Whenever anyone does a survey of the best children’s toys and games of all time, it’s always the same names that get mentioned – Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Castrate The Racist… well maybe not the last one, but you get the picture. No-one, however, stops to consider Top Trumps – surely the only card game that ever really attained ‘legend’ status among school children up and down the UK.
Before we get onto the specifics of the British Soccer Stars pack, it’s only right to consider what Top Trumps is all about and why it’s still held in such high regard to this day. Top Trumps is a brilliantly simple game for two or more people where each player is dealt an equal number of cards from a pack. The object of the game is to win all the cards from your opponents, and to do this players take turns to read out a statistic from their card in the hope that it’s ‘stronger’ than the equivalent one on their opponents’ cards. If it is, they win the cards for that round.
From the late 1970’s many packs started appearing in the shops and all of them were cheap enough for kids to buy with their meagre pocket money. All manner of subjects were covered from Dragsters to Military Aircraft but it was the football packs that allowed the average schoolboy (or girl) to indulge in their hunger for knowledge.
And so it was that the first of those football packs, Dubrecq’s British Soccer Stars, arrived on the scene in 1978 to brighten up the dullest of school breaktimes. The set contained 32 cards featuring the great and the not-so-great of English league football, classified across the five categories of International Appearances, International Goals, League Appearances, League Goals and Height.
It’s at this point one has to stop and wonder what the modern-day sets of football Top Trumps must be like in this era of Opta Stats and the media’s clinical dependency on significant data of any kind. To be honest, we’ve not looked at the current sets because they don’t enter our realm of nostalgia, but we wouldn’t mind betting that they probably have categories like ‘Kilometres run’ and ‘Passes completed.’ Such is the price to pay for progress, we suppose.
On the subject of height, you’d be more than happy if you were dealt a goalkeeper or two during a game, although in this set it was no guarantee of success. At 5’ 11½” Liverpool’s Ray Clemence seemed a dead cert to win you a hand, but you’d have overlooked Phil Thompson, Glen Hoddle (sic) or Paul Mariner at your peril. They were a full 6-feet tall, as was the other goalkeeper in the pack, Peter Shilton. Champion Top Trumpers take note.
The thing is, goalies were a complete liability in Top Trumps if it wasn’t your turn to call a category. If the lead player shouted out ‘International goals’ or ‘League goals’, you were instantly onto a hiding and by 1978 neither Shilton or Clemence had racked up that many International Appearances either.
1978 provided an interesting snapshot of the 'Old Guard' in the prime of their careers and a new wave of players starting to emerge. When it came to International Appearances, one of the worst cards to own was that of the aforementioned Glenn Hoddle. Still in his early-20’s, he didn’t make his England debut until 1979, so you could be sure one of your opponents would get the dubious honour of owning that card. Emlyn Hughes, on the other hand, reached the peak of his international career around the time this pack came out and was the best in that category with 49.
Hughes was also a big hitter in the League Appearances category along with Manchester United’s Martin Buchan. Once again however, Glenn Hoddle was the player to avoid with only 62 appearances to boast, compared to Buchan and Hughes who had more than four times that amount.
But such talk of statistical one-upmanship only accounted for part of the game’s appeal. Aside from all the facts and figures was the visual charm which, being the late-1970’s, could be summed up in one word: 'rudimentary'.
To be honest, we’re also at a bit of a loss to understand why some players had even been selected for this collection. Fine – pick Stanley Bowles, Ray ‘Butch’ Wilkins and Andy Gray if you must, but Peter Ward of Brighton? Clive Woods of Ipswich? Are these the actions of a true football fan or an agent keen to see get his client some much needed exposure?
We’ll probably never know and that’s no doubt for the best. We wouldn’t have asked such questions when we were nine years old and we shouldn’t ask them now. This was the game that captured the imagination of millions of young football fans and in updated form continues to do so today. Quirky and lo-tech, you can’t help but love it and long may it continue.