I got Subbuteo for my sixth birthday, but a career-ending injury crisis struck both teams after just ten minutes. My three year old brother ‘borrowed’ all the little men, except for the goalkeepers, to staff his convoy of new Matchbox cars. He ‘had’ to snap each little man off his ‘flick to kick’ base, so their tiny feet could reach the pedals. My new birthday present had been reduced to the level of blow football, which I already knew just gave you a headache and was about as much fun to play as having one.
Mum saved the day, with an inspired improvisation using the silver foil from a Kit-Kat, a shoe box and a few packets of A&BC football cards hastily fetched from Hilda’s, the corner shop. In that moment of genius my mum invented the basis for a game that was to provide me with more blissful hours of compelling entertainment than Subbuteo or any other shop-bought toy, for the rest of my childhood years.
‘Footballers’ was the generic name for the thousands of football cards that I would collect during the 1970s and also, like ‘Life’, it was ‘the name of the game’ that I alone, it seems, used to play with them.
Kevin Keegan, Malcolm MacDonald, Gordon Banks, Peter Osgood, Charlie George and my boyhood hero, Ian Callaghan, complete with a rectangular sliver of pink bubble gum, all for the princely sum of just three ‘new’ pence. Although, in the interests of historical accuracy, such a single transfer scoop would be like finding a unicorn’s egg inside a Lucky Bag. All too often each unopened packet, although perpetually anointed with the promise of glorious bounty, usually yielded just another Ernie Hunt, the original Frank Lampard, maybe a young Alex Ferguson or worst of all, a pointless bloody ‘checklist’. But, any packet containing a Liverpool player would lend the whole day an air of mystical resonance.
The goalposts for the game were made from a shoebox cut in half and the ball from any piece of tin foil that was to hand, usually the lining from a cigarette packet. The pitch could be any carpeted floor that was big enough. Shag pile was useless. The grass was too long and its effect upon play was the same as having a water-logged pitch.
The Subbuteo ‘flick to kick’ principle applied to Footballers too, in that the bottom corners of each player’s card acted as their feet, which was why a carpeted playing surface was absolutely essential. Holding the attacking player in the right hand and the defending player in the left, the ball was passed by flicking it with each players right or left foot. The back-heel was a potentially standard skill, but since imagination played a large part in the authenticity of the game, this was reserved only for cheeky players like Stan Bowles or Duncan Mackenzie.
A right footed player would evolve into a more naturally left footed one as wear and tear took its toll upon his fragile cardboard body, a process that conversely made goalkeepers more agile and daring, and therefore better, as their flexibility and athleticism increased. Free-kick specialists could be developed by folding one cardboard foot at a slight angle that would enable the ball to be lifted over the wall, formed in a similar way to a ‘house of cards’ by the defending team, while my left hand was busy helping an anxious goalkeeper.
The obligatory running commentary for every match was provided by David Coleman, my own impression preceding Chris Barrie’s on Spitting Image by a decade. The crowd noise came from my still cherished ’Kop Choir’ LP.
‘Footballers’ was far more authentic than any other football game around at the time and represented a triumph of childhood imagination over marketing and merchandising. As I often used to say on David Coleman’s behalf…‘One-Nil!’