Joining the little league

Sheffield Table Football Club at the Porter Brook: Sheffield United defending against Inter Milan, with Brett Price in goal in the background
Sheffield Table Football Club at the Porter Brook: Sheffield United defending against Inter Milan, with Brett Price in goal in the background

DO you want a Dukla Prague away kit for Christmas?

If indeed you are a fan of yellow football tops with maroon arms, you may also have a soft spot for the plastic table football game remembered with affection by surrealist rock band Half Man Half Biscuit in their classic Christmas tribute to rare Subbuteo accessories.

Simon Jackson already has a Dukla Prague away kit but, as manager of Sheffield SC (Subbuteo Club), you would expect this. “Next season we’re all hoping to play in Dukla Prague colours,” he said.

On the first Sunday evening in every month, the SSC meet at the Porter Brook pub in Ecclesall Road to take part in the hotly-contested Porter Brook Shield.

An artificial turf pitch is erected on a pub table and a nine-minute per match round robin tournament takes place, allowing plenty of half-time visits to the bar.

“The more pints I have, the better I play,” observed Brett Price.

Modern Subbuteo is a serious (but not too serious) business. The five or so regular players for Sheffield take part in the Yorkshire Pudding Premiership with rivals from Huddersfield and beyond, the Steel City Championship and the Sweet FA Bucket.

The Sheffield Subbuteo squad had its origins over 20 years ago when college friends Simon Jackson and Mat Atkin fished out their old plastic teams for an all-night board game tournament with friends.

The matches continued and then became national (and international) as the original players moved away or to university (one to Prague, as it happens).

“We’d arrange home and away matches combined with nightclubbing at different cities,” Simon explained.

In July, Mat and Simon launched a club and started a league in Sheffield. The official title is Sheffield Table Football Club, as Simon is a little wary of lawyers from the American owners of the Subbuteo brand.

The game has a real international following, complete with national and international governing bodies. There was even an attempt a few years ago to make Subbuteo an Olympic sport.

“I think it’s making a comeback,” said Brett Price.

Simon hopes the word will spread to enthusiasts (or former enthusiasts) and he and the regulars always welcome new players on the Sunday sessions.

Bethan Atkin and David Taggart were not expecting to enact a close-fought match between Sheffield United and Inter Milan when they arrived at the Porter Brook last Sunday but enjoyed their first-ever Subbuteo game.

“I’m very proud of my team,” said Inter Milan manager David after scoring the winner against Bethan’s vigorous defending in injury time.

“I’m gutted,” said the Sheffield United boss.

Once the rules are mastered, the game is surprisingly quick-moving. “You’ve got to be quick to work out what your opponent is going to play next,” said Mat Atkin.

“It can be as tactical as chess,” said Brett, adding that he soon abandoned the traditional 4-2-4 formation for the more practical 7-0-3.

Brett became a player again after the typical adult Subbuteo player loft conversion. “My mum had found my old stuff up in the attic and she said do you want it, or shall I throw it away?”

There’s only one answer for men with a 1970s non-computerised boyhood.

With his plastic Manchester City figures to hand, Brett located the Yorkshire Phoenix Open Weekend on the internet and found himself a few days later with dozens of other adult players at the Wakefield Trinity rugby ground.

“They were all polishing their bases, I’d never seen that before,” he said. “Then I found out I was in the ‘Group of Death’ playing against England’s number one and Scotland’s number one. I lost the first game 8-0 and the 2nd 7-0. So there was a bit of improvement.”

Brett’s eight-year-old son plays (“He’s better than me already”) and he has also got colleagues playing in a works league.

“The Sunday sessions are just a fun night really,” said Simon. “Anyone on the night can have a go. People do talk about it nostalgically but I admit it does have an image problem. It can be a bit embarrassing to say ‘I play Subbuteo’ when other people are saying they play tennis or golf.”

Returners should, be warned however: you’ll need some flicking practice beforehand as the bases have been redesigned to avoid the rolling all over the pitch problems of the past, and you may be shocked at the replacement cost of teams you may find in your attic with multiple fractures and headless goalkeepers. (A mid-70s Sheffield Wednesday team with ‘paint wear to players knees’ will currently set you back £80, for example).

Mat pointed out that Subbuteo is rumoured to be planning a relaunch next year and he expects a gradual growth.

“I’d say to people, get your stuff out of the loft and get in touch when you’re ready,” said Simon. “After all, it took us 22 years to make it official.”

lSheffield Table Football Club: 07415 224651 or Next Porter Brook tournament is January 8.