Back in 1985, Saturday mornings were all about my quest to be the next Boris Becker. Or at least Jeremy Bates. This mission involved two hours of whacking a sponge ball over a net on a badminton court at my local council sports centre followed by a plate of chips, drenched in vinegar. It was tennis, east end of Glasgow style.
I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but at the age of 13, deep down I’d already resigned myself to the reality that I wasn’t going to make it as a footballer. Tennis, though, was another matter. That I could do. Surely a couple of hours practice a week was all I’d need to bring me up to the standard of someone like Bates? I even had a real coach, for God’s sake – even if he was a Bobby Ball lookalike who, judging by his bedraggled state every Saturday, spent Friday nights on the razzle, rather than preparing to impart his wisdom on a gang of oiks.
But this is not about tennis. Much as I enjoyed my weekly sessions of short tennis – that’s the official name for indoor tennis with a sponge ball – football was my first love, so when the chance to play alongside some of Scotland’s best players came I didn’t hesitate to grab it. Even if they were of the table football variety.
Out of the blue, one Friday evening I got a phone call at home from a man. Phone calls for me were a fairly rare occurrence back then – calls from strange men, I assure you, were even rarer, which is why the rest of the family clustered round the trimphone as I took the call. The man on the other end of the line turned out to be Bob McGiffen, the president of the Scottish branch of the Subbuteo Association, and he was calling to invite me to take part in a competition the very next day. I was nearly sick with excitement.
I’d been playing Subbuteo for about six years and for a while it had been an absolute obsession. My pal Kevin and I developed our own league, filled with fictional teams and players. We compiled league tables, invented knock-out competitions and drew up endless lists of stats. I made match programmes for big games and we even recorded radio programmes, complete with live commentaries and match reports. We also made up our own rules and developed our own unique “style” of play that would have given the traditionalists heart failure. I loved Subbuteo so much, that in first year at secondary school I did a presentation in front of my entire English class on the history of the game, complete with props.
Actually, by 1985, my passion for Subbuteo was on the wane, with pop music gradually taking over as my Big Thing (home-made radio shows and stats were still to the fore, natch). But we still played fairly regularly and I was still a member of the Subbuteo Association, hence that Friday night call from Mr McGiffen.
At some point, I had apparently expressed an interest in taking part in official competitions and may also have told a little white lie, implying (or more likely, stating) that I competed in a proper league. The Glasgow regional heat of the Scottish Championships was taking place the next day and there had been a last-minute withdrawal. He knew it was short notice, but Bob wondered if I could fill the vacant space. Could I be in Jordanhill by 9am the next morning?
Could I? COULD I? Of course I bloody could! Once I’d checked that my dad would be able to drive me across the city, that is. Having cleared that hurdle, short tennis was promptly cancelled and I set about preparing for the competition. Clearly the most pressing issue was reading up on the rules, since this competition was not going to be played under the Baillieston and Mount Vernon Subbuteo Association’s code.
The biggest problem was that we had eschewed one of the fundamental tenets of the table-top game, the concept of the flick-to-kick technique. Essentially this meant you were only allowed to move players to by flicking them with your index finger. Kevin and I had decided at an early stage that this was far too difficult and that you should be allowed to use any method of propulsion you liked, as long as it was with the hand. My favoured technique was to use my thumb, which gave you a lot more power and height on shots. Unfortunately, by the letter of the law, it was completely illegal.
The other difference between the official game and our take on it, was that until now, every match I’d ever played had taken place with the pitch laid out on a carpeted floor rather than nailed to a specially designed table. Not only did this call for a completely different playing style, but also resulted in numerous injuries to players, caused by misplaced knees and rampaging little sisters.
After an evening studying the regulations, I retired to bed, although obviously I hardly slept. Armed with two teams – I’ve forgotten which ones they were but I suspect it would have been Belgium and Watford, two of my favourites – we headed west to leafy Jordanhill, and the venue for the tournament, the Jolly Giant toy superstore.
OK, it might not have been Hampden or Ibrox but the Jolly Giant still held some sort of cachet for a 13-year-old boy. The toy superstore had been opened by a Scottish businessman inspired by a visit to Toys R Us in the USA and at the time there was nothing else like it on this side of the Atlantic. This was my first visit and I was somewhat taken aback to be confronted by a huge, animatronic giant as we entered the shop.
A section had been cleared for the tournament at the back of the store, featuring two tables surrounded by the famous green Subbuteo branding. The pitches were brightly lit (significantly, not by pisspoor Subbuteo floodlights) and pristine, like Wembley on FA Cup final day – or, more accurately, like the green baize at the Crucible on Snooker World Championship final day.
After the giant, er, giant, the next surreal moment of the day was receiving my COMPETITOR badge and seeing my name on the board listing all the fixtures. This shit was real! I was down to play against an R. Lee (I think his first name might have been Ronnie, so let’s call him that) and I scanned the gathered players to see if I could identify my opponent. I imagined he would be the one looking supremely confident after being drawn against some unknown, but in truth everyone looked a bit like I felt – nervous and apprehensive.
Then came surreal moment number three. As I looked around, I spotted a familiar, if unexpected face. Who was that anxious looking old bloke in the duffel coat, carrying a supermarket plastic bag? Surely not Mr S, the chemistry teacher from my school? With his dad. No, it couldn’t be. Could it? Well, yes it could, and in fact it was. As I read in the following Monday’s paper, it turned out that he’d actually won a Daily Record competition to take part in the tournament. Unfortunately for him, he was hammered four nil in the first round but still had to have his picture in the paper.
Meanwhile, as the minutes passed before my match, I was getting increasingly anxious. Watching the other games, I began to worry that I had agreed to something that I simply wasn’t up to. The formations and tactics being used by the other players were frankly baffling, and of course, there was the small matter of never having actually played the game properly before.
I briefly toyed with the idea of doing a runner, but it was too late to back out now. Before I knew it my name was being called out and it was game-time. Looking back, I’ve got very little recollection of the match itself. It all passed in a bit of a blur. For all my fears, I must have absorbed enough from watching the other matches to get the gist of the style expected because I don’t remember any strange looks from my opponent or the referee. In fact not only did I hold my own, somehow I managed to score a goal. I’d love to be able to describe it in great detail here, but again, I have no memory of it all.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to hold on for an unlikely victory. Ronnie equalised in the second half and the game went to the Subbuteo equivalent of a penalty shoot-out. Yet again, I don’t remember any of it, but needless to say I lost. Fittingly, my adventure had ended in typical Scottish football style – glorious failure. So near, yet so far. Yada yada. My opponent made it through the next round before being defeated in the semi finals. Who’s to say how I might have fared? Maybe with a bit of momentum and a kind draw, I could have made it all the way to the final. And then… well, who knows?
But now it was over. It never really began, but in my heart it was so real. That’s what Morrissey might have said if he’d played Subbuteo. I was a bit less poetic, but just as emotional. I stayed until the end of the tournament before slinking off home.
My brush with the glamorous stars of table football was over and the following Saturday morning I returned to the hard slog of trying to become a tennis professional. Looking back, I wonder if that week of missed sponge-ball-whacking was what caused me to fail in my quest? I chose not to share my weekend’s activities with my school pals – playing Subbuteo might have been acceptable when I was in first year of secondary school, but by the age of 13 it was decidedly uncool. And that’s why I also spared Mr S the embarrassment of telling everyone what he was doing at the Jolly Giant toy superstore with his dad on Saturday morning.
So that was the end of my top-flight Subbuteo career. I let my membership pass and although I carried on playing sporadically at home, to be honest my heart wasn’t really in it. Real football, pop music and, ahem, “other stuff”, would take up more and more of my time. Without wanting to sound like Kevin from the Wonder Years, in some ways that Saturday morning marked the end of my childhood. But more important than that, it was probably the most exciting thing I’d done in my life up until that point. And almost 30 years on, it’s probably still in my top 10. What that says about my life I’ll leave you to decide…