The Thimble and the Damage Done
Finger-based controversy and the difficulty of growing up in the Kelso Subbuteo League
Wim Kieft is clean through on goal with only the keeper to beat. The pass to him from Andreas Möller was perfect, cleaving through the opposition defence and catching the centre-backs static. The goalkeeper remains rooted to his line and Kieft has all the time in the world to pick his spot. The crowd begins to rise in anticipation as the striker calculates his angles. A goal seems certain.
A finger, wearing a metal sewing thimble, swings through the air and thwacks into the plastic base encasing Kieft’s feet. Kieft misses the ball completely, skittering wildly across the pitch before caroming into the plastic perimeter fence with a sharp ping.
McKirdy stares in horror as Kieft comes to a halt near the halfway line, springing back to his feet with a wobble. “Muppet,” scoffs a voice from the crowd. McKirdy looks towards the referee, who has turned his face away in an attempt to suppress a smile. A rictus grin of embarrassment begins to form on McKirdy’s face.
Back on the pitch, the opposition defenders clear the danger with ease. The chance has gone. There will be no triumphant opening to Branxton North End’s debut in the Kelso Subbuteo League. Blackadder FC will go on to win the match 4-0 and McKirdy’s ordeal has just begun.
To say that the Kelso Subbuteo League was the hottest ticket in town would be something of an overstatement. There was always something furtive about it, right from the start. Playing Subbuteo was not something that attracted the girls of Kelso High School and as such the KSL could not afford to trumpet its existence too loudly.
But for the members on the inside, whose obsession with football demanded records to keep and details to pore over, the KSL provided a secret society. It would last for two full seasons before it died a neglected, awkward death midway through the third. The KSL began in 1989 and brought together 10 Subbuteo players aged between 12 and 17 to compete for the league title. Fixtures were played home and away over a full season, a League Cup added extra interest for full members and a wider association cup was open to outsiders by invitation.
Each member was required to register a team name, home and away colours and a squad of player names. Playing surfaces had to be approved by a league committee, with pitches pinned to a hard, flat surface, goals fixed in place and nothing other than a perimeter fence surrounding the field of play.
Each game consisted of two halves of seven minutes, with players taking it in turn to attack and defend. Flicking a player so that he made contact with the ball rewarded a player with another flick. A series of attacking plays continued until either a goal was scored, the ball went out of play, the player who had been flicked failed to touch the ball or the flicked player clattered straight into an opponent, thus conceding a foul. The defending team could match the attacking team flick for flick, as long as his players didn’t touch the ball.
The flicking motion was strictly regulated. The striking finger had to be pulled back and swung forward without making contact with the other digits – “pinging” the player, or propelling the finger forward with extra purchase from the thumb, was an illegal move. It was not only illegal, it was considered to be the very depths of crude, unsophisticated Subbuteo. Higher standards were expected of KSL members.
And high standards were indeed expected of KSL members, not least from the league committee. The league was founded by Dave McKay, whose team, Gotham City, were crowned champions in the inaugural 1989-90 season. League decisions were taken on a democratic basis, but McKay was the driving force, the moral guardian, the keeper of the flame. As far as he was concerned, the KSL was very much a serious business.
McKay’s desire for greater professionalism had even led to a brush with authority which threatened to derail the league in its debut season. He had been meticulously compiling fixture lists and league literature on the school computers and when it was discovered that reams of paper had been used for an extra-curricular activity, he was summoned to explain why.
But McKay’s pursuit of excellence applied on the pitch as well as off it and Gotham City were worthy champions in the league’s first season. Boasting stars like Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio and Andreas Brehme, Gotham held off a strong challenge from Border Aztecs to finish two points clear at the top of the table, clinching the title on the final day.
But McKay’s insistence on high standards was not shared by everyone. Millsborough Strikers, led by Michael Oliver, were the black sheep of the KSL, an embarrassing circus act that the league committee, and McKay in particular, could not hide their disdain for. Oliver delighted in upsetting the establishment and his maverick attitude extended to team selection. All but two of the league’s 10 clubs registered their squads with the names of real football players. Of the two that took a more creative approach, Dave Howel’s Border Aztecs were afforded a measure of tolerance. His solemn respect for the game meant his squad of entirely fictional players, such as the striker Nicola Graziani and the midfielder Wolfgang Müller, met with few complaints.
Oliver’s Millsborough Strikers, on the other hand, were nothing short of a disgrace. John Major, Mr. Blobby and Don Corleone were all regulars in the starting line-up and his refusal to take notes, keep records or generally take his team seriously saw him punished for bringing the game into disrepute on several occasions.
Neither player knew it yet, but Oliver’s tomfoolery was to bring about McKirdy’s downfall.
McKirdy walked to the back of the garden, climbed through the hole in the wooden fence leading to the grass of the rugby club car park and waited. After a few minutes, a football arced over the length of fence adjacent to where McKirdy had entered, as if fired from an unseen cannon. Seconds after it bounced against the ground, McKay emerged from a hole in the fence. He was followed by his fellow KSL members Murray Wight and Alan Robson, ready to start their regular 6pm kick-around.
“Right, Andrew, we’ve got something to ask you,” said McKay, brusquely. “What’s that?” replied McKirdy, trotting after the ball, which had bounced high off the hard summer ground and had yet to come to a complete stop.
“How would you like to join the Kelso Subbuteo League? It’ll have to go to a vote at the AGM, mind, so don’t go thinking you’re in yet or anything. But I’m putting yours and Bryan’s names forward. So what do you say?”
McKirdy smiled. “Aye, sure,” he said. “Right, well, the AGM is next Tuesday at my house, 7pm sharp,” replied McKay. “And you’d better not be late.”
McKirdy knew that the KSL was looking to expand and he had been expecting an invitation. At 12 years old, he was several years younger than most of the other members, but he had the equipment and he had played in the previous season’s cup competition, losing in the first round. But he also knew that McKay harboured doubts about both his Subbuteo ability and his likelihood of taking the league seriously. McKirdy had to admit that he wasn’t sure of himself on either front.
McKirdy played Subbuteo badly, with precious little of the finesse and control needed to string together attacking moves. He had started playing with an ancient set that he had found in his grandparents’ cupboard, the players made from laminated paper stuck into plastic bases, all with Brylcreemed hairstyles. He then graduated onto the modern plastic sets and formed a team, Branxton North End, the name chosen for no other reason than it sounded right.
He practiced regularly against Bryan Dickson, alongside whom he was now about to be put forward for league membership. Dickson was just as poor a player as McKirdy, but he had an officious streak that seemed to chime with McKay and the league hierarchy. McKirdy sensed that his destiny was to be bound up with Dickson’s, a season-long struggle to avoid the ignominy of finishing bottom of the table.
Still, even if he was doomed to failure, at least he could console himself with the knowledge that he would look good in doing so. For one thing, Branxton would have the sharpest kit in the league. McKirdy had spotted a special offer in Roy of the Rovers selling limited edition Subbuteo teams labelled as The Farm, a Liverpool-based pop group riding high in the charts with the song “Groovy Train”. The players were painted in a green, white and red version of the French national kit and, as far as McKirdy was concerned, represented a level of style that no one in the KSL would be able to match.
Secondly, Branxton’s home ground, Dingley Dell, would be among the best in the league. The pitch was Astroturf rather than the standard cloth and was glued to a large wooden board that was then placed on top of a folding snooker table. A plastic perimeter fence stopped balls from flying off the table and getting lost under furniture, while a set of Mundial goals gave the arena a touch of continental élan.
But there was one item in McKirdy’s Subbuteo wardrobe that would never win him admirers. As an inveterate nail-biter, he wore a thimble on his flicking finger to protect his ravaged cuticle. Playing without it left his finger raw and aching, and his habit was too ingrained to quit.
McKirdy knew that the thimble was the one thing that could derail his bid for KSL membership. McKay in particular was withering in his contempt for it. Outwardly, he argued that it gave McKirdy an unfair advantage by boosting the strength of his shot. But as McKirdy rarely got close enough to goal to let fly, he knew this to be an excuse. He knew that the real reason for McKay’s objection was that his thimble risked making a mockery of the league. And with Oliver and his novelty line-up already doing such a good job of that, the thimble’s future hung in the balance.
“Who votes yes for Dukla Pumpherston to be admitted into the league?” asked McKay, surveying the packed living room as the KSL’s 1990-91 season annual general meeting reached its most important business. Eight hands reached upwards. Dickson looked around, then pumped his fist and whooped. “Eight votes,” said McKay. “Dukla Pumpherston are given league status for the 1990-91 season. Congratulations, Bryan. Now, who votes yes for Branxton North End to be admitted into the league?”
McKirdy was confident. This was the easy part. “Eight votes,” said McKay. “Branxton North End are given league status for the 1990-91 season. Congratulations, Andrew. Now, who votes that Andrew should be allowed to use his thimble?”
McKirdy shifted slightly in his seat and scanned the room, trying to appear nonchalant. McKay’s eyes darted from face to face. One hand shot immediately into the air. It was Oliver’s. Then, one by one, six more hands crept upwards. McKay, with his hands firmly by his sides, narrowed his eyes and hissed silently. “Andrew’s thimble is approved,” he said. McKirdy chuckled to himself quietly and exchanged knowing glances with his new KSL comrades.
McKirdy had been overlooked for the KSL’s debut season, and as such he was left with few players to fill his squad. The fact that the identity of a team’s players had absolutely no bearing on the quality of one’s performance was entirely beside the point. To suggest that it meant nothing – as Oliver’s squad selection implicitly did – was to break an unspoken rule.
Anyway, McKirdy was far too much of a football obsessive to go down that route. Copies of World Soccer would have to be examined, lists would have to be made and considered, and a careful balance would have to be reached before he submitted Branxton’s squad for registration.
The world’s best players had long been taken. Lothar Matthäus starred in midfield for Blackadder FC. Diego Maradona was the creative genius behind Gotham City. And Paul Gascoigne brought his own brand of champagne Subbuteo to the ranks of Red Stone Albion.
But in McKirdy’s favour was the fact that a strong Scottish football bias around the league meant there were still plenty of quality international players still available for those who knew who they were. And so it was that Branxton signed the graceful Hungarian playmaker Lajos Détári to pull the midfield strings alongside the Yugoslav Safet Sušić, Italy’s Giancarlo Marocchi and Andreas Möller – a surprise free agent despite having just won the World Cup with West Germany. Romania’s Ioan Sabău and the Soviet Union’s Oleksiy Mykhailychenko provided competition for places.
Möller’s German colleague, “Iron Foot” Jürgen Kohler, formed a partnership at the back with Italy’s Alessandro Costacurta, with the Brazilian Júlio César and Belgium’s Stéphane Demol covering the flanks and France’s Basile Boli, Egypt’s Hany Ramzy and the Italian Pietro Vierchowod providing the back-up. The Costa Rican Luis Conejo, who had broken KSL hearts by denying Scotland at the World Cup just a few months earlier, kept goal, while the Dutchman Wim Kieft, a young Paolo di Canio, Italy’s World Cup striker Aldo Serena and the Brazilian Müller gave McKirdy options up front.
Branxton’s cosmopolitan line-up was in contrast to the bizarre Dukla Pumpherston squad assembled by Dickson. As a Hearts fan, his roster predictably drew heavily from the Edinburgh club. But the presence of almost half of the United States’ Italia 90 squad was clear evidence that he had run out of inspiration and raided his Panini sticker book to make up the numbers. And so lining up alongside such Tynecastle favourites as John Robertson, John Colquhoun and Dave McPherson were the extravagant mullets and luxurious chest hair of Mike Windischmann, Steve Trittschuh and Marcelo Balboa.
McKirdy could, of course, dip his toes into the transfer market. Despite each player being nothing more than a name in the ether, real money changed hands to secure their signature. Ten pence was considered the equivalent of one million pounds, with a maximum transfer ceiling of 10 million being imposed by the league. Controversy was stirred, however, when Red Stone Albion broke the transfer record by paying Blackadder FC 10 million and a Mars bar to sign Paul Gascoigne during the league’s inaugural season.
But for all McKirdy’s desire to construct the team of his dreams, his conscience – like Arsène Wenger in the decades to come – would not allow him to hand over hard cash. And so with an entirely home-grown squad, Branxton North End headed into their first game of the KSL 1990-91 season at home to Blackadder FC with quiet confidence that an upset could be on the cards.
It took just two minutes of Branxton’s season opener for McKirdy to realise that his optimism was badly misplaced. A slick passing interchange between Marco van Basten and Jim Bett, finished off by Van Basten, soon saw to that. A crowd of two, not including the players and the referee, had gathered in McKirdy’s living room to watch the occasion. They left satisfied that a game against Branxton would be an easy two points and a chance to run up a healthy goal difference.
Kieft’s feeble miss was to prove an omen for the weeks to come. Branxton followed their opening-day capitulation with another 4-0 defeat – this time away to Red Star Broomlea – leaving them with no points and no goals heading into their third game of the season. Their next assignment was an away fixture against Border Aztecs, the previous season’s runners-up.
In the event, Branxton were hopelessly outmatched. Aztecs ran out 8-1 winners, but McKirdy’s side did at least manage to chalk up their first goal. Detari, spotting Möller in an advanced position, launched a hopeful ball forward that came to a halt within the German’s general orbit. After a nervous tap to manoeuvre Möller into a scoring position, McKirdy drove the thimble into his plastic base, sending the ball skidding inside the far post. McKirdy let out a roar and then hurriedly scrambled to identify the goalscorer, turning him upside down to check the number on the base before neatly jotting it down in his notebook.
But simply scoring a goal was not enough to disguise the fact that Branxton had made a nightmare start to the campaign. After three games and three defeats, with one goal scored and 16 conceded, McKirdy was grateful for a change of pace. The league took a break to play the first round of League Cup fixtures, and by happy chance Branxton had been drawn to face Dickson’s Dukla Pumpherston. Surely this was a chance for McKirdy to get his season up and running.
Dickson’s nerves were visible as he opened the front door. “Ready for a hammering?” asked McKirdy, pulling The Farm from his bag and wiping his shoes on the mat. “Hah!” snorted Dickson, but his response rang hollow. McKirdy had had the edge over him in their pre-KSL days and he knew it. Now they were set to face each other in their first official match-up and McKirdy was conscious that he would never hear the end of it if Dickson won.
The first leg was a close affair, full of dreadful Subbuteo that made the referee Neil Skeldon, an experienced player whose Red Star Broomlea had finished sixth the previous season, wince. Attacking moves broke down through the most basic of mistakes. Chances went begging. Unforgivable defensive errors were made. But when the 14 minutes were up, John Roberston had scored and Pumpherston had a one-goal lead to take to Dingley Dell for the return leg.
It was to prove decisive. Kieft and Di Canio both scored as Branxton tried to overturn the deficit, but goals from John Colquhoun and Tab Ramos gave Pumpherston a 2-2 draw. It was enough to take them into the next round. “Congratulations, Bryan,” said Skeldon, but McKirdy could not bring himself to extend the same courtesy. “I’ll get you in the league,” was the best he could manage. But even that began to curdle on his lips when he saw Dickson offer nothing but a smug grin in reply before walking out the door.
Branxton returned to a league campaign that had collapsed before it had even got started, but an unexpected change in fortune would soon lift McKirdy’s mood. Branxton travelled to face Trafford City, who had finished fifth the previous season. Against all odds, the visitors emerged with a 1-1 draw, Möller cancelling out Bryan Robson’s opener to send a warning shot around the league.
“No, no, I’m not having that,” said Trafford City’s Norman Woodhead. “I want a replay. It’s not fair that he’s using that thimble. It gives him an unfair advantage. We’ve got to play the game again without the thimble.” But Woodhead’s complaints fell on deaf ears and Branxton had their first league point.
It was to prove a false dawn, but McKirdy didn’t care. Branxton went on to lose their next four games, including a 7-0 thrashing at home to McKay’s Gotham City. But they were no longer bottom of the table, and that was a victory in itself. Dukla Pumpherston had lost all their league games and showed no signs of turning things around. Branxton had a one-point lead in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon, and McKirdy even felt bold enough to venture into the transfer market.
When French striker Jean-Pierre Papin became available from Scotdean, McKirdy could not resist. He had long been a fan of French football, and at 3 million pounds, Papin was cheap enough to reconcile his conscience. A further 2 million was spent on the Cameroon goalkeeper Joseph-Antoine Bell, and so it was that a new-look Branxton North End welcomed Dukla Pumpherston for their first league encounter.
This time the bragging rights would be shared, with Branxton taking the lead through a Papin penalty before Dave McPherson pulled one back for Pumpherston. But the 1-1 draw was enough to keep McKirdy ahead in the table and he considered the result to be a good one. Three more defeats followed but the goals continued to come. Papin took his tally to three in four games and although Branxton crashed out in the first round of the association cup to non-league Wightington Rovers – 4-3 after extra time in a replay – the improvement was there to see.
“Very good, Andrew, you’re getting better,” said McKay one evening as they played football in the rugby club car park. “If only you’d get rid of that stupid thimble. You give too many free kicks away when you knock it into the ball or into the players. Plus it looks daft.”
McKirdy had to admit that the thimble had caused him some problems. It was big and unwieldy and made it difficult for him to get his finger into areas where several players were bunched together. It also made his finger sweaty and he detected a faint, unpleasant smell whenever he took it off.
But the thimble had become his lucky charm and he wasn’t about to ditch it. There were only six games of the season left and Branxton North End had their sights set on second bottom.
The next four games did not go according to plan. All four ended in heavy defeats, with Branxton failing to muster even a single goal. Trafford City took their revenge with a 4-0 rout at Dingley Dell, before Red Stone Albion, Gotham City and Stambridge City all inflicted further misery on badly floundering Branxton.
Even worse, Dukla Pumpherston had picked up a point. Dickson’s side had hung on for a grim 0-0 draw with Red Star Broomlea and their superior goal difference to Branxton’s took them off the foot of the table. With two games left, McKirdy was in trouble.
Hope came in the form of a trip to Oliver’s Millsborough Strikers. For all his disregard for league etiquette, Oliver was a reasonable player – far better than either McKirdy or Dickson. But he was also a loose cannon, prone to making rash decisions and all McKirdy could do was hope that he would self-destruct. Which, as it turned out, was exactly what happened. Unfortunately for McKirdy, he walked straight into the flames with him.
McKirdy arrived at Oliver’s house in high spirits. Oliver was a character and McKirdy enjoyed his company. For his part, Oliver was in a giddy mood from the start. He was relaxed at the thought of taking two easy points from the league’s bottom-place side and McKirdy, the youngest player in the league, brought none of the stifling atmosphere of KSL politics with him.
The heady mood continued after kick-off, and it did not take long before Millsborough had a player sent off. Arthur Fowler received his marching orders after deliberately taking out Papin in a scoring position and Branxton took advantage a minute later when Kohler scored the opening goal.
McKirdy knew he needed to stay calm, but Oliver’s strange voodoo was beginning to take hold of him. The game descended into madness. First Kohler was sent off when McKirdy picked up a nearby golf club and pretended to hit the Subbuteo ball with it, only to flinch and accidentally make contact. Then Millsborough equalised through Edwina Currie before going down to nine men when Oliver reacted to a missed chance by sweeping a cluster of players off the pitch with his arm. Neither side managed to score again but Branxton had a further player sent off – Mykhailychenko – when McKirdy threw him at referee Dave Howel’s head in protest at a decision. The game ended 1-1.
The draw lifted Branxton off the foot of the table and sent them into their final-day showdown with Dukla Pumpherston with a one-point advantage. But the farce had not gone down well with the KSL committee and both Millsborough Strikers and Branxton North End were ordered to start their final game of the season with only nine men.
McKirdy would have to do it the hard way.
“If you lose tonight, it’ll be your own fault,” said McKay, as he and McKirdy walked up the hill to Dickson’s house. McKirdy didn’t care. He had enjoyed the game at Oliver’s house more than any other and he was confident he could avoid defeat against Dickson despite starting the game with nine men. He had never played Subbuteo without the full compliment of players, but how much difference could it make?
The look of quiet confidence on Dickson’s face as he answered the door suggested he believed otherwise. “There’s No Other Way” by Blur played on the radio as the two players and the referee McKay made their way to the pitch set up on the kitchen table. McKirdy took his players out of their box, then put Nos. 4 and 11 back in the foam casing. He set the team up in a 4-2-2 formation. McKay pursed his lips and whistled to begin the match.
The first half was a cagey affair lacking any real chances. McKirdy had not spent any time considering whether to play for the draw or go for the win because his Subbuteo ability was too limited to make the distinction. All he could do was fumble and bludgeon his way through the game as he always did and with the score still 0-0 at half-time, the plan seemed to be working.
Playing with nine men was, however, proving slightly tricky. It created longer distances between the players and the ball, which meant greater accuracy was required to hit it. It also left the opposition with more space to work in. Fortunately Dickson was not skilled enough to take full advantage, but before long Pumpherston began to cause Branxton problems.
Early in the second half, Tab Ramos fired off a shot that McKirdy wasn’t properly prepared for, but the ball rolled just wide of the post. Papin then had a chance at the other end that also went wide, before goalkeeper Bell bailed Branxton out with a frantically scrambled save from Colquhoun.
Time was running out and Dickson knew it. With every screamed curse or thumped fist on the table, McKirdy felt a squirm of excitement. He was going to get away with it. Bragging rights would be incontestably his and all the thrashings suffered at the hands of the rest of the league would be worth it.
Then, with 30 seconds left on the clock, something terrible happened. Steve Trittschuh, the American defender whose name Dickson had plucked from his Italia 90 sticker album, played the ball through Branxton’s undermanned defence into the path of striker John Robertson. McKirdy was alive to the danger and put his hand on the stick controlling his goalkeeper, anticipating the shot. Dickson flicked out a finger. The ball was so close to Robertson’s base that McKirdy had no way of knowing which direction it would go. He looked down. The ball was in the back of the net.
McKirdy stared at the goal in silent mortification. Dickson wheeled around the kitchen in manic celebration, a pubescent Marco Tardelli screaming at the pots and pans. McKay tried to suppress the broad grin that had broken out across his face. There were only 30 seconds left on the clock and Branxton needed a goal. All-out attack was the only option, yet all McKirdy could do was arrange his players in the same 4-2-2 formation in which they had begun the match.
Within seconds of the restart, it was all over. Branxton North End had finished bottom of the 1990-91 Kelso Subbuteo League.
McKay had been right all along, McKirdy could never take the KSL as seriously as it deserved to be. He didn’t even know who had won the league. He was too young, too reluctant to learn the game properly. Sure, he could pick an impressive list of players, but when it came to getting the job done on the pitch, he just didn’t want it badly enough.
Now, as he picked over the bones of his humiliating defeat, he realised how foolish he had been. Why had he allowed himself to be dragged into Oliver’s madness? Why had he not taken his chances when they came against Pumpherston? And why, when he found himself desperately needing a goal with only 30 seconds left, had he not gone for broke with a 0-0-9 formation?
McKirdy only had himself to blame. There and then, he vowed that he would not allow the same thing to happen the next season.
Little did McKirdy know that he had already seen the best of the KSL. The 1991-92 season was a non-event. The clues were there over the summer when two teams – Red Stone Albion and Blackadder FC – dropped out of the league. McKirdy was never given a proper explanation, but he suspected he knew the reason why. League members were getting older and word was getting out that they were spending their time flicking little plastic men around with young lads like McKirdy.
McKirdy didn’t mind. He was too busy accepting the discarded players from the departing teams. Thomas Häßler, Paul Gascoigne and Thomas Berthold all joined Branxton on free transfers that summer, but the league’s AGM soon poured cold water on McKirdy’s sense of good fortune.
In one sudden, cruel stroke, the league voted to ban his thimble. The decision was emphatic. Only two members voted in favour – Oliver and McKirdy himself. The rest shook their heads and muttered that it gave him an unfair advantage by generating more power. McKay nodded solemnly and moved on to the next item of business.
The party was over and McKirdy knew it. He didn’t feel the same without the thimble, and Branxton’s results showed little sign of improving. A rematch with Dukla Pumpherston early in the season ended in another defeat. Pumpherston’s status was growing, and just weeks later they pulled off their most impressive result yet – an away draw against the new defending champions, Border Aztecs.
McKay was growing tetchy and irritable. Unavailability had forced him to allow McKirdy to referee a top-of-the-table clash between Gotham City and Trafford City. It had ended in predictable farce when McKirdy awarded Trafford the game’s only goal despite not paying proper attention to the action.
McKirdy was fed up, but he was not the only one who had lost his enthusiasm. Little by little, teams around the league began to postpone their fixtures without explanation. Scheduling games became a problem. Information dried up.
Then, one day, the Kelso Subbuteo League ceased to exist. McKirdy put the board with the pitch on it behind his bookcase and shut his teams away in a drawer. Then he turned his attention to something else and got on with the rest of his teenage life.