"Firstly, I’ve got to say, the Millwall community have been nothing short of brilliant with me."
Many people of a certain generation will remember ironing the pitch upside down before a game. If you were lucky enough, you would set up the large stand you got for Christmas and also the score board with the dial on the side so you could change the score, and line all the players you got from Toys'R'Us in the formation that would get the quickest goal from the fewest flicks. But, what if instead of playing with the Subbuteo characters, you designed and prepared unique football figures for fans of clubs around the country? For this interview, we sit down with Helen Longworth and discuss how she got into painting the figurines and the work that goes into making them.
1. Your Subbuteo ideas are fantastic and seem to be popular with a number of fans across a number of clubs. How did the idea first come to you?
I have been painting Subbuteo teams since 2005. I’d painted teams for about 14 years for collectors, but then wanted to do something that all football fans could enjoy, even if they didn’t have a massive love of table soccer. Hence, the idea started to produce pieces of artwork for individual clubs featuring kits which stirred memorable moments in their club’s histories, which proved quite popular.
2. What do you think of the game itself? Was you a fan of Subbuteo as a child?
My brothers and Dad weren’t massive football fans, so it was really born out of my husband’s love of the game as a child that began my interest. Having always loved art, it was the design and detail in the kits that caught my eye. I have always enjoyed traditional games so I think the game is great and something which should be continued for younger fans to enjoy in the future.
3. The level of detail in your work is incredible, and you capture the aspects of all the kits for the seasons in question, how long does it take to complete a project?
To complete a larger frame takes about 8 to 10 hours depending on the difficulty of the kit, then there is the additional time of researching kits, designing backgrounds and putting the frame together. The smaller single figure frames probably take about 2 to 4 hours.
4. What has been the best kit to re-create on the figures, which one are you most proud of?
I think my favourite Millwall kits to date have been the camouflage kit. I love the different shades and patterns plus, of course, what it stands for with the little poppy on the shirt. I also love the retro kits, things such as the effect on the '88 kit, those diagonal stripes look great when they are complete although they are a challenge to paint.
5. On the other side of the coin, what kit makes you think “not this one again!” when it’s ordered?
I don’t really have the ‘not again feeling’ because once you have painted it you have a better idea of how best to recreate. Often more daunting is a new kit, particularly the stripy ones, which you see for the first time. However, there is also the excitement and challenge of creating something new which tends to counteract this..
6. Along with the kits, you have programmes on the board behind to also show the seasons in question. How long does it take to find and create these?
They can take a while to find but sometimes fans are kind enough to send a photo or take a snapshot of their own collection to use, which really aids the process.
7. Which team’s fanbase seem to be the most engaging and enthusiastic with regards to the Subbuteo figures?
Firstly, I’ve got to say, the Millwall community have been nothing short of brilliant with me. It has been an absolute delight interacting with the Lions’ fans and at the moment I have painted more Millwall subbuteo frames than any other club. Charlton, Sheffield United and Portsmouth have also really got into the idea and proved enthusiastic. It does come back to that thing about every club, no matter how big or small having those die hard, loyal fans who truly love their teams.
8. Finally, what is the ‘Dream Project’ that you would love to create that you haven’t yet?
My dream is to complete a framed piece of art for every single English and Scottish team. I am well on my way (over 60 English & 14 Scottish) and I am determined to complete the English and Scottish set, time allowing. However, there are always interesting sidetracks with non-league sides, such as Fisher FC and Dulwich Hamlet, international sides, teams from foreign leagues or even people’s Sunday League sides, being requested by fans. All of which provide a fascinating challenge and hopefully bring the opportunity for any club however big or small to be celebrated in their own way for their own highlights.
Thanks so much for the interest from the Millwall fan base. I’d like to wish the Lions all the very best for the coming season. If anyone does want to contact me then please feel free to DM me on Twitter, @helcol123subbu1, but please be aware that my order list for larger frames is currently running to the beginning of February 2023!