Subbuteo, Manchester United & Me
I just bought an A4 print of a 1992-1994 Manchester United home kit Subbuteo player. I’m not a massive fan of Subbuteo, but there’s something about the aesthetic of it all that pleases me on a very base level. So much so that having ordered the print I had to stop myself from going to Ebay and buying numerous teams decked out in classic United kits.
I’ve not played Subbuteo since the terrible giant cat stadium disaster of 1993, when my grey tabby Gorbachov (that the ten year old me saw fit to name his cat after the then leader of the Soviet Union probably says more about my childhood than any other single incident) stormed the pitch, knocking over two stands in the process, before eating Bryan Robson and sending a generic Portsmouth/Dundee player flying under the table with one bat of his mighty paw.
It had to be Bryan Robson, didn’t it? He was already an easily identifiable target as I had previously trod on him, snapping his tiny fragile plastic legs in half, leaving him bound ungracefully in sticky tape to stop him falling over. I bought some shirt number decals and gave my injured captain the number seven shirt. Sadly I got the number four decal stuck deep under my fingernail during attempted application, causing both the introduction of squad numbers to the Subbuteo world, as well as a horrendous finger infection that came to a blood and pus squirting end under the hot water tap of the bathroom.
Truth be told I was never much good at Subbuteo, but I was a very self-aware child and realised this after a dozen or so straight drubbings. Around this time my Dad had bought me Charles Hughes’s long-ball advocating tactical tome The Winning Formula. With a well thumbed copy of this by my side, and the knowledge that most goals were scored after fewer than five passes, I aimed to make the game as unpleasant for my opponent as humanly possible. Much in the style of a drunk playing pool, or Djibril Cisse, I sent the ball hurtling around the pitch as hard as possible, with little care for direction or outcome. It was football tactics played out as chaos theory on green felt.
Hughes wasn’t the only inspiration on my formative finger flicking years. Having read about John Beck’s antics at Cambridge I formulated another plan. All the posh kids in my area had the Subbuteo astro-turf, and the kids with parents who took an interest had their pitch stretched out over a piece of hardboard, leaving a smooth playing surface to rival Wembley, or Gigg Lane in its 1960s heyday. But I was different. I took the pitch with all its creases, bumps and lumps and I used it to my advantage. The more skilful opponents saw the ball take random rolls and uneven trickles, riling and agitating them to the point of furious exhaustion.
The upshot of all this was that no-one would play against me any more. I was no longer invited to take part in the league my school mates set up. I didn’t get calls on Saturday morning asking if I wanted to go round for a game. Instead I sat in glorious solitude, setting up the pitch, the ground, and the teams, just to marvel at their miniature beauty. I suppose this means, technically, I am unbeaten at Subbuteo for over eighteen years. There are those who may point out that I’m actually without a win for far longer than that, but I despise their typically British negativity.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like this. The actual match part of the game was by far the least interesting aspect of the experience. The thrill I got from erecting my own little ground, with floodlights, fences and improbably modern goal nets elicited the same sort of response out of the young me as going to a real ground does the older. Much of football’s enjoyment comes from the fetishisation of the event rather than the event itself. This is why you end up with countless weirdoes fascinated by different dugouts, floodlights, terraces and corner flags. And why the whole groundhopper phenomenon exists. It’s also why the manufacturers Subbuteo were happy to indulge the likes of us with a near-inexhaustible supply of accessories, ranging from miniature replica cups through to streakers and crowd control fences.
I shall frame my print, and put it on my desk. It’ll serve as both a reminder and a warning. A reminder of happier, more innocent, beautiful times. And a warning that if I don’t stay frosty I’ll descend in to the realms of pathetic single-blokedom, spending hundreds of pounds on vintage tat from Ebay, foregoing washing and socialising, and ending up writing long and sad internet love stories to kids’ toys.