Andy Robinson reports on the game that refused to fade into nostalgia.

I loved Subbuteo. When I was a kid I played all the time with my brother and friends and I was an avid collector of the bits and pieces you could acquire such as the fences and dug-outs and refs and corner flags – all accessories for the most successful boys game ever. When the football forum I frequent had a discussion about the game some wonderful anecdotes came into play. The boy who beat his elder brother for the first time, only for his Brother to smash up his entire set of players. The boy who had the West Ham United side and then painted a black face on one of the figures to recreate Clyde Best. The boy and his mate who poured his mum’s talcum powder on the cloth pitch to recreate the famous 1967 Maine Rd “Ballet on Ice” between Manchester City and Spurs. Another tale is of Match of The Day’s Mark Lawrenson getting a good hiding for using mud from the garden on his pitch. My own story is the floodlights with the enormous batteries came in handy in our house during the blackouts from the early 1970’s miner’s strike. This week I had the opportunity to visit the Subbuteo Skills Day at the National Football Musuem and spend time with Alan Collins a man for whom Subbuteo is his life’s work and a passion. This is a man who had the comic strip story “Mike’s Mini Men” about a young Subbuteo player in the comic “Roy of The Rovers” based on him.

Alan is the Marketing Director for Art and Science International; Subbuteo’s promotional and marketing arm and an England Subbuteo International with 42 caps to his name. He also organises many of the tournaments that now take place worldwide. This weekend for instance sees a major international event take place in Bologna with £25,000 in prize money at stake and vital world ranking points. Helping out at the Bologna event on the publicity side will be the Juventus manager Antonio Conte and Italy’s number one keeper Gigi Buffon.

The skills event this week at the National Football Museum has been a great success and plans are in place for it to be repeated in the summer holidays. The only downside to the week was apparently when a small boy bit the head off Ashley Cole’s figure because he didn’t like him. The only change to the game in the years I have been away incidentally is that biting the head of a figure off is the only way you can break the players these days. If you stand on them now they flick back to life or slip back into a little groove. So no more days with the Airfix glue and newspaper sticking them back together.

The event was placed just inside the entrance alongside the museum’s “Hall of Fame” section and in the four hours I spent there it was rare to see one of the Subbuteo Stadium tables unoccupied. As boys and parents came along Alan went through the basic rules of the game and the equipment used and then everyone had a go. The best part of the day for me was whilst Alan was on one table giving a demonstration I could help out on another if the boys around hadn’t seen Subbuteo before and looked confused. Therefore my comeback game after over thirty years was against Bolton and Manchester United supporting Alfie aged 6. Obviously as an old hand I won but Alfie certainly got the hang of it quickly enough. Another family I met was Richard and his two lads who were Sheffield Wednesday supporters and he had in fact bought the kids their first Subbuteo set last Christmas.

Right now the Subbuteo brand is moving on all fronts. The manufacturers are the NIV Group based in Madrid where some board members are also on the board at Real Madrid and the distributors in the UK are the toy manufacturer the Paul Lamond Group who are also behind Scrabble. Arts and Science International and Alan are building up the brand and as a sport in its own right and a long term aim is to establish Subbuteo academies at our leading Football Clubs. A big jump in interest saw Subbuteo back in the top 10 games sold last Christmas and they are now an official partner of UEFA and an official partner for FIFA at next year’s World Cup in Brazil. With such an excellent product on offer the growth of interest and subsequent sales allied to an understated but intelligent promotional campaign has meant that Subbuteo is now giving computer football games a run for its money. It really could be the perfect storm.

Subbuteo is an enormous success in several European countries in particular Spain and Italy and in Malta the kids are actually taught how to play in schools. Crucially it has always been supported by the professional game. Its first ever promotional campaign involved Nat Lofthouse and Stanley Mathews and the most recent promotional event in Belgium involved Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard. I was also told that at the insistence of Wayne Rooney the England coaching team had to change from computer graphics to moving players around on the Subbuteo pitch when it came to discussing the tactics. Maybe Jupp Heynkes had a point then last week when he went on about “lap top” managers. My own team Manchester City has always been linked with the game. Back in the late seventies and early eighties Maine Road played hosts to the Manchester Subbuteo Club and if he was around former chairman Peter Swales would make sure everyone was fed and watered and he often had a game himself. Another fan is Sir Alex Ferguson who I imagine cheats and carries on for seven minutes past bedtime when he plays against his grandchildren.

Just before I left a table came free and I managed to take on Alan in a game. His beloved Arsenal team players have been hand crafted and the bases of the players are half as thin again as the regular Subbuteo figures and after polishing them up to make them slide and flick more easily he set about trouncing me 5 -0 but I did manage to keep a fair few out and the game at 0-0 for a few minutes. At one point I nearly managed to get a shot at his goal. That was more than what Rio Ferdinand managed.

I had a wonderful day and the best thing about it was that I know the game I love is back. Not a single kid went past without first stopping to have a look at the Subbuteo and having a go themselves and I am certain that I will not be the only one asking for the Dukla Prague away kit for Christmas.