The surprising club that hosted World Champions and secured a top Subbuteo reference

It could have been any semi-pro game in any league in the world. As the corner was swung in the defenders parted. For a moment the striker must have wondered if the referee had blown his whistle, such as the space he found himself just outside the six yard box.

The shot itself was slightly scuffed but it bobbled over the goalkeeper to make the score 0-2. Behind the goal, a smattering of fans shrugged. Behind them an empty field and a small suburban row of houses.

The year was 1981 and this was no normal goal. For a start it was scored by none other then Carlo Ancelotti, then of Italian giants Roma.

Even more incredibly, watching on from a midfield position was one of the greatest players of all time, Brazilian midfield superstar Falcao. Despite the result it was probably the most incredible day in the history of semi-professional Ballymena United FC of Northern Ireland.

The club, having won the Irish Cup the year before, was competing in the Cup Winners Cup for just the second time in its history. They lost the tie 6-0 after a 4-0 defeat in Rome but it was hardly embarrassing for the side.

The 1980s was a mecca for the sort of David versus Goliath tie that saw Ballymena face some of the best players in the world on home soil. While it is easy to patronise the side it was an incredibly talented team – and it had been through a lot.

Manager Alan Campbell has arrived in 1978 and built a team that finished second in the league in 1980. They qualified for the UEFA Cup and won against East German sie FC Vorwaerts -their only win in European competition to-date.

However, tragedy struck when Campbell was injured in a car accident and assistant Ivan Murray took over managerial duties while he recovered. That did not slow down the team. Ballymena won the Irish Cup and County Antrim Shield and fully deserved their tie against Roma.

While the view behind the stand showed a couple of fans and an empty field, the rest of the ground was well developed and around 3,500 people had attended the game.

So, I hear you ask. What has that got to do with Subbuteo?

Then answer is not a lot. Except that Roma game and the Ancelotti goal ties in with a strange quirk of Subbuteo production that left Ballymena United as the sole team on one of Subbuteo’s most important reference numbers.

The Ballymena team of the 1980s was Subbuteo reference 005 – and by the time the Roma tie was taking place the side was the sole team associated with the reference.

The shirts are sky blue, with white shorts and sky blue socks on the early reference number. When it was first released it was a team used to represent multiple football clubs. In England it was predominantly Manchester City or Coventry City, while in Italy it doubled as both Lazio and Napoli.

In the early days of Subbuteo early references were used for multiple teams. Reference one, despite the white shorts, was used as both Liverpool and Manchester United. Reference two was Everton, Chelsea, Portsmouth and any number of teams that played in blue.

There were generic stripes for Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United, a yellow team acting as Wolves, Southport and even Dortmund, while claret and blue was West Ham and Aston Villa in the early days.

As Subbuteo expanded the range bigger clubs began to get their own reference numbers. More details was added and the correct shorts and socks combinations were included for teams such as Manchester City. They were given a new reference number in 191, then 449 and 621 as more detailed kits were released by Subbuteo.

Coventry received even more new kits. They are one of Subbuteo’s most interesting teams with a host of stunning kits including the famous Talbot shirts of the 1980s and the speckled Peugeot design of the mid-1990s.

That leaves Ballymena. The club never reached the heights of that Roma game again and as the club dropped away Subbuteo did not see fit to update the club with a new reference number. It also didn’t retire reference 005, leaving the club as the sole owner of one of the original five Subbuteo reference numbers. Perhaps that cup run helped to extend the use of reference 005 into the 1980s and kept the Ballymena Subbuteo team alive.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

It remains a fun quirk of Subbuteo that tells a real-life story of an incredible piece of European history.

Stephen Hurrell
Stephen Hurrell
Stephen is the founder and editor of The Hobby Online and The Hobby by Subbuteo.Online print magazine. He is a giant nerd and specialises in Subbuteo, retro football kits and consumer stories. A journalist and editor of 15 years, he has written about football for some of the UK's biggest publications.

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