Subbuteo Tribute Website.
The History of Competitive Table Soccer
The 1970s - Subbuteo's glory years.
If you have arrived on this page from Part one of this history, then hopefully you will know that Peter Adolph launched the first Subbuteo Association in the late 1940s, and that this organisation was super-seeded by an independent European Table-Soccer Federation (ETF), and the affiliated English Table Soccer Association (ETSA). As we reached the 1970s, Waddingtons had taken over from Peter Adolph as the owners of Subbuteo Sports Games (SSG), and they were having a big marketing push into Europe. The game was bigger and more widespread than ever, and it was a great time to be a table football player. However, dark clouds were gathering....
With any big organisation, one of the dangers you are taught to watch for are "them and us" attitudes. Whether it is between branches and head-offices, or customers and suppliers... It's unhealthy, and ultimately destructive. In the ETSA newsletters of the mid-1970s, there is definitely a growing "them and us" situation with SSG.
To highlight the problems, it seems useful to start with SSGs big marketing event of the mid 1970s, the Munich World Series of 1974. Heavily promoted with flyers in box sets, and of course, the giant deluxe Munich World Series box set, this was the face of organised Subbuteo in this period. However, the Munich Box set with its novelty accessories, and excessive price was the complete opposite of what playing for the ETSA would have been about. It is very interesting to note, that although ETSA members were among the players and officials at the Munich World Series, the qualifying tournaments were not staged by them. Instead, they were organised by "National Association of Youth Clubs, Subbuteo stockists, and Educational Authorities etc." The two main sticking points between SSG and ETSA can be found in the SSG leaflet promoting these events.
1. Playing Figures. Subbuteo in the 1970s was, of course, all about "the OO scale three-dimensional figures". Subbuteo were not selling the flat figures by this time, and they were not permitted at the Munich World Cup. The ETSA happily allowed both types of figures, but the majority of top players were still using flats.
2. Age Range. Subbuteo's core market was always children. I guess nine to fourteen years old was the age group for most Subbuteo players. The competitive ETSA had a much older core, with a lot of university students. Their adult open tournaments were much better attended than their youth cups.
Into the Blue - An ETSA season in focus 1976-77.
Focusing on one year seems a nice idea, but it was rather forced upon me because I only have access to about three years' worth of newsletters. I seem to have been lucky though. This season was a really successful one for the ETSA, with the first English win in the Europa Cup, and some well attended competitions. It also ended with a bang, with the fall-out with SSG, and a general crisis that followed on from this.
There are lots of issues dealt with in the Blue, and many will be familiar to anyone who has tried to run an organisation, or been roped into a committee post. There is lots of amusing little details, and items that drag on through the year. Here are a few topics to give a flavour of the period.
The Blue itself - The newsletter was thus called because it was printed on blue paper (well, usually). It is easy to forget that this is a time before computers and the simple home printing we enjoy now. Just getting The Blue produced was a major struggle and relied on the good will of church or college printing facilities, as well as the hard work of the editor. Despite this, the newsletter usually managed to be 6-8 pages long, and ran on a fairly regular monthly basis. Members were required to send SAEs to the editor at least once a year, to help fund distribution costs.
The Yearbook - A mix of tables, reviews and articles, the Yearbook was a great companion to The Blue. They were usually an impressively thick A-4 book. Regarding the two versions shown above, the 75-76 book was 28 pages long, whilst the 76-77 was a huge 56 pages. As well as reviewing many of the leagues and tournaments over the previous year, there is the usual amateur publication fair of light-hearted stories, poems, song lyrics and articles. The sensible '75-76 article on why England's top players never reach the top four in the Europa Cup is sadly undermined by English players reaching the final in both '75 and '76.
Competitions and Leagues - The majority of The Blue was given over to the all important results. The National League in 1976-77 featured three divisions. Two of twelve players, and one of seven. A random look at tournaments shows 43 players in the 1975 Midlands Championship, 44 in the Southern Championship, and 23 in the Northern version. The smaller tournaments (like the Kent Open, or Cornish Open) tended to get about 20 players through the door. Most of the leagues had 10-20 regulars taking part, although Middlesex had a very impressive 38 players in 1976.
Club Supplies - As I've mentioned, serious table soccer players were still using the flat figures to play, although Subbuteo had been OO scale since the early 1960s. By the mid-1970s flat bases were becoming increasingly difficult to source from SSG themselves. So rather heroically, "a few members have clubbed together to purchase a mould for producing these bases". These bases were identical to the Subbuteo flat bases, except that they had no trade name on them. Instead, there were simply two round mould marks (the same size as those on the backs of heavyweight players). The club hoped that "members will help these public spirited individuals to recover their investment by purchasing the new bases". The bases were originally produced in yellow, white, red and black, and cost 70p for a set of 10 (or 7p each). A rather odd greeny-blue base was later added to the range. By February 1977 flat plastic figures were also being produced. These had the same profile as Subbuteo teams, but no details. You could leave them blank or paint your own. Players were 24p a team. The large size ball (as used with the flats) was also sold at 17p for 3 balls. Thanks to Dave Croucher for loaning the bases and painted figure illustrated above. Something to watch out for in collecting circles.
Travelling Fund - Most of the letters in this year's blue were debating this. Basically, to run a fair national amateur league, it was felt that those who needed to travel a long way should be helped with the expense of doing so. Remember too, that this is the 1970s, so less people owned a car, and most members were students anyway. Train travel was the norm. The trouble was that entry to the league had to be fairly expensive to provide the funds to do this (the ETSA and the league were run on very tight budgets). It was suggested that the lower leagues be regional, but then they were not really a national league. There did not seem to be a good solution to this, so the arguments rumbled on.
Welsh Rules - This was a typical storm-in-a-teacup that all amateur sports and clubs end up having. Basically, the WTSA was not affiliated to the ETF, and had its own interpretations of the rules of play. If they played the ETSA in England, they used the English rules. In Wales, they used the Welsh rules. The English players seem to use the words "Welsh rules" like some unmentionable barbarian idea. Eventually it sadly all blew up into the usual round of recriminations and resignations.
The ETF Rules - Mind you, it's not like the Welsh rules are the only problem. When the "complete ETF playing rules" arrived in early 1977, the ETSA received a copy which was "not in presentable sensible English". The rules were agreed at a meeting in May 1976, but the ETSA were not told the outcome or given a copy. They were due to come into force from 1st July 1977. Translators?
Play to the whistle - For all members' edification, please note: the end of matches is demoted by the long ring of the timer, not by the first "tinkle". We were so primitive that we still thought digital timers were a pretty neat idea (with apologies to Douglas Adams)
Fifteen minutes a side, or twenty? - the committee want 40 minute matches. Not everybody is keen.
The Swiss ladder - So 45 players turn up to your tournament, and at 20 minutes each way, everyone is only going to get about three or four matches (taking refereeing duties into consideration). Knockout just made people go home early, so the wonderful "Swiss" system was tried out. It has to be said, it's now thirty years later, and we're still trying the damn thing out.... At least there is a short history of the system in the ETSA archives. Apparently invented by a Dr J Muller, it was first used in Zurich in 1895, and was adopted by the British Chess Federation after World War Two. The idea being that everybody is placed in a big results table, and you play the person closest to you in the table (as long as you have not already played them). The result is that everyone gets to play competitive matches. If you have lots of players, and lots of rounds, then this system probably works fine. As generations of table soccer players have found out, it doesn't always work like that.
Tactics - Something else that has survived into the 21st century is the defensive formation. An amusing article in the 75-76 yearbook extolled the virtue of this tactic. Never mind the mid-1970s being the era of total football, it is advised that you never have less than seven players in your back line, and if you were winning one-nil, then force corners rather than risk losing possession by taking a shot. It also advised practising shots for the inevitable shoot-outs your nil-nil games would result in (England team take note). In response, a couple of the ETSA's principle jokers arranged an invitational tournament where points were awarded per goal, rather than for a win. Amusingly, the group the organisers weren't playing in had seven one-nil results out of the ten games played. The eight-man defences never shifted.
The Europa Cup 1976 and 1977 - The 1976 Europa Cup in Malta was a great success for the ETSA, with both English players getting to the final. The ETSA then agreed to hold the 1977 version. Pleas for money, ideas, and effort became an ongoing issue.....
Zombie Test? - As always with historical documents, the dull stuff can drag on for pages, whilst the interesting stuff has one line. In the minutes of the September 1976 ETSA committee meeting there is the following line "SSG have produced a new prototype OO scale figure, which has been tested by the ETSA." I assume from the date that this was the zombie rather than the lightweight. I wonder what the feedback was. Perhaps it was like this....
Humour - There is quite a bit of humour in the Blue, and some amusing little digs at OO scale Subbuteo. Here is the unofficial version of the "Spin!" leaflet, an old "flat" rule leaflet optimistically left in the OO scale box sets. "They scrape and they scrunch as they smash through anything" is the ETSA verdict. Stick that in your prototype report Mr Chairman.
1977 - The parting of ways.
The September 1976 committee meeting not only hints at a zombie test, but notes that SSG "have recently had a boardroom shuffle". There was also a shuffle at the ETSA, with a new secretary being appointed. Almost as if the coming fall-out was inevitable, it is clear that the new secretary was much more hard-line anti-SSG than the old one.
When the committee met in February 1977 is was revealed that the ETSA secretary had been invited to a meeting with Subbuteo Sports Games "to be held in Holland.... involving representatives from all ETF-registered countries and probably others". The Blue records....
"(the secretary).... said he was reluctant to attend with any power of vote, but would rather simply record the proceedings and return with them for the committee and members to act upon. However, after discussion... especially in view of recent SSG activity in Europe, he should register a vote if absolutely necessary, but to do so only in the interests of the Association.... i.e. not support any motion that could in any way endanger the current aims and beliefs of the ETSA.
The meeting was held on 16th April 1977, at the Crest Hotel in Amsterdam. In attendance were three SSG employees (including director John Burbidge), plus representatives of the French and Dutch distributors. On the ETF side, there were two members of the Dutch organisation (NVMB), the secretary of "a rebel Dutch Assn", the ETSA rep, a member of the Austrian Assn, and one from the Italian Assn (who was probably also representing Italian distribution, as the two were closely linked). This was, perhaps, a disappointing turn-out when there were eleven countries in the ETF, but the expensive involved in visiting a Europe-wide meeting of a small amateur hobby makes this understandable.
For what was discussed, I only have the ETSA version of course. This was reported in the May 1977 issue of The Blue. The main source of information is the extremely amusing report from the ETSA secretary, which I'm very tempted to quote at length. It begins "There were a lot of free drinks, and everyone except the ETSA wore a suit". The ETSA secretary certainly casts himself in the role of the rebel, and an outsider. Everyone else is polite, and receptive to SSG, much to his annoyance.
The May 1977 Blue (the final issue for the season) was certainly a call-to-arms for the ETSA. The chairman had a whole page "proclaiming the anti-SSG campaign", and The Blue's editor has another full page robust rebuttal.
So what was SSG planning? The actual proposal seems lost amongst the defence of the ETSA. Basically though, SSG hoped to take over control of the European Table Soccer Federation, for promotional purposes. The May editorial stated "in order to increase their sales, SSG would like to reach more young people through the mediums of national and European Associations, and they are fully aware of how difficult it would be for them to do this successfully on their own". There is talk of a Subbuteo World organisation. SSG would provide the money, and support. They would use top players to market the game at Subbuteo events, and provide sponsorship. It was in SSG's interest to raise the profile of such events in the media, and they had a paid marketing team to do it. The downside to the proposal was a loss of independence, and the two big sticking points mentioned at the top of this page i.e. the associations would have to play with Subbuteo equipment (i.e. OO scale figures) to Subbuteo rules, and the junior events would inevitably get most of the publicity.
There has to be some sympathy for the ETSA position. The editorial perhaps summed it up the best - "we play using highly sensitive equipment, and a set of rules that demand high mental and technical skills. It would be a backward step to play to the simple SSG rules, and with their relatively clumsy equipment... Our game has never been about making x thousand pounds, it is certainly not going to be about helping someone else make x thousand pounds."
That was a negative way of looking at the offer though. The promotion of the game and an increase in players (especially young players) was clearly in the interest of both groups.
It is in the report of the April 1977 meeting that the "table-soccer" split crystallised. To the great surprise of the Subbuteo employees they discovered "the ETSA's notion that Table Soccer is a game in its own right which does not necessarily need any link, material or symbolic, with the word and institution Subbuteo." Again, this sounded reasonable, but imagine taking the same stance with other board games like Monopoly. Subbuteo also learnt that the ETSA were producing there own equipment. At first they threatened to stop it, to which the lovely quoted response is - "you can't, replied the ETSA a little doubtfully.... patents have run out, can't copyright design of a soccer pitch, goals, balls etc mumble". The Chairman of the ETSA later proposed that the Assn should change it's name to the English Mini or Micro-Football Assn. Sadly, no other name could ever overcome the powerful Subbuteo, and so the generic table soccer has continued to this day. He also proposed that "no member of the Assn be permitted to take part in games or appear in any capacity connected with table soccer without the consent of the Assn." A hard-line approach that would blow up in the following season.
One final thing to mention. In the Anti-SSG Blue, the Italian Association was singled out as being set up and run by the country's Subbuteo distributor. It was stated that this association was "the model of SSG's intentions for the rest of the world, and it's major function being to promote the company, and almost as an incidental detail, to provide competition for the players in its care". It undermined the criticism though, by adding "it has 1500 members and growing every day." Hold that thought in your head.
The ETSA Crisis 1977-78.
After their successful 1976-77 season, the next season started in a worrying manner for the ETSA. The first two Blues of the season were only one double-sided page, instead of the usual 6-8 pages. The first editorial is a big long moan at the apathy of the general members. Hardly any yearbook articles had been written, six Open Cups were held over the summer and only one set of results had come in. There were still problems with arranging the Europa Cup with only five weeks to go. On top of this, the Chairman and Treasurer had resigned. By the October issue, The Blue's editor had (unsurprisingly) resigned too. Yet on the playing front, everything seems to be normal. There were twenty-three players in the national leagues, and plenty at the regional championships.
However, the organisers' frustration at this turn of events, and the worries about SSG's plans boiled over in a couple of unpleasant events in the autumn of 1977. The top ETSA players had been playing in SSG promotional events throughout the 1970s. Prior to the SSG announcement in April 1977, the top two ETSA players had been part of a SSG "England Table Soccer team" who played an Italian team in Italy. This was apparently a big event, with TV coverage and a sizable crowd. Now there was a return match to be played at Wembley. The ETSA committee thought they should have the say on what was an English Table Soccer team, and they did not want their members to take part. The players though, felt they had an obligation to attend the second match. Add some slow and inadequate communication to the mix, and the end result was that the players concerned played, and were then asked to leave the ETSA. Worse than that, one was then refused permission to play in the SE Regional Cup (on a show of hands I believe) after actually travelling to the event. Perhaps the only saving grace was that The Blue remained pretty even-handed, publishing a letter from one of the affected players in the January 1978 issue.
The Europa Cup was staged in the midst of all this mayhem in November 1977 in Bracknell. Kurt Erb of Switzerland was the winner. In contrast to the previous couple of years, there was very little detail or match reports on this event in The Blue, which is a shame. A lack of media coverage was mentioned, in stark contrast to Subbuteo events. Also highlighted later was the fact that the Italian Entrants were "prevented from participating in the Europa Cup", although no further details on this were given.
By 1978 life in The Blue was settling down again. Discussions on how to advertise the Association and attract new members without Subbuteo's support were discussed. There is some black humour for neutrals, as the committee realise that the banned players were the current holders of both the league and the Challenge Cup. They would have to write and ask for them back. There was also concern at the "ailing relationship between SSG and the ETSA" Ailing? That's wonderful English understatement. It was proposed that a letter be sent to John Burbidge asking him to arrange a meeting. The anti-SSG committee members "probably to attend". Unsurprisingly, Mr Burbidge declined the invitation (although his reply gets misplaced before it can be presented to the committee).
The first Blue of the 1978-79 season had a more professional sheen, and the October AGM was described as "one of the most successful in our history in terms of control, attendance, and constructive debate". There was a full committee elected once more, described as having "a healthy progressive outlook". The minutes of the meeting show a lot of small, sensible rule changes, and a return to the job at hand, which was playing and enjoying table soccer. In addition, apology letters were sent to the banned members, and they were reinstated (whether they would want to come back is another matter). The new season had two national leagues with nineteen players in total. However, there was also a regional split for Division three, with another sixteen players competing in those leagues. The most pleasing thing for the ETSA must have been the huge entry to that year's English Youth Cup.
In the end, the ETSA, the ETF, and the Europa Cup all remained independent of Subbuteo Sports Games control. So what of Subbuteo's plans? Lets return to their quoted aim - "in order to increase their sales, SSG would like to reach more young people through the mediums of national and European Associations, and they are fully aware of how difficult it would be for them to do this successfully on their own".
With apathy and/or hostility from the ETSA and other associations, SSG unsurprisingly, did indeed successfully form their own national and European Associations... and we'll look at these on the next page of this history.
The Team Colours Project (Ongoing illustrated team lists).
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