Table football game that is flicking its way back into the nation’s affections

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After being shelved by toy shops for several years Subbuteo was relaunched back in March. But how has it fared? Chris Bond reports.

WE all have our favourite toys and games, those that we look back on with a warm, slightly misty-eyed, sense of nostalgia.

For me, as with many boys who grew up during the 1980s, it was Subbuteo. The green felt pitch, carefully laid out on the floor on top of a spare piece of carpet, was a permanent feature in my bedroom and around it I had floodlights and a grandstand filled with an animated miniature crowd.

My younger brother, who had a similar set up in his room, and I created our own leagues and cups and lost entire weekends in a flurry of flicks, tricks and action. It was, it’s fair to say, something of an obsession and had I spent as much time doing my homework as I did playing Subbuteo then my school grades would no doubt have prospered. But who can get excited about oxbow lakes and algebra when there’s the lure of a World Cup quarter-final between Argentina and France, the result of which, quite literally, is in your hands? ... Exactly.

Like most great toys, Subbuteo was born out of a simple idea. Invented by birdwatcher Peter Adolph, it was in the pages of the August 1946 edition of Boy’s Own Paper that its name first appeared, with the game going on sale for the first time the following year. Back then the players, stuck on buttons and weighted down with washers, were made of cardboard and the set included only a piece of chalk and instructions on how to mark a pitch out on an old blanket. But despite the back-to- basics approach it quickly became a bestseller.

At its peak of popularity in the 70s, Subbuteo was selling 25,000 miniature teams a month and dining room tables up and down the country were covered for much of the decade by felt pitches. By the mid-90s, though, sales had declined dramatically and in 2000, the game’s owners Hasbro announced it was ceasing production in the UK, blaming “the huge number of football related games” that had “flooded the market.”

By then the players, many bearing the scars of one cup final too many, had been packed away in lofts. A new generation of youngsters now had Xboxes and PlayStations which made flicking plastic men round a piece of green cloth seem like old hat.

Previous attempts to relaunch this famous old game were pretty unsuccessful and it appeared as though Subbuteo was being consigned to history, at least in the UK. But then at the London Toy Fair earlier this year, manufacturer Paul Lamond Games revealed it was relaunching the table-top game under licence from Hasbro. They brought in former England star John Barnes to add a bit of glamour and announced the game had been redesigned and improved.

Among the changes brought in are a new playing surface, more detailed figures and new bases that make it easier to move the players in a straight line. As well as bringing back Subbuteo in its traditional form, the company is also looking at launching the game for tablet computers and smartphone devices.

Richard Wells, sales director at Paul Lamond Games, says the relaunch has proved hugely popular and helped bring the game to a new generation. “The success is in part due to nostalgia but also due to the improvements that have been made such as the improved pitch quality, flexible players, detailed moulding and paint application as well as the availability of licensed teams.

“One of the reason for the timing of the relaunch is that technology has now caught up allowing the necessary improvements to be made to the quality of the game. It is a brilliant game to play, there is a nostalgia aspect for dads but more and more we see parents wanting a move away from the computer screen towards more face to face and social contact games.”

Just over a decade after it seemed as though Subbuteo was destined to go the way of choppers and sherbet spaceships, it’s not only making a comeback but it’s flourishing, too, with toy retailers saying retro games like Subbuteo, Lego and Monopoly are proving popular once again.

It’s been a good year all round for the table football game with England reaching the semi-finals of the Subbuteo World Cup, held in Manchester this summer, for the very first time. All of which has helped boost the profile of the game in this country.

Justin Finch, chairman of the English Subbuteo Association and a former national Subbuteo champion who famously insured his right hand for £160,000, believes we are seeing a resurgence of interest in the game. “This year’s relaunch has been extremely positive. Hamleys has it as one of their top 10 games for Christmas and there’s been a wealth of publicity in the last few months which has rekindled people’s interest.”

He says Subbuteo offers people something different from computer games.

“Online games are still popular but people find they don’t really have much social element, which Subbuteo does, and when kids and dads play together they realise that it’s actually a lot of fun and it also has that bonding element.”

Finch believes Subbuteo may have benefitted from being shelved for a while. “Basically, marketing of the game was redundant for the last 15 or 20 years and now Paul Lamond Games have come along and given it a big boost.”

Pete Whitehead who runs Subbuteo World, the biggest table football website in the world, says it’s gearing up to be his best Christmas sales-wise since he set up his online business 12 years ago.

“This Christmas has been our busiest one so far, with traffic on our website up by 30 per cent on previous years and I think it has to be down to the relaunch. People have seen Subbuteo advertised and they’ve seen it in the shops again and they remember it from their childhood.”

Many of those who grew up with it in the 70s and 80s now have children themselves.

“We’re seeing a domino effect,” says Whitehead. “People come to us and buy a set and then word spreads and someone else comes to us and says ‘my friend bought it for his son and I’d like it for mine.’ It’s had a really positive effect.”

Whitehead believes the latest Subbuteo reboot by Paul Lamond Games has given the game a new lease of life. “I think they’ve done a better job, the figures are a better quality and it feels like a new era for the game.”

But before people get too carried away he points out that Subbuteo isn’t about to start selling in the same kind of quantities it did back in the days when the likes of Kevin Keegan and Yohan Cruyff were in their pomp.

“It’s still quite small, the kind of thing you find in the corner of toy shops, so it’s never going to compete with computer games and it’s not like it was back in the 70s when every boy in my class played Subbuteo, those days have gone. But the demand is still there and it’s great that a game like this which has been going since 1947 has managed to survive, because not many have.”

Despite the fact that it has disappeared from our shop shelves in recent years, Whitehead says Subbuteo has never really gone away. “It’s always been there but it’s been a bit of an underground thing more recently and we just sell via the internet. The difference now is that it’s back in the public eye and there’s a demand for other classic board games like Monopoly and Frustration,” he says.

“There’s a fascination with table football and Subbuteo, you can buy your favourite team in most cases, you can put up some floodlights and get a grandstand and re-enact classic games. It’s something real that you will never, ever get from a PlayStation which is why there will always be this fascination with it.”

SUBBUTEO: Home and Away

Created in 1946 by Tunbridge Wells birdwatcher Peter Adolph. When he was refused a trademark to just call 
the game Hobby he opted for Subbuteo, the Latin name for the hobby hawk.

More than 700 different strips have appeared on the figures over the years.

Over 300,000 of the miniature teams were sold each year during its heyday in the 60s and 70s.

The annual Subbuteo World Cup was first held in 1987.

In 1987, 16-year-old British player Justin Finch, then ranked fifth in the world, made the front pages after insuring his right hand for £160,000.

The band Half Man Half Biscuit wrote a nostalgic tribute to Subbuteo called All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit.