The English Subbuteo Table Football Association
I have just returned from my first Subbuteo Cup Final, and I will never be attending another. I am a shaken man. I was lucky to escape with my life. I have rarely attended a real football match in my life, let alone one consisting of miniature plastic figures. I imagined it would be a calm, carefree occasion, civilised, good-humoured and jovial. Not a bit of it. If I say to you chairs were flung and noses bloodied, you’ll have a slight inkling of the kind of afternoon I’ve had. I am, of course, aware that the odd shindig takes place at actual football matches. But in the town hall in Winnersh, Berkshire, in the presence of at least three dignitaries from the local Rotary Club? It beggars belief.
I arrived at 2.30pm on a sunny afternoon and was given tea and a fairy cake. So far so good. All very civilised. The ‘teams’ arrived. By teams I mean, of course, two men. That was fine. It was their supporters that proved the problem. About two hundred of them turned up, in coach-loads – all wearing scarves and shouting out their team songs. As soon as I saw them I knew – I get these gut instincts – that a cup of tea and a fairy cake each would probably do very little to quench their high spirits. These weren’t fairy cake kind of people. Some people aren’t. I forgave them that. But what I did not forgive was them producing numerous cans of lager from dozens of carrier bags and proceeding to neck them with the seeming thirst of John Mills in ‘Ice Cold in Alex.’
Nor did the organisers – the referee, linesmen and so on. Several of them were frowning. But frowning was not sufficient. The fans paid no attention to the frowns. So, the early drunkenness notwithstanding, the match began. Kick-off was without incident. I say ‘kick-off’ – I mean, of course, ‘flick-off.’ For those unfamiliar with Subbuteo, the game is played by what can only be described as a hefty (yet skilful) nudging with the forefinger of one of your men. This propels the ball – seemingly uncontrollably – across the felt pitch towards, hopefully, one of your other men, and ultimately, into the back of the tiny net.
Often the ball doesn’t go towards one of your other men. Often it goes wherever it wants. That’s the nature of random imparted motion. Blame Isaac Newton – I think he discovered it. The fans didn’t blame Isaac Newton. They blamed their opponents’ fans. Volleys of yells and screaming followed each random flick. And when, seven minutes into the game, Winnersh scored, well – all hell broke loose. Chairs were thrown, fairy cakes stamped on. I had to take cover and shield my slice of Victoria sponge with my match programme.
And this was only the first goal. As the first half proceeded, so too did the ferocity of the supporters increase, almost exponentially one might say. And it didn’t stop at vocal violence and excessive demonstrations of loyalty. These ‘fans’ take the game of Subbuteo so seriously that they have fashioned small plastic models of rioters, which they proceeded to invade the pitch with, throwing them on the baize like manic chicken-feeders scattering corn to a mob of starving hens. The referee bravely countered this pitch invasion by producing a small plastic model of his own – a single police constable. This miniscule officer, this paltry peeler, sadly proved no match for the marauding dolls he was facing. In brief, this tiny symbol of authority was ejected from the stadium like a pea shot from a pea-shooter’s gun, to land on the floor of the town hall some twenty feet away – the equivalent, if you scale it up, of an actual human policeman being thrown from Wembley to Perivale.
The scene was hideous. I, amongst the other civilised spectators such as the sports correspondent of the Winnersh Bugle and Mrs. Tillotson the caretaker’s wife who made the tea and supplied the fairy cakes, retired to the corner of the hall, our faces resembling the protagonist in Edvard Munch’s scream. The last thing I remember is the pitch itself being pulled from the table like the denouement of some crazy magic trick, and the players being scattered across the parquet flooring. Mrs. Tillotson and I retired to the kitchens – where she consoled me with another fairy cake – and we were led out of a secret back entrance.
I learned later that the cause of the supporter’s ire was a recent transfer of one of the challenging team’s key players – one Rudy Stifgarten, a striker whose transfer was viewed nothing less than a defection. The transfer fee was a mere £8.50, but it clearly rankled. The mob were there to destroy the game, and destroy it they did.
As I said goodbye in the car-park to the Sports Correspondent of the Winnersh Bugle who, shaken though he was, was already scribbling his copy in a Staple’s notebook, I made a mental note of my own never to attend a football match again, miniature or otherwise. The participants in the contest may have been tiny, but the passions were huge. Human beings have vast reservoirs of emotion bubbling deep within them like larva, and if all it takes is a small plastic doll to release that pent-up aggression into an eruption of Vesuvian proportions – and in Winnersh no less – then God help us all.
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