Johnny’s letter this week is to a man whose playing career started in 1954. He didn’t really exist in one way, but in another, he really did. That’ll be Roy of the Rovers, then.
Why the love?
The principle of the popularity of any ongoing series is party the simple fact that it is there every week. It becomes a cornerstone of your life: comforting and predictable. When it came to comics that were largely aimed at 7 to 12 year-olds, the beauty of them was that they were yours. They were not for grown-ups. They were your own window on the world. I loved them and from about 6 or 7 until the age of 12, I devoured up to three every week at one point, usually Tiger, the Topper and Scorcher. The best ones were a great combination of text and graphic. So you got the double pleasure of something that looked great and had a good story too.
Roy of the Rovers began in 1954 in the Tiger comic, 22 years later evolving into its own publication full of different characters and stories such as The Hard Man, Dexter’s Dozen, The Safest Hands In Soccer and Billy’s Boots, to name just a few.
It continued until 1995 and then lived on to 2001 as a feature in the Match of the Day magazine. When that was cancelled, Roy’s long career finally ended.
When I was young, comics were somewhat derided as reading matter for children by the sort of adults you didn’t like. What those people failed to realise was that they were always a great stimulation for the imagination and for a young football fan like me, it was my own private world. A world which only existed in the Tiger. A world where teams had cut-and-shunt names like Rotherton, Gatesfield or Tynefield and most outrageously, Weston Villa. They sounded almost like real places, but weren’t. Foreign teams had especially great names, my favourite of which is Real Santana, who were a dirty Spanish side (whose guitars had tremendous sustain) that crocked Roy, as foreigners had a habit of doing.
As the series developed, especially once it became a magazine in its own right, it became more and more like a soap opera, blending reality and fiction. He married his secretary, remarkably called Penny Laine; all his teammates turned up in full kit.
Penny later died in a car crash in Italy. He had kids too, though we knew nothing of his sex life and such bedroom matters were never mentioned.
There was no domestic or European trophy or honour that Roy didn’t win, and he led an incredibly eventful life. He was kidnapped a few times, he was shot and left in a coma, his teammates were murdered by Basranian terrorists who blew up the team’s bus in an especially bloody issue. Melchester’s ground was even destroyed in an earthquake and they had to play at Wembley instead. And if that wasn’t enough, he lost a foot in a helicopter crash. As you do. But wait: son Rocky is on hand to take his father’s legacy forward.
The best thing about comics was how they were drawn. How they depicted football was endlessly fascinating.
I loved drawing goals when I was a kid – the actual nets, I mean. This was directly inspired by Roy of the Rovers and also by other football comics. (I also loved Jack of United and Jimmy of City in Scorcher. One a short-haired solid defender, the other a long-haired jinky winger).
The drawings had a special quality to them that was neither cartoonish nor naturalistic. I especially liked the ‘whoosh’ from foot to ball as it flew into the net. Also the players’ expressions of pain, which were often little more than a random amalgam of letters.
They created a unique way to tell a story. What was happening during a game was usually described, not with a narrative box, but by anonymous voice bubbles in the crowd. Or with one chap saying to another, “Roy’s hurt his knee”, with the other replying: “We’ve no chance now, there’s only three minutes left.”
“If only we could have a torrential downpour of rain and get the game called off.”
“Oh, it’s spitting…”
It was important to me as a reader that they didn’t have ‘real’ clubs or towns. I loved the alternate reality that Melchester Rovers existed in. I didn’t want the everyday world to intrude on that. Later on, an actual footballer would appear in the story and that would have made it lack credibility for me. On one occasion it involved the introduction of Emlyn Hughes. Bob Wilson, and half of Spandau Ballet.
This was a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. Those two worlds could not and should never coexist. In the same way that no-one in Eastenders sits down to watch Eastenders, you can’t successfully bring together fiction and reality. By the time they started to do this, I’d outgrown comics. I always wanted a wholly fictional world. It had always proven to be a problem for me when Roy was called up for England. He played for a fictional team but couldn’t play for a fictional country. What they should have done is created a fictional England history too, but they didn’t want to. So Roy missed out on 1966 glory with an injury but went to Mexico in 1970 and was, as in real life, knocked out in the quarter-final. This was far more confusing than if they’d just made up England winning it. Actively rewriting history is an exciting thing for a kid.
Latterly, they began to try and explain away the fact that Roy didn’t age at the same rate as the rest of us, even suggesting that there’d been more than one Roy Race playing for Melchester. This was madness. It’s fiction, not a documentary. There is no need to stick to the space-time continuum as we know it. It’s like trying to explain why the animals in Wind in the Willows have kitchens, wear glasses, row boats and drive the same cars that humans drive (as opposed to Toad-sized vehicles).
It was always at its best when it existed in its own world.
Roy evolved from being a skinny ’60s boy to being an upstanding officer-type with a side-parting, to later in the ’70s looking like a long-haired centre-parted blonde (with black eyebrows!) -a member of a glam rock band. He seemed to get bigger and more muscular as the years passed, ending up with massive thighs and looking a bit like Thor, an especially silly heavy metal singer of the ’80s.
By the ’90s he was unrecognizable. His face now almost square but he looks good for 56.
But to me as a kid, no matter what his current appearance was, he always seemed quite old and not in any way fashionable. Somehow, throughout his career, he seemed to belong to a previous generation. I seem to recall there was an ‘official’ Melchester Rovers kit available in the early ’80s which, again, is probably taking the reality/fictional interface too far.
What the people say
At its peak RoTR was selling over 120,000 copies per week, so naturally it played a part in many people’s lives. But it was interesting how the same incidents stood out in the collective memory, especially the team being slaughtered almost to a man by the terrorists. Looking at it now, it looks like it had really crossed the line and was a horrible thing to expose young kids to. But then again, the fairy tales of my childhood were always full of threat and brutality, even if it was from pigs, bears, wolves or a tar baby.
‘Loved it, England would have won the ’86 World Cup with him, if only they had not gone on that post-season tour!’
‘My other favourite was the mixed-up team names – Everpool, Tottenford.’
‘A simpler time.’
‘Was only telling a mate all about Roy Race last week. Jumped the shark a bit near the end I think. But Billy’s Boots was my favourite.’
‘The whole early ’90s post-helicopter crash ‘reboot’ with Rocky, Paul Ntende etc which the purists hated but I thought was far superior.’
‘When Vernon Elliott had an “uncanny knack” of being in the right place at the right time.’
‘Saturday mornings meant comics and they even smelled amazing in the ’70s. Golden age. Always read Roy’s strip first and loved Billy’s Boots too.’
‘Had a replica Melchester Rovers shirt at age… ten, I think, so 1982-ish. Would likely wear one now, if I came across one that fitted me.’
‘Saturday mornings, 28p and pure escapism. They dealt with all types of football too: pro, amateur, school, international. I bloody loved it.’
‘Also as a really crap player when I was a kid, I dreamed of finding a pair of Billy’s Boots.’
‘That cliffhanger ending with the plane crash was devastating but brilliant and I continued to follow Rocky in Shoot.’
‘It was so clean cut, the fans were impeccable in their comments! Did you read Giles Smith’s parody autobiography of Roy? Hilarious, recommended!’
‘The pineapple flavour bar was gorgeous.’
‘There were loads of odd stories. Do you remember Who is Arrow? It went on for about 3 years and I’m not sure we ever found out.’
‘The only player to score a hat-trick AND save a penalty during an FA Cup final.’
‘Roy Race, legend.’
‘Unfortunately I wasn’t a Roy fan. I got the Tiger comic but it was Billy’s Boots for me.’
‘Just looking at old annuals – hadn’t realised they signed Paco Diaz after he scored a hat trick for Varagosa in the UEFA Cup semi-finals.’
‘They missed a trick not having Roy face off against Hot-Shot Hamish in a Home International.’
‘One of the odder characters was the wheelchair wonder, who spent most of his time in a wheelchair but then played professionally because his injuries allowed him to move a ball Jedi-like through the air.’
‘Also remember when Roy got shot, which was based in the popularity of the ‘Who shot JR?’ storyline in Dallas.’
‘Mighty Mouse was the best character. Part-time hospital porter and part-time 1st division football star!’
‘Loved it. When I was a kid it was genuinely the most exciting part of the week when it was delivered. I read every issue two or three times.’
‘Signed Emlyn Hughes and Bob Wilson! And also Steve Norman and Martin Kemp from Spandau Ballet! I’m disappointed he didn’t swoop for Morrissey!’
‘Also discovered recently that RotR England had a black player 11 months before Viv Anderson made his debut in November 78.’
‘Roy was a bit too boring, it was all about Durrell’s Palace and Hot shot Hamish and Mighty Mouse.’
‘Car bomb in fictional country of Basran, wiping out almost all of the squad! Who OK’d that off-season tour?’
‘Ah man…. grandparents house… new copy of RoTR hidden under dining room seat cushion every Sunday….. absolutely marvellous.’
‘Hardman Johnny Dexter (possible PFM), Kevin’s Chance and Hamish and Kevin at Princess Park Rangers? Might have to dig out my collection.’
‘I always like the fact that on TMS @GeoffreyBoycott talks about his time as Melchester Rovers chairman like it was real.’
‘Fabulous, great days, true boy’s hero. All boys in class wanted to be him. Great role model, before football sold out. Honest and good, true icon.’
‘I’m old enough to remember Tiger merging with RotR!’
‘It was my brother’s Sunday comic (I had Shoot!) but it was always a fight between me, my brother and my dad to get that first.’
‘My Roy memories go back to the mid 60’s. We got Tiger delivered every week. I bought a couple of Roy annuals from Amazon recently. Bliss!’
Roy is being reborn for next season. He will be 80 years old.
Oxford-based Rebellion will publish a series of graphic novels and books alongside the 2018/19 football season. The publisher bought the rights to the character last year.
It currently prints the 2000 AD comic and its sister publication, The Judge Dredd Megazine.
Ben Smith, head of books and publishing at Rebellion, said: “There are only a handful of truly iconic characters in British comics, and Roy Race is surely one of them.
“We look forward to bringing Roy to modern audiences in a completely fresh incarnation that honours the extraordinary legacy of the character.
“We will be telling stories that connect with readers both young and old.
“There is a dearth of football-related fiction on the shelves, and we’re looking forward to correcting that, whilst giving a classic British comic character a new lease of life in the process.”
Whether it’s the sort of thing kids will buy into any more remains to be seen. Roy is a product of a simpler, analogue time where we lived in our heads and fed off our imaginations to a far greater degree than is required now.
If you need to see Roy’s startling stats, he’s got his own Wikipedia page.
But even if Roy’s revival is short-lived, he will live on every time something unusual or fantastic happens in football in the expression: “That’s real Roy of the Rovers stuff.” And that’s not a bad legacy.