I’ll be honest and say I never really got on with Subbuteo. Never really had the patience. If you lived in a fairly small council flat like we did, we never had a table big enough for the pitch, so we laid it out on the front room carpet. Only trouble was when me and my mates or my brother then came to play a World Cup semi final between England and Brazil, my dad would suddenly walk on the middle of that pitch whilst looking for his bacca tin, or the dog would nip down and man mark Pele, then take the great man for a little walk with him, before spitting him out on the kitchen lino. It would take half hour to get the star striker back in position and by then, I had lost the heart to carry on.
Along with Brazil, we had an England team and a West Ham United away team with the two-burgundy hoops on the shirt (must have been a sale on at our local toy shop the week we bought that?) Being a creative kid who liked nothing better than drawing and painting, I was also known for adorning players with moustaches or changing their hair colour or the colour of their shirt. Subsequently we ended up with a ‘Bit Sa’ team, you know bits of this and bits of that. For some reason, the dog stayed well away from them…
Despite, never really getting the hang of it, I’ve always liked the idea of it and for instance, have followed the ever-evolving Subbuteo set up of a mate, many of you will know on social media, namely Simon Kortlang. His Twitter feed is well worth a look on a variety of subjects by the way.
Subbuteo was invented by QPR fan Peter A. Adolph (that’ll please the boy Kortlang) when he adapted an existing game called ‘Newfooty’ when demobbed from the Air Force, just after the Second World War. He made subtle improvements to the bases that the player stood on by using old buttons and washers, thus increasing their pace when flicked. I know, it sounds pretty basic, but when you consider the War had not long ended and rationing was on, that’s fair enough I reckon.
He placed adverts in the ‘Boys Own’, which was a sort of comic for young boys featuring stories and adventures involving cowboys, sporting prowess and public school life – and these brought in a stack of orders for the game and so Adolph began to turn his idea into a reality.
In 1947, when the first kits were sent out from the HQ in Tunbridge Wells, goals were made of paper, pitches were marked up by chalk on an old army blanket (the chalk was provided by Mr Adolph) and it had cardboard players in red and blue shirts with white shorts.
The name of the game came from the Latin for an English bird of prey called the Hobby, namely Falco Subbuteo. Peter. A keen ornithologist, turned to this after failing to get the game called ‘The Hobby’, which the trademark office had refused.
By 1953, three editions of the game were available to suit all budgets. Prices ranged from 10s 1d for the basic kit to 46s 8d, for which you got a pitch and already assembled players.
By 1960, 36 different teams were available to choose from as well as the collection of accessories, including smaller footballs, a ref’s whistle, a pitch surround, so the ball remained on the field of play, a score sheet and a time keeping bell.
Christmas 1961 saw the 3D OO plastic figure introduced. This had the effect of seeing off the rival company ‘Newfooty’ which up to then, had been in fierce completion with Subbuteo. Bases were now bigger which could produce, in the hands of someone decent at the game, a strong and powerful shot.
By 1967, 52 teams were available with Subbuteo cashing in on the success of the 1966 World Cup staged here in the UK, which had raised the profile of the game and therefore the company no end. International teams were now available, made up of figures in long sleeve shirts and round collars, all put together and hand painted by housewives of Royal Tunbridge Wells.
Teams begun to be sold in boxes in toy and sports shops around the country and this lead to Subbuteo to becoming more and more popular, as teams were now being fervently collected. More accessories were added, with photographers, advertising hoardings, and floodlights now being available.
Other sports were developed and introduced by the Subbuteo company including cricket, five -a – side football, rugby, speedway, hockey and er… fishing.
But it was football, that was the main breadwinner for the company and in 1970, the Savoy Hotel in London, hosted the first international tournament for players from around the globe. Yes you’ve guessed it, it was won by West Germany. The game had now truly gone global. There were now 322 teams available from all over. Argentina, South Africa, North America, Greece and all of Europe.
In 1977 the ‘Zombie’ came along. This was a figure that could be painted by machine to help the hand painters, who had, well, their hands full. Only, no one liked the figure and they were rejected all over and therefore discontinued in 1980.
A newer lightweight zombie was introduced in 1981 and things improved. By 1982, Subbuteo introduced crowd control barriers, mounted police and an Astropitch, reflecting how the game was going in reality.
Waddingtons took over production in 1969 buying the game from Adolph for £250,000.00, which was a huge sum at the time. They immediately began to make major changes. Team numbers were decreased.
Waddingtons later tied in with the new Premier League adding the brand to the appropriate teams. Black players were finally added to English sides beginning to reflect the changing face of team line-ups.
The American company Hasbro then bought Waddingtons in mid 1990 just as sales of Subbuteo began to drop off as it headed towards its fiftieth year. Hasbro intended to cease production in January 2000, but such was the outcry and interest in the story, that the game was given another chance. In truth, it limped along, trying to compete with early computer games, which were clearly winning the battle for the consumer pound.
There is however, a thriving on-line presence for the Subbuteo enthusiast. There is also a very healthy underground scene, with tournaments happening around the world.
As we have seen with other ‘heritage’ toys, they never really die, they just become niche and collectable and there is nothing wrong in that.
So, I say hats off and join me in a finger flick tribute to Peter A. Adolph, the games inventor, who sadly died in 1994.
The Mumper of SE5
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