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True Colours

Tim Turner recalls how he pimped his Subbuteo Watford team

There wasn’t a huge amount of variety in English football club colours in the early 1970s. Over half the clubs in the Football League played in plain shirts, adorned at most with contrasting collars and cuffs. Stripes and hoops accounted for most of the rest, with a few varying the colour of the sleeves (think Arsenal and West Ham) and the odd outlier, like Blackburn’s halved shirts. What’s more, in the days before anyone had conceived of a market in replica shirts, these strips tended to remain unchanged for years at a time.

All this made things fairly straightforward for the manufacturers of Subbuteo, whose catalogue listed all the colour combinations they supplied and the teams they represented. A 1974 edition I found online confirms my memory that set no. 6 – shirts: yellow with black trim, shorts: black – represented Watford, Hull City, Oxford United and Cambridge United (as well as such exotic European teams as Wuppertal and Dynamo Dresden).

But in the second half of the decade, kits began to change and Subbuteo struggled to keep up. From 1976 onwards, Watford were playing in a lighter shade of yellow with black and red stripes on the collar and down the arms. Suddenly my Subbuteo Watford team looked like yesterday’s men. I decided to give them a makeover.

Fortunately, like most teenage boys of my generation, I’d already had plenty of practice at detailed painting, thanks to long, damp days in the school holidays spent making Airfix kits. I had the fine brushes and the little tins of Humbrol enamel paint and I set to work, painstakingly painting red and black stripes down the players’ arms and replacing the passé round collars with trendy tabbed ones.

But, having completed this task, I realised that the team was still some way from verisimilitude. Factory-produced Subbuteo players all looked the same; an army of pink-skinned, black-haired clones. That didn’t reflect the Hornets as I knew and loved them. So I started customising individual players with different coloured hair and even moustaches. I can’t pretend that Ian Bolton or Keith Pritchett would have instantly recognised their miniature avatars, but to me at least, this was becoming a proper Watford team. I even reduced the height of one poor chap by severing his legs and arms, sawing off a small section with a craft knife and then gluing them back on. From the moustache he sports, my best guess now is that this was meant to be Bobby Downes. Sorry, Bobby.

Most radically, I gave two of the players brown skin. When I first rediscovered the set in my mum’s attic, I assumed these were meant to represent Luther Blissett and John Barnes. But thinking about it, my paint job happened well before Barnesy arrived, so Watford’s second black Subbuteo star can only have been intended to be Keith Cassells – very much a bit player in the early days of the Graham Taylor era, but an integral part of my team. There is one oddity I noticed when I studied the box of players. There are actually two full Watford teams in there: one set with black shorts and corresponding black bases, and one with red shorts and bases. But not quite – three of the red-shorted players are on black bases, and I don’t know why. Maybe I just got bored.

Despite this lapse, forty-odd years on I’m still rather proud of my handiwork. In the unlikely event that anyone involved in the BBC show The Repair Shop is reading this, and if you ever get an enquiry from someone who has an old Subbuteo team that needs painstakingly restoring – well, you know who to call.