Where else could we start but with the base and figure that made Subbuteo players so iconic. That semi-circular base, with the player stood there, arms hanging down, simply beautiful. Then add to that the fantastic array of kits and there's no wonder that we were all hooked by it.
All the figures and kits were actually hand made and hand painted right up to the late 1970s, so they genuinely were a work of art. Nothing could beat seeing an iconic kit such as Peru or Brazil in miniature form, lined up on a Subbuteo pitch.
And the great thing with some kits is that they could represent multiple teams. For instance, team LW689 had Orange shirts and white shorts, so you could use it as Holland for international matches, Blackpool for English league matches, or Volendam if you wanted to go continental. Or LW214 Could count as Bayern Munich, Fortuna Koln, or Canada.
This is what set Subbuteo apart from everything else, the level of detail you could go into with all of the accessories was incredible, unrivalled for any other game of it's kind, including the likes of Scaletrix.
Not only were there the obvious accessories, such as different goals (square continental ones anyone?), and replica balls, or more expensive pieces such as stadium stands, floodlights and scoreboards, and then really detailed accessories such as the transfers for shirt numbers, corner flags, and football trophies. Floodlights were the pinnacle of all the accessories, no-one you knew ever owned them, but they were in most of the adverts, looking absolutely magnificent all set up for a night match.
Whilst the accessories undoubtedly looked beautiful, many of them often made the game harder to play. So whilst having a set of the two-tiered stands and fencing running down the length of the pitch looked amazing, it made it harder to lean over and flick the players, and knocking the stand would often result in plastic supporters tumbling down the stand into a heap at the bottom on their backs.
Recent years has seen an influx of new accessories, with the advent of 3D printers meaning that individuals could even start creating their own accessories.
And where were all the accessories bought from back then? The Subbuteo shop. Every decent-sized town and city usually had one, normally in the form of a really good toy shop or even a large independent sports shop. So, for instance, if you grew up in Sheffield, you could pop into the fantastic Redgates toy shop and see all the Subbuteo stuff alongside Scaletrix, or you could go into Sugg Sports and see all the Subbuteo gear next to their array of football shirts.
Collecting teams and accessories became an obsession for many kids, it made having to go into town with your mum completely bearable if you'd saved up enough money to add something to the Subbueteo collection. Was there ever a better sight than a shop with a mass of teams to select from? Literally a beautiful, magnificent wall of those green boxes. Oten so big that the shop assistant might have to get ladder out to get a specific team box from the top.
Summed up perfectly in the lyrics of the great Half Man Half Biscuit song, "All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit"... "You’d always get palmed off with a headless centre forward, and a goalkeeper with no arms and a face like his". Yes, no matter how much you tried to look after your teams, their were always casualties. And it wasn't from flicking them too hard, but usually from an accidental hand squashing your favourite defender, or kneeling on a player as you crept around the pitch, or standing on one who you didn't realise had come off the pitch. We even had a cat wipe out a player when he invaded the pitch.
Trying to fix snapped players was a futile exercise. Glueing them was the obvious choice, but unless you'd discovered the epoxy power of Araldite then nothing else was strong enough. Another trick was to get the soldering iron out to melt both broken ends and then fix them together, a successful remoulding making you feel like some sort of plastic-blacksmith demi-God. Melting them also meant you could attempt to remould the shape of certain players legs, we once heated up the legs of a West German player to give him the bandy-legged appearance of Pierre Littbarski, just for a touch more realism.
Oh my, the replica ones looked so good. The mini adidas Tangos, especially the coloured ones, were particularly desirable. And those Italia '90 balls. Or some of the more obscure replicas that you could find such as the Ennerre Tamer that was used in Serie A, or the NASL ball complete with the star design.
It was great when your players hit one of these replica beauties into the back of the net, but to be honest it was also really satisfying just pinging them into an empty net with your finger, or popping them off the full length of the pitch using the tip of your finger and using back spin to return them back into the goal! Happy days indeed.
Incredibly, Subbuteo started out in its very early days being played on surplus army blankets. The game came supplied you some chalk and the instructions told you to draw the pitch markings onto the pitch yourself.
Over time, the famous green pitch was supplied with the sets, complete with pre-printed pitch markings, although this wasn't without issues either. Not putting the pitch away neatly (i.e. leaving it in a wrinkled mess crammed into the box), or even folding it away too tightly would eventually lead to the pitch needing to be ironed. Ironing and constantly pulling it into position eventually stretched the pitch so much that it was no longer exactly rectangular, giving the appearance that the pitch had been marked out by someone who'd had a proper session the night before.
Even though Subbuteo was described as table-top football, it was often played on the floor (not everyone had a table big enough), and different carpets would give a totally different feel to the playing surface when it was laid on top of it.
And for the rich kids out there, or the real experts who played at county level (we all knew someone who claimed this), there was the Subbuteo Astropitch. It came in a tube. It was thick enough to roll up. It didn’t crease, allowing free-flowing passing moves. And it was bloody expensive.
Subbuteo sets always looked great though the years, and none more so than when they had parts of a stadium involved. Oh my, they looked so good. The two-tier stands, or the open terracing, the scoreboard, the mythical floodlights, it all looked fantastic. But they were expensive, and you were lucky to have just one of them. So if you got one for Christmas, or had saved up enough pocket money for one, it didn’t quite look the same as those glorious TV adverts, and resembled a non-league stadium, rather than Wembley.
The unpainted fans were a bit strange too, almost giving the appearance that 100 fans had decided to come along to the match without any clothes on. If someone was lucky enough to have a few stands, or a few of you had one each so put them together to form half a stadium, the main thing that soon became apparent was that it was really hard to play, leaning over the stand at an awkward angle. Our trick was to have the stands there at the start, pushing the players through the tunnel, and then moved them back out of the way.
Before FIFA, Pro-Evolution, Match Day or Football Manager, if it was hammering it down with rain and you couldn't play actual football in the park then Subbuteo provided you with a decent alternative to get your daily fix of footy. In fact, it was a more than a decent alternative, with all of the accessories it felt like you could bring the professional game into your house, and so, for the first time, rainy days didn't actually matter for the first time.
Summed up perfectly again by the Half Man Half Biscuit song, “All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit”. Scanning over the green wall of boxes in the local Subbuteo shop would open your eyes to a whole new world of obscure European and South American club teams who you’d never heard of before. Shops would sometimes have little catalogues with the list of teams in, so you’d be wondering how good Wacker Innsbruck were, or discovering that Winterthur played in the Swiss league, it was almost educational, an interesting way to learn a bit of geography! Kits covering multiple clubs also meant that if you’d bought a certain team then you could also play as teams you’d not heard of, so if you were an Ipswich Town fan then suddenly you’d find yourself playing friends as Saarbrucken, or Schalke 04.
So simple, but so effective. That iconic stadium-shaped design with the white lettering and the red and green background colours, topped off with the Subbuteo figure symbol. Absolutely mint.
You knew when you were really hooked on Subbuteo when you agreed to go and play an "away" match at someone else's house. Which team you would choose to take was normally an easy decision. You always had a favourite team to play as. Your top team. In your head they'd never been beaten, you always played better with them, so in many cases you'd take your top team to the away match. There were exceptions though. If you knew that the other kid was definitely going to beat you (and remember, there was always one person who had the reputation that "they've never lost at home") then you'd sometimes opt not to take your top team so that you could keep their unbeaten status intact.
Whilst most of us would just take our team in their normal, original box, some rich kid would let their players travel in style, with a special felt-lined carry case. When you got there, the normal routine was that the kid playing at home would decide how get the advantage of how long would be played, and exactly what rules were being played (despite the box having instructions, there always seemed to be slight rule changes at different houses!). If you were lucky then one of you would have one of the mini replica trophies to play for, making the match all the more special and adding a bit more pressure to the occasion. And if there were a few of you on the street who played then you'd set up a mini league to keep a record of all the home and away fixtures.
To be fair, even if you had no one to play against it was just great lining the teams up, or setting up different formations, trying set pieces, re-enacting great goals etc. You soon start considering yourself the Bielsa of the Subbuteo cloth.
Subbuteo always looked so good in the adverts. In particular, the TV adverts.... "Subbuteo! Oh-oh-oh-oh!". They were normally on almost constantly every Saturday morning in the run up to Christmas, during the advert breaks for the likes of Tiswas. They looked brilliant, the floodlit Stadiums packed to the rafters with little plastic supporters, on a pristine tabletop surface, as some cheeky young scamp lashed a cracking shot past a despairing keeper.
The magazine adverts were pretty good too. They'd started doing them in the late 1940s in "Boys Own" magazine, but by the 1980s they were regular fixtures in the likes of Shoot! and Match! They always did their job, immediately making you want to go out and get another accessory or team.
Aah, the mythical floodlights. When it came to Subbuteo accessories, these were the pinnacle,the holy grail of accessories. No one you knew had them, they were just seen on the TV adverts. And so the dream of playing a night match with a floodlit pitch remained just that - a dream.
The giant black scoreboard, another iconic Subbuteo accessory. The team names, and a list of competitions, al came on a black sheet that you cut out and then slid into place onto the scoreboard. The joy of seeing your team's name up there, and spinning the score on when you scored, was a real treat.
One of things that always struck us watching glimpses of European matches on TV in the late 70s or 80s was the beauty of continental goals and nets compared to those used in the UK leagues. So all of a sudden Subbuteo was letting us live the continental dream, either buying some proper continental ones or just customising the standard ones and pinning the nets back on to something to make them look square, or borrowing your dad’s car spray paint to change the colour of the nets.
We loved the the mix of true scale and outrageous scale in the Subbuteo sets. So whilst most of the scales for the accessories were pretty much spot on, there were huge differences in some things - like the balls or the trophies, which were often bigger than the players themselves!