The ghosts of past Christmas (football) presents: recalling a far more innocent age of straws, annuals and ‘electronic’ Subbuteo scoreboards – Simon Carter

It was, officially, The Best Christmas Ever. ‘Twas the morning of December 25, 1980, and Santa had successfully visited my house, even though it didn’t have a chimney. Somehow, though, he’d got in and left a sack of goodies at the end of my bed when I was sleeping.

By Simon Carter
Wednesday, 22nd December 2021, 11:39 am
Flashback - flick to kick, a late 1970s Subbuteo game. Not boring at all.
Flashback - flick to kick, a late 1970s Subbuteo game. Not boring at all.

I was 11 years old, St Winifred’s School Choir were No 1 in the charts with a song thousands of grannies would soon be receiving, and I was giddy with anticipation as I spied a present the Elves had carefully wrapped.

‘Mum, dad, it looks like a Subbuteo box!’ I was practically jumping up and down by this stage. And indeed it was, but not just any Subbuteo box. The World Cup version, with electronic scoreboard and floodlights.

‘One Father Christmas, there’s only one Father Christmas, one Faaaaaather Christmas.’

A Subbuteo electronic scoreboard. Electricity not included.

A different age, obviously. A more innocent era to grow up in, definitely. A better age, a better era? Well, we all think our childhoods are better than anyone else’s, don’t we?

I loved my Subbuteo set, my friends and I played for hours. We organised tournaments, during which we dosed ourselves up on a thousand E numbers. It’s hard not to stroll down memory lane, at certain times, without a tear being pushed down a cheek for a period of our lives we’ll never get back …

Much has changed in the subsequent 40 years since Santa allowed me to Flick to Kick. Kids’ attention spans, for instance. When my own son was around 11 or 12, I introduced him to Subbuteo.

‘Dad, why I would want to play this? It looks booooooring! Why can’t I carry on playing FIFA on my PlayStation?’

Arsenal's Frank McLintock at home watching his children playing Subbuteo in the early 1970s. Hopefully a similar scene will be had in the homes of Liverpool and Manchester City players this Christmas. Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images.

‘Look, this is the game I loved when I was your age. My friends and I played it for hours.’

‘Well, they must have been boooooooring friends!’

‘Sush, anyway I had an electric scoreboard, it was great.’

‘What, you had something electronic all those years ago? Was it like the one I saw at Wembley?

How many youngsters will be flicking to kick this Christmas time? Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

(As I’m a good dad, I had treated Ben to a day out at the national stadium in 2008, to watch Exeter beat Cambridge in the non-league play-off final. He didn’t enjoy it as much as I did).

‘Er, no, not quite. Well, er, my electronic scoreboard wasn’t actually, er, that electronic.’

‘Dad, what do you mean?

‘Er, you had bits of paper with team names written on them in an electronic-type font and you slid them into place on the scoreboard. To make it look realistic.’

The Kenny Dalglish Football Game. A much-have, in the era before technology arrived.

By this stage, I knew Ben’s Subbuteo career would have a similar time length to that of Ali Dia’s real football one at Southampton in 1996.

‘So dad, not electronic at all then?’

‘Well, er, no.’

‘Muuuuuuuum, dad’s making me play a really booooooring game!’

‘Si, let him play FIFA - he’s not interested in your game. And anyway, it does look boring.’

Growing up, in the late 70s and early 80s, Santa was great. He wore red and white, which were Exeter’s colours. And for a number of years, without fail, he would deliver fantastic footie presents. That and chocolate, which was more than fine by me.

There were always six or seven presents exactly the same size. Football annuals. I was a voracious reader when I was a kid. Still am, come to think of it. By the mid-80s I had amassed a large volume of annuals - Topical Times, Shoot!, Match Weekly, Score, Roy of the Rovers, Scoop, Scorcher. There were even annuals dedicated to Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish.

Keegan was the undoubted king of commercialism back then. He advertised a swathe of products, including aftershave and radios. He was used in advertising series promoting the Green Cross Code and kidney donor cards. His face adorned Lyons Maid lollies, rub down transfers, boxes of breakfast cereals and slippers. He even released a record. Really, CR7 has nothing on Kevin Keegan when it comes to self-promotion.

Kenny Dalglish, however, was my boyhood idol. I had a Liverpool shirt with his No 7 on the back. I cut up newspapers and magazines to compile scrapbooks all about him. His was the one Panini sticker I cherished above all others (apart from the Exeter City team group in the 1981/82 season).

One year, Santa kindly delivered a Kenny Dalglish Football Game. A table top game with players that swivelled by turning their bodies, it had first been manufactured by Casdon Games in the 1960s with Bobby Charlton putting his name to it. Keegan must have been busy splashing Brut all over with Henry Cooper when Casdon rang him. My friends and I spent hours playing this too. We never once thought we were boring.

Another year, I found a Blow Football game in my Christmas sack. Well, I repeat, it was a more innocent age back then. And the prospect of frantically trying to blow a ping pong ball into a goal, while your friend/parent/sibling is equally frantically trying to blow it in the other direction, is - even I have to concede - a tough sell to today’s youngsters.

I did try, though, my son again an unwilling opponent a few years back. You can imagine how someone raised on technology reacted when I suggested it.

‘Dad, you’re joking, aren’t you? You’re telling me I’ve got to blow a table tennis ball into your goal? Booooooring!’

‘Come on, it’ll be fun.’

‘It won’t be. Dad, did you REALLY used to play this when you were young? It’s more boring than Subbuteo. Did you have an electronic scoreboard with your straws?

‘I didn’t hear that. Come on Ben, give it 10 minutes. You can pretend to be Barcelona, I’ll be Exeter.’

‘Dad, my friends are online playing Skylanders and Minecraft and you’re asking me to blow a table tennis ball with a straw? MUUUUUUM, dad’s being annoying - again!’

You can still buy the game online. Temptation Gifts (established 1983) are selling Blow Football for £7.99, which admittedly seems a high price for a plastic ball and straws (or ‘blow tube straws’ as they are now, needlessly, known).

‘This classic tabletop soccer game is great fun for all the family!’ boasts the accompanying advertising guff alongside a picture of the box with its 1930s footie imagery. ‘Whether you’re the next Sergio Aguero or the iconic Stanley Matthews, the goal of the game is to blow the ball past the goalkeeper and score! The winner gets to lift the coveted Miniature Trophy!’

Hmmm, a few too many exclamation marks for my liking there and I’m not convinced ‘coveted’ is the right word either.

‘Warning: Choking Hazard. Not Suitable for children under 3 years’ runs an online warning for prospective buyers. Sadly, even if we have to endure years of future lockdowns to flatten curves, I’m not sure children over three will ever find the time to embrace this game as much as previous generations did.

My stocking wasn’t just stuffed full of footie games and books every year. No, Santa made sure I didn’t smell either. I always had a football soap on a rope. Even in the bath, there was no getting away from the beautiful game, AND my ducks could practice their headers!

I’ve just looked online. You can buy football soaps (still on a rope) for £14 at notonthehighstreet.com. Fourteen quid for soap! ‘Perfect to hang in the shower and wash away the mud of the pitch,’ reads the blurb. ‘Gently fragranced, it would be ideal for both male and female players.’ A soap for both sexes, who’d ever have thought it?

‘Perfect for a birthday or Christmas as a stocking filler, or just to celebrate that great match.’ So next time your team wins a big game, you know what to do. Instead of splashing out £14 on three pints of lager and some pork scratchings, buy a football soap on a rope instead. You know it makes sense.

When this Saturday comes, how many children will be waking up as giddy with anticipation as I was all those years ago? Millions, obviously.

But how many will find Subbuteo in their stocking, perhaps one of the sets containing - a nice nod to the modern game, this - a VAR box? How many will unwrap a Blow Football game? More to the point, how many would want to?

The Topical Times annual died a death years ago, but others still remain - Match Weekly and Shoot!, even though the latter magazine was last produced in 2008. In these days of rampant technology, is there is still a place for traditional games, like Subbuteo, and the joy of reading a book or annual? My own kids - 19 and 18 now - wouldn’t dream of picking up a book. A far cry, therefore, from their dad’s era, an eclectic pot pourri of straws, Roy of the Rovers and non-electronic electronic scoreboards. My friends and I might have been ‘boooooring’, and our scoreboards certainly lacked electricity, but one thing we didn’t lack - thank God - was pure childhood innocence. I fervently hope, four decades on, that is still the case with today’s 11-year-olds.

Happy Christmas.