Subbuteo is a game based on association football, involving dexterity and skill in flicking the playing figures, which stand on weighted bases, across the tabletop pitch towards the ball. Many football fans have played this game at some point in their life and the regularity of new shirt designs has built up a back catalogue of collectable items for any followers of the Sheffield teams.
Subbuteo was invented by Peter Adolph (1916–1994), who was demobbed from the RAF after World War II. Searching for a business opportunity he turned his attention to creating a new table-top football game. He adapted his game from Newfooty, a game invented in 1929 by William Keeling of Liverpool. He made numerous improvements, including heavy lead bases under the model players to lighter materials, using for his prototype a button from his mother’s coat and a washer.
In 1961 Adolph introduced a three-dimensional hand painted plastic figure and after several design modifications, this figure evolved into the classic “heavyweight” player. In 1980 the new lightweight figure was introduced.
Heavy weight players from the 1970s. The one on the left is a customised figurine representing an AS Monaco player. The other two are as originally painted, reference 6 in yellow and ref 65 in white, representing England
In its early years, Subbuteo had a fierce rivalry with Newfooty. In the run up to Christmas 1961 Adolph introduced a three-dimensional handpainted plastic figure into the range. After several design modifications, this figure evolved by 1967 into the classic “heavyweight” figure pictured. Newfooty ceased trading in 1961 after a failed television advertising campaign but its demise is thought to be linked to the launch of the moulded Subbuteo players. There were several further evolutions of figure design. In 1978 the “zombie” figure was introduced to facilitate the machine painting of figures. After much negative feedback, the zombie figure was replaced in 1980 by the “lightweight” figure that continued until the 1990s when Hasbro acquired Waddingtons Games, which owned Subbuteo.
After Hasbro bought John Waddington in 1994, Subbuteo sales declined from about 150,000 sets per year to 3,000 in 2002 and just 500 sets in 2003, when production was stopped. Hasbro relaunched Subbuteo in 2005 with flat photorealistic card-style figures on bases, rather than three-dimensional figures. The relaunch was not a success and was again discontinued.
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