Subbuteo Tribute Website.
Table Association Football 4-2-4.
As my information on Super Striker and Newfooty expanded, I felt justified in giving them their own tributes within the bigger Subbuteo website. Now the same is true for another quirky British reproduction of the beautiful game.
Table Association Football (TAF) 4-2-4
"This is the nearest thing to live football I have ever seen." - Alan Hardaker, Secretary English Football League.
Table Association Football (TAF 4-2-4) was an important alternative to Subbuteo in the late 1960s to early 1970s. The inventor was Tom Waterman, a keen footballer and coach, and clearly one of life's natural game inventors. He also has "Batter Up", Trafalgar and Militaire on his CV.
Mr Waterman, unsurprisingly, had played Subbuteo as a teenager, but was frustrated by what he saw as an unrealistic approach to football. He tells the tale of how after missing a short flick in front of goal, a youthful friend managed to flick a figure the length of the field to touch the ball. "How does a man on the penalty spot at one end of the field manage to lose possession to a man on the corner flag at the other end of the field". Thinking about how to overcome this type of problem eventually lead to the development of TAF 4-2-4.
Basically, TAF 4-2-4 was a game based on the skill of passing the ball. Getting to the ball was easy (you just picked up the players and moved them), it was the ability to pass the ball accurately that was tested. It also taught the basics of tactical football, with the player urged to replace his figures in the correct positions after use (and indeed, it is essential that you do).
4-2-4 was certainly a more tactical game than other table football games, as hinted at by the dice included in the set. The players were very similar in size and look to Subbuteo, but they came on large wedge shaped bases. You used the straight edge for passing along the ground, and the sloped edge for chipping. The goalkeeper too was similar to the Subbuteo version, but had a large clear plastic back to aid in saving. This was necessary because the ball was very small, and you would otherwise have had no chance of stopping it.
The pitch had black outlined "player zones" where the players operated in the 4-2-4 formation (hence the name of the game). The idea was to pass the ball from zone to zone. If the ball finished outside the zone, possession was lost. If it stopped on the line, the tackle dice could be rolled by the defence. After a successful pass, the defender could move a player close to the ball (called a challenge). The attacker was then allowed a singe "dribble" of the ball to get in a position to pass again or shoot. Using another attacking figure to deflect the ball into the net (or to aid a pass to another zone) was encouraged, and results could be spectacular.
The bases were constructed of two pieces, with a firm plastic upper and a thin rubbery grip underneath to glide on the playing surface. The method of passing worked well, with the square sides giving a crisp pass, and the chip being easy to execute (but harder to control). Unlike Subbuteo, you could actually chip a pass, rather than just a shot. The goals were smaller than Subbuteo, and the goalkeeper covered about a third of the goal from pitch to crossbar. As I have mentioned, this is because the ball was small, and would otherwise be hard to save.
The game does produce an enjoyable game of football, but it does have a few disadvantages compared to Subbuteo. Any game where you have to pick up the players, seems less skilled than Subbuteo's flicking. The tactical side is mostly restricted to the 4-2-4 positions, and running with the ball is not an option. Using dice for tackling, also adds a luck element that Subbuteo does not need. Mind you, this is not really any more abstract than tackling in other football games, and the inventor thinks the system has the right degree of risk and reward. He points out that a good player (in any form of football) should only tackle when the odds are in this favour.
In the game's favour is the ability to have proper free-kicks and corners. The sloping base allowing the ball to be confidently played in the air (and indeed deflected into the net). It certainly impressed Sir Alan Hardaker, whose quote appears in several versions of the set. The inventor tells how Mr Hardaker arranged for a demonstration with the England squad (fresh from winning the World Cup). "Sir Alf Ramsey said we could have his lads for half an hour. They played it for two and a half hours!"
The game was set to be a success, and post-1966 is reported to have sold 20,000 copies in three months.
The original 1960s set came in the compact red and blue box shown at the top of this page, and was a thing of beauty. The set featured England and Scotland sides on contrasting bases, with each player having a unique numbered base. Shown above is one of the Scottish players, next to a standard Subbuteo figure, so you can see the similar size and style.
As the other photo shows, 4-2-4 did have a crack at producing a team range, and the different colour bases look great. Some of these teams are later models, where the base numbers are simply stickers. I've been advised that 4-2-4 teams could be ordered from the inventor in any colours that you required. So they were in fact, painted to order. The teams were more expensive than a Subbuteo team, but the quality of the paint finish was much higher. The teams came in unmarked, custom made boxes of white card. There were extra card supports for the goalkeeper, and judging from the sets I've seen, a ball and tackle dice were included.
I was chatting to a friend (Gary) at a toy collectors fair, and he mentioned that his friends had formed a 4-2-4 league in the early 1970s. One of them had originally owned the box set, and the rest were so impressed with how the game looked that they all wanted a copy. Each kid ordered a different team from the World Cup, and Gary told me that the Argentina was particularly fine. In addition, if a team had stand-out players, these were often painted into these early teams. Of course, all the bases were numbered, so players could be unique. One of his circle was a proud owner of a Manchester United, with recognisable George Best (sideburns), and Bobby Charlton. However, the Liverpool (and Chelsea) shown above have identikit players, and I think that was the norm.
January 2023: Teams with individual players might be a bit more widespread than I have suggested. Website Old Football Games has some lovely examples.
The early teams were supplied glued into their bases, and the players were moulded onto a thin bar like Subbuteo. Later on, (and certainly by the Grandslam era, see below), the players were produced on a deeper bar. This meant that the teams did not have to be glued into the bases, and extra players could be supplied loose, and simply swapped into the bases in the set. I am assuming you could also buy these new figures unpainted, as I own a few glossy sides that certainly look home-painted.
Grandslam Version (1970s).
This was a "mass market" version of 4-2-4. If a company wants to produce a tabletop football game, sometimes it is cheaper and easier to buy the rights to an existing game, rather than design a new one. 4-2-4 spent a decade leased to an American company who produced this version.
The subtitle of this version was "the realistic table football game", which underlined the rivalry with Subbuteo.
As you can see, the teams here were simply produced in all white and all blue plastic. Whilst this cut down on painting time, they look pretty awful compared to the earlier version, especially the blue team. The goals and bases were identical to the earlier version, except that the original indented numbers on the bases were replaced with stickers. This was a cost-cutting move, and probably quite sensible for mass-production. The other cost-cutting move was, unfortunately, game breaking.
Grandslam was still nicely presented within the box. The troubles started when you removed it. The big problem with Grandslam was the pitch. To cut costs, the lovely baize pitch was replaced by a cheap artificial surface made of a white material, printed green. For starters, the pitch folded into horrible creases, and would melt if ironed. However, even fresh out of the box it was too hard a surface to play on, and the ball would simply run out of control. Grandslam's producers were not the only company to fall into this trap. Subbuteo too switched to a cheaper alternative to baize from about 1980, but at least their pitches were not as poor as this one (and they did produce the expensive Astropitch as an alternative).
Mr Waterman duly reported the problems, but sadly found he had no say in the production of the game.
Premier League! (1993)
These sets dated to 1993 saw 4-2-4 return to its inventor's control, and of course the baize pitch made a welcome return. Once again, many of the components had a familiar look, including the goals and goalkeepers. The sets were released by TAF Sportsgames Limited, who were based in Burnley. For the new version, the bases kept the same shape, but were now all green, with the teams differentiated in play by a large coloured sticker on the top surface (again, individually numbering the players). The new base was a one-piece design. Instead of the rubbery "foot", the underneath of the base was now mostly hollow, with grip marks only on the edges.
The playing figure was different to the 1970s version, being made of a modern plastic and printed with shirt details. To my eye, they do have a rather odd looking stance, and they were improved for the game's next outing (see below). The gameplay itself had also been tweaked. The defensive "challenges" and single "dribble" had gone. Instead, the defending players could be positioned around a position mark to prevent passing. The "player zones" had also changed in shape slightly. Overall, the rulebook was much clearer than the Grandslam version, and emphasized the speed, skills and tactics required. In addition, the set included a coaching and instructional video. The box stated that the game was recommended by The English Schools Football Association.
There were several sets of Premier League produced, and my understanding is that these were designed for club shops. Each set was tailored to the club in question, and featured the home team against a well known rival. As well as the sets shown here, I know of a Portsmouth vs Southampton set, and Old Football Games has a Leeds Utd vs Manchester United version. Recently on ebay was a Blackburn vs Liverpool version, from which I've borrowed pictures of box and players. The video case in each set suggests that England and Scotland versions were also produced (see above). The name on the pitch is TAF Premier League, which reflects the name of the company, even if the words no longer feature in the title of the game.
Premier Table Soccer (2000).
This lovely set was a tweaked version of Premier League designed for general release. The interior of the box was unchanged from the 1990s version, with the coaching video, and teams neatly laid out. Once again, it was sold as "the realistic table football game", and also "the footballer's football game". This time, the recommendation of the game came from The Professional Footballers Association (PFA), and it must be pleasing for the inventor to have had so much support from the football community down the years.
The game was displayed at the Match of the Day exhibition at the NEC Birmingham in 2000, and a website was produced to support it.
Like many football games in the 21st Century, licensing issues and image rights mean that the team kits had to be fudged. Lucky then, that England and Brazil have such recognisable colours... The figures themselves had changed again since Premier League, and the new look was much better. A clever touch was the suggestion of name and number on the shirt.
The ease of short gentle chipping remained a strength, and the advertising for this version highlighted the ability to have proper free kicks and corners. I have included a photo of the pitch once again, so the zones can be compared with earlier versions. The curved black lines are a shooting area and the big black crosses are extra tackle lines.
If you are interested in playing Premier Table Soccer, then a new version is being produced. The new version of the game has an instructional DVD instead of a video, and is available from http://premiertablesoccer.com/ for £32.99. Extra teams are also available to purchase.
Final thanks on this page must go to inventor Tom Waterman, who kindly wrote to me with extra details and clarifications.
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