the small but beautiful gameBack
Leeds United were away on Sunday, but there were still games of eleven-a-side going on at Elland Road even while the full size team were drawing with Leicester.
Qualification issues in the Subbuteo Challenge Cup North had been settled by the time I got to the Pavilion on Lowfields Road, but I was in time for an appetising quarter final between surprise package Paul ‘The Bulletman’ Kerfoot, and experienced campaigner Brian Daley.
The flick-to-kick tabletop game is enjoying a renaissance according to the Challenge Cup’s organiser, Mark Watson, who acquired the rights and relaunched Subbuteo back into the country’s top ten games in 2012. Subbuteo had temporarily disappeared from the nation’s shelves, but the iconography has never gone away. Those little figures, painted to match the real kits of real teams, stiffly posed on round bases, are still a source of identification (and of merchandise) for fans of the life-sized sides. My own prized set, of players in white shirts, shorts and socks with blue and yellow trim and blue and yellow bases, kept in its box marked ‘Leeds United – 1992 Football League Champions’, is like Ross McCormack: not for sale. Neither is the Subbuteo rendering of the following season’s blue with yellow pixels away kit, if only because I’m still amazed they managed to pull it off at such small scale.
Those team boxes still hold a pull; in the Pavilion I was immediately drawn to brand new sets of maroon players with ‘Italian Club Edition’ emblazoned across the box. The real action here, though, was on the tables. “We’re always looking at ways of introducting Subbuteo to people, and ways that people can see the game being played, which is why we’ve started this tournament,” Mark told me. “The standard’s really good, with a lot of competitive matches.”
Brian Daley, sporting an England shirt, plays as Holland in tournament Subbuteo, and has an aura of quietly spoken professionalism. “Everyone plays in red, white, black and blue,” he says. “So no one plays in orange. That’s why I play in orange. I never have to change my team.” A team change can disrupt the mental preparation, so Brian minimises the risk. “It’s like every sport, if you’re not mentally prepared, you fall foul.” The players are kept in a wooden, sticker-lined box, and put through a special preperation before every game, their bases polished on a treated cloth to give them the optimum zip across an astroturf surface. So polished are these Dutch lads, that the bases are a peach colour that contrasts with the vibrant original orange. Brian, who has won “hundreds” of tournaments, and is described on the Subbuteo Association website as “without doubt one of the quickest players ever to grace the green baize,” just smiles when I ask what the polish on his cloth is. “This is from 1996, this cloth. It’s a secret. It’s from Norway,” he says, before an unwelcome bump on the playing pitch is pointed out and he moves the game to another table.
Across the table Paul Kerfoot, aka The Bulletman, is wearing a red t-shirt – “It’s a psychological thing, don’t they say teams in red win more?” – with ‘Bulletman United’ on the back, although he’s not a Man U fan. Paul’s using a two cloth system to get the friction just right for his red-shirted team. “If you want to keep up with the best players,” he tells me, “You’ve got to do what the best players do.” He’s also grinning like it’s Christmas. After winning two penalty shoot-outs in earlier rounds, his qualification for October’s national final at the Football Museum in Manchester is assured. A self-confessed novice, especially compared to an international standard player like Brian, Paul has delayed a holiday on the east coast to compete today, and got a result he didn’t dare hope for. “To be honest I just came for the fun of it; I didn’t expect to get anywhere but I’ve just won a penalty shoot out and I’m going to Manchester. I’m over the moon.” Now the pressure’s off and he’s ready to test himself against the best, not worried by the secret formula polish. “The fact that I’m playing an England international player, that worries me,” he says. “But I’ll just watch the master at work now and enjoy it. And try not to get thrashed.”
Brian had The Bulletman on the back foot from the outset. “It’s a little bit like chess, and that’s what I like about it,” Paul had told me before the match. “You slide your players around and try to predict what your opponent is going to do.” Brian was always several flicks ahead of Paul, who was tested all across the table while Brian’s back line rarely moved from their starting positions, like an impenetrable row of pawns. When The Bulletman did threaten Brian’s goal, Brian pulled out a wow-moment, curving his full back around an attacker to land it perfectly against the ball. “How did you do that?” exclaimed Paul.
Without much at stake, competition gave way to camaraderie, as Brian and the referee pointed out some flaws in Paul’s flicking technique that could see him giving away needless fouls in Manchester. Brian turned on the style, at one point gaining a free kick in a danger area with some speedy anticipatory flicking that I couldn’t quite follow, even in a slowed down post-match demonstration, and which the referee can’t master either. “I’ve been trying for years to get the hang of that,” said the ref, with an admiring glance at a player who was once fourth in the world.
“I’ve been out of it for a few years, but I’m just getting good again,” said Brian after winning the twenty minute match 3-0. “If I’d needed the goals for a team competition I could have attacked differently, I could have swamped him, and won that seven or eight nil. But I wanted us to enjoy the game. I think Paul will be fine in Manchester, but he’s got some things to work on.”
The Bulletman wasn’t letting the defeat get him down. “I’ve got to learn from that,” said Paul, as he thanked Brian for the advice. “I’m a fast learner – that’s why they call me Bulletman! It’s about using that now. It’s a bit like a second division team getting to a final. I’d have loved it today, even if I hadn’t got through. But to get to Manchester is just a dream for me.”
Brian, meanwhile, couldn’t quite grasp glory on the day, losing what sounds like a humdinging semi-final 4-3 to Tom Burns, who was then beaten in the final by Richard Stock, the game a 1-1 draw decided on penalties. The junior final, for under 16s, ended in a 2-0 win for Thomas Price over Connor Bowden. They all go forward to the National Football Museum in Manchester, though, for the Subbuteo Challenge Cup UK Final on Saturday 19th October.
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