This forum is dedicated to football-related stories, recollections and attempts to rewrite footballing history from the 1990s. That may reflect a number of significant things: the start of the Premier League Era (before which Sky Sports would have you believe no football even existed), the emergence of Football Italia on Channel 4 or perhaps even a fleeting Gascoigne, Shearer and then Beckham-led resurgence in the England national team’s fortunes. But the most likely reason is the simplest one. The 90s generation of football fan was exposed to far more football, and from numerous different countries than any other before it due to widespread television coverage. Whilst memories of earlier decades remain touchstones for those of us old enough, the 90s is the era that uninformed sofa-bound punditry was born. It remains a fascinating decade; for sport and culture. Politically, optimism had replaced apathy. Admittedly, that optimism would prove to be unfounded, but still … the mid-term over-riding zeitgeist was of Brit-pop fueled coolness. ]
But my contribution has only the most loose and tangential connection with the 90s. I make no apology for this, dear reader, and hope that, despite this, many of you will acknowledge it to be a story of timeless resonance, involving the greatest football game ever created … Subbuteo.
You will have read countless personal recollections of the part played in many lives by these tiny plastic warriors with the heavy, heavy monster bases. So have I. Almost all of them are great, regardless of the quality of the writing. They are great because the obvious warmth and passion of the storyteller is universal. The game did that to people. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll get to the 90s bit at the end. But firstly – and in the spirit of the late, great Ronnie Corbett - a bit of late 70s digressionary context …
HR Pufnstuf. Danny from the Partridge Family. Captain Scarlet. Les McKeown. Adam West. The kid from the Double Deckers who grew up to be in Aswad. Fred Flintstone. Blue from the High Chaparral. Hong Kong Phooey. John Boy Walton. Tucker Jenkins. The guy in the safari suit from Daktari. The Hair Bear Bunch...!
Before Paul Weller, my heroes all lacked a certain credibility.
Although it was punk, and the Ramones in particular that really sparked a lasting interest in music, it was the Jam that gave that interest some focus. Initially, I was unimpressed. I liked the cover of their first LP but felt the music paled in comparison to something like ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’. I couldn’t see much difference between ‘In the City’ and Dr. Feelgood, and it was accepted knowledge that the latter was music for ‘adults’. The mohair suits also seemed a bit corporate at a time when I was experimenting with home-made bondage trousers. Over time though, I became interested in the more melodic and anthemic songs of the Jam’s much derided second album. It coincided with a growing concern over the practicality of the bondage trousers. Drainpipe trousers with short strips of black elastic stitched criss-cross style to each inside leg were a serious impediment when running for a bus. They were an absolute bastard if running away from a potential kicking (which one very often had to, if one grew up in Onthank; a sort of suburban Safari Park for fucking headcases). In fact they almost directly contributed to me getting such a kicking on one of their last ever outings.
I had been going through a phase of picking up regular detention punishments at school. These were mostly for ridiculous things like passing notes in class or laughing out loud at an old female teacher’s ridiculous attempts to administer the belt to a boy almost two feet taller than her, and ultimately having to stand on a box to achieve it. During this period I even copped a detention slot for ‘repeatedly sneezing’. I don’t think I’d have needed Perry Mason to get me off on that one had I attempted to make an issue of it, but truth is, I was beginning to enjoy detention. It was marshalled by a groovy English teaching hippy who clearly considered the short straw of detention duty to be as much a punishment for him as for the detainees. Given that it was generally the same miscreants populating the detention chamber night after night, something of a shared group mentality kicked in and we all passed the time talking about football or, more significantly music. The hippy brought in a record player and forced us to listen to stuff like ‘Bug Eyed Beans from Venus’, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘The Lamb Lies down on Broadway’. I’ve come to love the first, to respect the second but nothing will ever make me feel remotely positive about Genesis.
Detention began to feel more like an after school record club and although the class was populated by the misbehaved, the boisterous or, on occasion, the downright violent, short-term friendships inevitably prospered. One of these ‘friendships’ saw an unlikely commonality between me and the then ‘school bully’, a bear of a kid named Malky. He was more formally known as Mad Mental Malky Mackay. Other fearsome Kilmarnock kids had one or the other adjective as part of their reference, but only Malky Mackay had both; as if one level of psychotic description didn’t quite capture the legend well enough. It was a simpler time. Nowadays, Malky would be subject to regular random drugs testing just for being the size of an average All-Black prop forward, but back then he was what was colloquially known as ‘big fuckin’ boned.’ As early as second year, it was accepted wisdom that Mad Mental Malky Mackay was the best fighter in the school. How this had happened was unclear. To my knowledge, there had been no qualifying bouts before a shot at the title. No mandatory defences against leading contenders of the day. Malky was just assumed to be the heavyweight champion. That he’d reached this achievement whilst only 14 didn’t say much for the youths in the upper school but it did give him an undeniable air of invincibility. If indeed heavy was the head that wore the crown, Malky Mackay certainly didn’t show it.
Other than a fully paid up detention subscription, and a shared love of Glasgow Rangers, our connection was through Subbuteo. He’d invited me back to his house to see his set up. Poorer kids were obsessed by the game. Slightly better off ones had moved onto Scalextric, or the bastard ‘public school’ cousin of Subbuteo; Striker (The one where you pressed the head down to kick, remember? You probably don’t … it was posh, and it was pish!) Anyway, Malky had amassed an impressive collection of accessories from the dugouts and touchline fencing to the much envied stadium complete with politely seated supporters. I was very envious. My own pitch looked more like the one Ronnie Radford’s most famous goal was scored on. All worn, mucky patches and less useable ‘grass’ than a vacant student bedsit during the summer holidays. Malky’s pitch, on the other hand, looked great and when he switched on the battery operated floodlights you could have sworn you were actually at some small local Scottish ground. Impressive though the stadium was though, he only had one lighting pylon and the empty seats outnumbered the static punters by around 20 to1. I’ll get the jokes and sniggers about my own team out of the way now. When I saw Rangers playing a Third Division league game with a lovely, manicured hedge around the perimeter, I can’t deny it looked uncannily like Malky Mackay’s Subbuteo set up. Ah, the romance of the lower leagues, eh?
I only had the basic components. I did however, have some glamorous teams. I had River Plate from Argentina, Cagliari from Italy and the Brazilian national team. Malky, on the other hand had only needed two – Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Rangers away strip. It was a shock for me to realise Mad Mental Malky Mackay was actually creatively deft with a wee paintbrush and he had painted strips and numbers onto both teams with a Caravaggio-like level of detail. Malky’s bedroom was a temple to all things bluenose. In fact, I’d noticed that his whole house had the air of a Masonic Lodge. A smiling portrait of the Queen greeted everyone upon entry. Framed pictures of famous goals lined the route upstairs to the bedrooms. Posters of the team and individual players fought with pennants for space on Malky’s bedroom walls. A Rangers alarm clock, bedspread and lightshade kept up the theme. Curtains, carpet and a dressing gown completed the ensemble. Although he’d apparently taken enough of a liking to me to invite me back there was an undeniable tension when he wasn’t happy. I began to feel that I was being assessed for a potential role as his tiny henchman; an unlikely ‘Nick Nack’ to his ‘Scaramanga’.
To my relief our game was going well. I was naturally Rangers reserves, and I was getting hammered. It was a price worth paying. At half-time, M to-the-power-4 went to the loo, and whilst he was away, his mother shouted up the stairs that his dinner was ready and that I needed to go home. I stood up abruptly, tripped over my bondage strips and collapsed onto the field like some stumbling, drunken Gulliver, crushing half of the Rangers first team, and destroying the mini terracing, sending the shocked and motionless fans flying across the room like an uncoordinated human tsunami.
I got up. I examined the casualties. All were fixable, but I looked on with a horrified, soundless Munch-like scream as Davie Cooper lay flat, legs broken. I was in the lair of the most-feared kid in Kilmarnock, having destroyed his pride and joy. His room was on the fourth floor of a set of Council two-in-a-block towers. No amount of blue upholstered bed-linen hastily tied together would reach the ground from his window. I was fourteen and fucked … until ‘Cutty’, the family’s Scottish Terrier stuck his head around the door.
‘Sorry Malky, the dug’s jist ran across the pitch an’ tipped everythin’ ower,’ I pleaded ‘an’ he fuckin’ ate Davie Cooper!’ I said, shamelessly shopping the animal, safe in the knowledge that only Doctor Doolittle would be able to counter my claims. I escaped from any further suspicion. Cutty didn’t though, and yelped painfully after a boot to his dangly, wee balls from his raging teenage owner. The passing of time has assuaged my guilt over that. Actually, the passing of the following weekend was enough, if I’m being totally honest.
Two related things changed my attitude to education. Firstly, the desire to steer clear of any and all contact with Mad Mental Malky Mackay … just in case. Ideas were bucked up, and future detentions largely avoided. The second thing was the knowledge that I had stolen the brutally injured Rangers winger, rather than risk the evidence being found, or the Mad Mental one subsequently deciding to have the dug opened up by a vet. I glued Super Cooper back together and rehabilitated him, and over time, my ‘Cagliari’ team became Rangers and Davie Cooper – massive UHU-bound lower legs and all – became its star player.
In the late 90s, when we were preparing to move house and rummaging through box after box of generally useless, hoarded rubbish, I found him; still upright, if a little stooped, but recognisably the same Davie Cooper I’d inadvertently flattened like I was a scything, hungover Sunday League centre half almost twenty years earlier.
By David F. Ross
Full Disclosure: This personal recollection was adapted to provide a peripheral back-story which can be found within my first novel ‘The Last Days of Disco’.