Twenty Years Ago Today: Colour Crisis in Miniature

Honestly, guys, IT's NOT THAT HARD. (figure painted by Stathis Tsolis) Twenty years ago today, the people who make Subbuteo announced they had caved in to the will of a 9 year old and would, at last, be putting a mixture of both black and white players in their version of the England football team. Ashley Williams (the boy in question) had opened up his shiny new set of players, only to find there was no one to represent John Barnes or Paul Ince or Ian Wright or Carlton Palmer - or the rest of the fifth of professional players who were black at the time.

For those who don't know, Subbuteo is a miniature football (or soccer) game, in which little plastic footballers are flicked at a little plastic ball on a felt football pitch. In the days before computer gaming, it was one of the very few ways to play football without actually putting your boots on and going out into the cold to be beaten by people who were better at the game than you were. The absurd name comes from the Latin word for 'hobby', and was only used because the creator of the game found that he wasn't actually allowed to trademark the word 'hobby'. Why he didn't use the word 'football' in the name is something of a mystery, but in the end, it didn't matter: 'Subbuteo' means 'tabletop football' to several generations of children, who are much more interested in pretending that England can win the world cup than why Subbuteo has such a silly name.

Waddingtons, the makers of the game, initially resisted the pressure to make their model teams racially integrated, despite the fact that they were already producing both black and white players in sets that were either completely black or completely white - for example, the Brazilian team they sold was made up of exclusively black players. They claimed that the effort involved in mixing up the two types of figures was prohibitively expensive, and that people who objected to this policy could always paint the players' faces brown if they wanted. At this point, somebody presumably realised that there was a gaping bullet-sized hole in a Waddington-shaped foot, and reversed their policy before you could say 'PR disaster in the making'.

Is this the boy who made Waddingtons think twice? Or just a guy with the same name?

Young Ashley Williams was, as you can imagine, rather chuffed. And it's interesting to note that there's an Ashley Williams of about the right age and from the right part of the country currently captaining Swansea City as well as playing for Wales. And he happens to be black. This could all be a coincidence. But it would make a great story if it were true.

(Waddingtons, meanwhile, were bought up by Hasbro later in 1994, who eventually stopped bothering with Subbuteo - until they, too, realised the passion many people had for the game, and relaunched it in 2012).