tabletop sports games are the hundreds of team kits and accessories. While most games feature only two teams (usually “red vs blue” or “white vs black”), Subbuteo has several hundred team designs, almost all representing real teams, with the notable exception of comic book legends Melchester Rovers. While there were many famous teams such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and Real Madrid, these were complemented by many unique sides, such as Boston Minutemen, Landskrona, Antwerp, Hartford Bicentennials, Admira Wacker, and even unpainted models. There are also many additional accessories, such as new balls and goals, special figures for free kicks and throw-ins, stands and crowd, linesmen, ball-boys, streakers and policemen, floodlights, TV cameras and even a mini-Her Majesty the Queen to present the FA Cup.

 

The rules of Subbuteo table football attempts to correspond as closely as possible with association football. However, the necessary simplifications involved in some ways complicate things further. Players maintain possession as long as the figure they flick makes contact with the ball and the ball does not subsequently hit an opposing figure, although the same figure cannot be used for more than three consecutive flicks. Shots at goal can be taken only once the ball is over the ‘shooting line’, a line parallel to and equidistant between the goal line and half-way line. The goalkeeper figures are attached to, and manoeuvered with, a rod that fits underneath the back of the goal. The offside law is in effect, but only pertaining to figures that are forward of the opposing team’s shooting line (as opposed to the half-way line, as in actual football).

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So what of the game’s origins?

The game of Subbuteo was invented by Peter Adolph (1916–1994), who was demobbed from the Royal Air Force after the end of World War II. Searching for a new business opportunity he turned his attention to creating a new table-top football game. He adapted his game from Newfooty, a table football game that had been invented in 1929 by William Lane Keeling of Liverpool. He made numerous improvements, including changing the heavy lead bases under the model players to lighter materials, using for his prototype a button from his mother’s coat and a washer.

The first Subbuteo sets, known as the Assembly Outfits, consisted of goals made of wire with paper nets, a cellulose acetate ball, cardboard playing figures in two basic kits (red shirts with white shorts, and blue shirts with white shorts) and bases made from buttons weighed down with lead washers. The story is that Peter found one of his mother’s coat buttons and used Woolworth buttons for the early set bases. No pitch was provided: instead, the purchaser was given instructions on how to mark out (with chalk, provided) a playing area on to a blanket (an old army blanket was recommended). The first sets were eventually available in March 1947, several months after the original advertisement appeared. The first figures were made of flat cardboard cut out of a long strip. Later these card players came in press-out strips before being replaced with two-dimensional celluloid figures, known to collectors as “flats”.

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Early production of Subbuteo was centred in Langton Green, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Following the advent of the OO scale players the player figures were individually hand painted by local outworkers in their own homes. In its early years, Subbuteo had a fierce rivalry with Newfooty. In the run up to Christmas 1961 Adolph introduced a three-dimensional handpainted plastic figure into the range. After several design modifications, this figure evolved by 1967 into the classic “heavyweight” figure pictured.

Newfooty ceased trading in 1961 after a failed television advertising campaign but its demise is thought to be linked to the launch of the moulded Subbuteo players. There were several further evolutions of figure design. In 1978 the “zombie” figure was introduced to facilitate the machine painting of figures. After much negative feedback, the zombie figure was replaced in 1980 by the “lightweight” figure that continued until the 1990s. The game was very popular until it suddenly stopped production. The brand was initially relaunched by Hasbro, who for a short time produced flat photorealistic card-style figures on bases, rather than three dimensional figures

The 1960’s

In this decade, Subbuteo produced the already-legendary three-dimensional figures.

The first figures were called Earlier. Their bases, which were larger, were divided into two parts, interior and exterior, which created the possibility of giving them different colours. The inside of the base was hollow, with a metal weight to give it some weight.

The figure had a short-sleeve, V-neck shirt, with little detail and a strange posture and a flat appearance. The player was placed atop the top part of the base using a thin rod (copy of the diagrams).

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This figure was produced until 1967, when it was replaced by the so-called “heavyweight” figure. The “heavyweight” figure had more detail and wore a long-sleeve shirt with a round neck. The designer of these figures was Charles Stadden and the figures were painted and assembled by housewives in Tunbridge Wells.

This was the era in which Subbuteo could be said to have taken off, since the sets were sold in a very attractive package and could be found in toy shops and sporting goods shops all over the country.

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In August 1970, the “First International Table Football Tournament” took place in the Savoy Hotel in London. The prize was the John Waddington World Cup Trophy.

The countries that participated were Belgium, Ireland, Gibraltar, Holland, Israel, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, the USA, Wales, and the champion West Germany. In 1974, the Munich World Series was played, with Holland being the winner.

Accessories continued to be developed, with rods for changing the goalie, medium-sized balls, specific figures for corner kicks, and a much-anticipated accessory, the grandstand, which was sold with 5 spectators.

The “heavyweight” figure arrives

In 1981, the figure known as “lightweight” was created; it is a more detailed figure, with bent knees (similar to the “heavyweight” figure) but more thinner and with a lighter design. They were machine painted, although during the first two years of production they were also hand painted. These figures’ details allowed for logos, crests, and stripes. This figure was used from 1981 until 1996.

Among the accessories created during this period were crowd barriers and mounted police. In this period there was a change in Subbuteo’s location: the company moved to Leeds as it no longer needed the labour in Kent.

The Waddington years

From 1983 to 1987, Waddington progressively reduced Subbuteo’s product range (by removing its cricket, rugby, and hockey games from the market), and they also reduced the number of teams available (from 298 to 169) and the number of sets (in 1987 there were only two boxes, the Club Edition and the 1986 World Cup Edition).

In 1987, Waddington decided to relaunch its new line of Subbuteo products and to target a new audience. Among the game’s new accessories were a new grandstand, now red and blue, and the grey corner piece, which was complemented in 1991 with the arrival of “Greek pillar” floodlights.

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With this new launch, Waddington chose to acquire new licences, starting with those of the 1990 World Cup in Italy and the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Two more licences were added in 1995: the Euro 1996 and an edition that included all of the teams from the Premiership.

The Hasbro years

Hasbro acquired Waddington in the mid 1990s.

It began with a key change to the base of the figures. They were now just one piece and one colour, apparently solid and without the metal weight, with a larger bottom and a thinner curved edge. This increased the figure’s stability and made straight movements much easier. Hasbro acquired the 1996 Euro and 1998 World Cup licences.

The official Manchester United Edition was later released with new accessories and also included the club’s crest on the centre circle of the pitch and on the balls. The new “Club” set even came with a surprise: the pitch was made of a new material – not as good as the baize from the 1970s, but better than nylon. It was a shame it only appeared in this set.

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In 2000, Hasbro launched new sets that were a relaunch of the sets with the Premier clubs, an updated version of the Manchester United Edition, and a deluxe set that included the return of the grandstand (this time in red and white) and three teams.

Some of the most popular Premiership teams were launched, like Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle, and Tottenham.

In 2003, Edilio Parodi acquired the rights from Hasbro to sell new Subbuteo products on the Italian market and to produce their own range (the return of the Astropitch, a new playing figure, a redesigned base more suitable to the modern game, etc.). The teams were painted in China. Hasbro’s licence to Edilio Parodi lasted until 2005.

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At the beginning of that year, Hasbro launched Subbuteo again, this time under the name “Photo-Real.” The figures were made of cardboard and had the faces of real footballers from 8 top European clubs.

After this edition, Subbuteo disappeared from shops, except for certain editions, such as the one that was made in England by Marc & Spancer shops in 2009 and was quite successful.

2012 – A new beginning…

After several years of not being available in shops, a new Subbuteo game reappears with full force in 2012. The packaging is mostly green – any other colour wouldn’t have been fitting… The logo maintains the brand’s classic colours and lettering, but breathes a more modern air that is adapted to the 21st century.

The product follows this idea, respecting Subbuteo’s classic identity while adding new features that improve the game considerably. Some of these features are:

A high-quality cloth playing field. Subbuteo is a game of precision, and the quality of the playing field is an extremely important point.

New base design that improves stability and makes movement easier.

More detailed figures: Teams have players of different races, with long and short hair, blonde/brown/red hair, different-coloured football boots, etc.

Nearly unbreakable figures: The new Subbuteo includes this great new feature. Figures are made with a more flexible and durable material that resists breakage.

The new Subbuteo has been received with great excitement by fans all over the world. It’s been many years of waiting, but Subbuteo has returned… this time to stay?