My footballing childhood was not a happy one. Sure I watched loads of games and saw loads of goals, but as for my fledgling career on the pitch things were not very good. I was a permanent substitute for my junior team and due to artistic differences a place in the school team remained out of reach. The long and the short of it was that I just wasn’t very good at the game I loved.
Then like a bolt out of the blue a brand new world opened its rose-tinted patio doors to me. A world in which I was in control of my footballing future – a world in which in my own mind I was a legend, a hero, a footballing mastermind. The world of Subbuteo.
The world of Subbuteo was brilliant. Surely this is how the Beatles felt when they wrote Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Southend United were First Division champions, England won the World Cup for the twelfth time. West Ham had been relegated with a record low points tally and I scored all the goals as Celtic won the European Cup!
Where else could the weekend fixture card consist of matches such as Real Madrid versus Southend, Peru versus Orient and Accrington Stanley versus Argentina?
I could add myself to the team sheet of anyone I wanted including the King Edmunds School XI, although in reality my P.E masters saw fit to leave me out of the starting side for, well, er, all five years of my senior school days. I could easily overcome that disappointment in Subbuteo world by banging in a late treble as King ‘Eddie’ turned over arch rivals Greensward 3-2!
In short Subbuteo ruled. The fact that the teams I followed never won anything and due to my own ‘limited ability’ I hardly got a game for club or school did not matter. Twenty-two one-inch high plastic men made up for everything that was not well in my footballing existence.
However it could not last. Several others within my school year shared my own sad footballing status. Decent kids from decent homes but like me about as close to playing for the school team as one of the girls! Subbuteo had likewise become their salvation and like me their newfound ego was exploding onto the playground. A Subbuteo league was suggested and after a brief meeting, which consisted of small pieces of paper being passed around during geography, the ASL (Ashingdon Subbuteo League) was founded.
The inaugural players made up their own team names; I was Ashcombe United (the name of my street was Ashcombe). Trevorton were the Manchester United of the ASL; named such because Trevor, who supported Everton, ran them. Trevorton had everything. Grandstands, scoreboard, floodlights and yes, I believe his mum did iron the pitch for him. He even had a 7” vinyl record with the Subbuteo song and crowd noise on it. A victory at Trevorton was worth three anywhere else and would send shockwaves through the schoolyard!
Then there was Reis Park Rangers, my nemesis and Ashcombe derby. It was at this particular fixture that the first bout of Subbuteo violence came about when the host and myself began fighting over a dodgy goal. The match was abandoned when the home player’s mum expelled me from the house. From then on this particular match had to be played at neutral Trevorton!
A trip to play Tysoe Tornadoes was always a difficult one. The home team had received the new Subbuteo astro pitch for Christmas – an innovation in table football that would have the other players arguing for and against. The pitch had to be rolled out and as a result needed to be flattened for several hours before a match with encyclopaedias. Several fixtures were lost due to lack of books thanks to his older brother’s studies. Eventually the Tornadoes returned to playing on a conventional playing surface.
Chapman Hotspur were another “Ashcombe team”. However, a Sunday fixture at the Spurs was not an option due to the home player’s church commitments!
The sixth member of the league was a lad called Phil. I don’t know why Phil wanted to join our ‘plastic football league’. Phil was a regular with the school team and didn’t need to pretend to be a one-inch Keegan or Maradonna. Still, he kept a degree of distance between himself and us lesser mortals by refusing to use a pretend name for his team. They were simply called Liverpool, how unimaginative!
The League was ready to start. Insults were flying about, particularly between Ashcome and Reis Park, both giving it large about what one would do to the other. I must admit, having dominated my imaginary football world at home with devastating victories over my dad (who, thinking back, might have let me win) and sister (who didn’t take defeat at anything too well) I thought the ASL would be a doddle. The next step on the way back to reality. Perhaps Subbuteo dominance could somehow transfer into real life, a bit like when Clarke Kent changed into Superman. Perhaps that school team debut wasn’t so far away after all?
But as with the trophyless life following the likes of Southend, Colchester and Orient, Subbuteo reality was a really crap place to be. My season started with a four-goal drubbing at Trevorton, and although some pride was restored with a win at the Tornadoes, defeat to my by now bubbling nemesis RPR left me next to bottom of the league. In fact technically I was last as Phil’s Liverpool had been thrown out of the competition due to a severe breach of the rules (using the corner kicker figure to take a penalty). In truth I think he realised that his world was far more glamorous than ours. Girls went to watch school matches and he did not want them thinking he was crazy about plastic footballers in an imaginary league!
As the league came to a conclusion I recorded a derby victory over Reis Park Rangers, which was celebrated like an Old Firm, Manchester, Merseyside and North London derby all in one, but it was to no avail. Trevorton had won the first Championship and added the cup to boot. They hadn’t lost a single game.
I had finished a distant fourth place; the truth was I wasn’t any better at Subbuteo than I was at real football. Depressed, I quit the league before the next season started (only a week after the first had finished)
It’s now almost thirty years since the founder members of the ASL came together. I haven’t seen much of them since those heady days. Families and steady jobs have replaced the epic table battles of the early 1980s. Subbuteo, however wonderful, never led us to the promised land of fame and fortune. Oh, except for the shamed Phil of Liverpool. He went on to win the first ever TV series of Gladiators!
But the magic of Subbuteo still exists if you look hard enough. A couple of years ago I searched e-bay for a set. With my own Subbuteo now placed upon that great table in the sky I felt that my children would benefit far more from Subbuteo than any computer-generated nonsense. After a brief search I found the perfect set,
SUBBUTEO FOR SALE,
PITCH, 2 GOALS, SCOREBOARD, 2 FOOTBALLS and 2 TEAMS:
WEST GERMANY and COLCHESTER UNITED!
A fixture made in subbuteo heaven!