The following is an extract from Ger McCarthy’s book ‘Off Centre Circle’ about a life growing up dreaming, playing and eventually reitiring from football. This chapter deals with the author’s fascination with Subbutteo.
“About a week ago I bought Nintendo Wii FIFA 08 for me and my son to play. It’s a brilliant game. I’ve bought a few computer football games in my time, but I’ve never played them like I used to play Subbuteo.”
David Baddiel (writer and comedian) from the book Teenage Flicks: Memories of the Sub-beautiful Game by Paul Willetts
In the late 1980’s I co-founded and helped the first Clonakilty Subbuteo league get off the ground. Subbuteo was, simply put, table football.
Eleven mini-plastic figurines of players in kits and team strips from every corner of the world were flicked around a felt pitch using your index finger. The players, complete with semi-spherical bases, were moved forward at mini-footballs around a green felt pitch with two plastic goals at either end.
Goalkeeper figurines were different in that they had a stick attached to the back of their base allowing them to move left or right to try and save any shots. There was even a rule book to govern the correct approach to playing the game:
“Flicking of Figures: Only the nail part of the forefinger or index finger shall be used to strike the base of the team figure. It is not allowed to flick any other part of the figure apart from the base.”
A Christmas television advertising campaign depicting two young boys playing Subbuteo with a full range of accessories caught the imagination of all the youths in the West Cork area in the late 1980’s.
The advert contained a stadium, floodlights and even an electronic scoreboard. This meant there would have to be yet another soccer related item on the McCarthy Christmas wish list.
The Subbuteo World Cup Box-Set Edition duly arrived on the morning of December 25th. The box-set displayed Brazilian international Zico curling a free kick over an Italian defensive wall from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The box-set contained a scoreboard (not electronic though), a surrounding fence for the felt pitch, the Mexican and Italian national teams as well as two tango world cup footballs.
I remember the excitement of trying to open my new Subbuteo set of teams and struggling to put the goals and fences together in a rush to begin flicking. One important point my brother and I had failed to consider before asking Santa for the Subbuteo set was the fact we didn’t have a hard surface big enough to attach the felt pitch to.
This meant curling up the four corners of the playing surface to accommodate the rest of our family and allow them to shuffle in and out of the living room on Christmas day. It quickly became apparent over the holiday period that many of my friends were also lucky enough to receive similar box-sets as Christmas presents.
It was decided at a hastily convened meeting to organise a local Subbuteo League and Cup competition.
I went on to claim a league and cup double in the inaugural season thanks to the many hours of practice on my home pitch ‘White Hot Lane’ which doubled as the mat in front of our living room fireplace.
The Subbuteo table football game provided countless hours of fun and enjoyment including travelling to away game at friend’s houses and Cup finals with crowds of up to ten to fifteen fans.
There were plenty of arguments in the opening Clonakilty Subbuteo season as individuals struggled to stick to the strict guidelines set out in the official rule-book. Appointed referees had a tough time judging what was a ‘push’ and what was a ‘flick’.
Another annoying tactic used by players in the inaugural season was to grab their goalkeeper (who unlike all the other figures had a long piece of plastic sticking out of his back) and throw the goal to one side just before his opponent was about to shoot for goal. Cue instant arguments and a penalty-flick being awarded to the attacking player.
Judging whether the goalkeeper moved before the penalty-flick had been taken resulted in volleys of abusive verbal’s between the two participants. Use of bad language and trying to put your opponent off became something of an art form:
Player1: “Ref he pushed that. No way was that a flick.”
Ref: “Play on.”
Player2:”Ah shut up will ya and get on with the game (lightly flicks a defending Subbuteo player with his baby finger.”
Player1: “REF? That’s a free-flick. For feck sake he can’t do that!”
Ref: “Play on.”
Player2: “Looks like your defenders are asleep today ha-ha I’m clean through on goal now sure.”
Player1: “Shut your hole. Go on take your best shot. You’ll miss anyway if you shoot like you do in training.”
Player2: “This will be as easy as score as your sister.”
Player1: “TAKE THAT BACK… Ref make him take that back.”
Ref: “Play on.”
(Player2 shoots while Player1 remonstrates with the referee and scores).
Player1: “WHAT? How can you allow that after what he said about my sister ya tool? (throws players, pitch and glass of water off the table in disgust).”
Ref: “Game abandoned.”
The game of Subbuteo has evolved since its humble beginnings and you can now purchase playing pitches complete with crowd sound effects and even transferable faces of famous footballers. The McCarthy collection of Subbuteo teams grew over the years and thanks to the use of tipex my brother Aidan and I were able to doctor the Italian team to look like Blackburn, the Mexican team to look like Celtic and the Arsenal team to look like Charlton. (What Spurs fan would want an Arsenal Subbuteo team?)
Sellotape was also an essential item in any Subbuteo player’s kit bag. Years of wear and tear would result in arms and legs of the figurines cracking off. Even our dog would take to grinding its teeth on the heads of some unfortunate players which resulted in a small ball of sellotape replacing the skull of Argentina’s striker. He looked more like the Elephant man than Diego Maradonna but could still flick a decent shot at goal whenever called upon.
Nowadays children seem to spend more and more time playing computer-simulated soccer games offering realistic like movements of players and include crowd reactions and commentary. When we played Subbuteo my friends and I had to use our imagination and provide commentary and crowd effects as we went along.
It certainly provided a lot more laughs than sitting on a couch for five hours transfixed at a TV screen and moving only your thumbs.
Sometimes less is more.