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Τετάρτη, 4 Μαρτίου 2009

He shoots ... he scores!

Fifty years ago this month, football hero Roy Race first turned out for Melchester Rovers, and although the ace striker hung up his shooting boots some years ago, the legend lives on, writes Tom O'Meara

Kidnappings, a shooting and the saxophone player from Spandau Ballet: forget about the football, Roy of the Rovers encompassed far more. Long before the Footballer's Wives scriptwriters started work on a soccer soap opera, the creators of Roy of the Rovers realised the value of mixing football with melodrama.

If anything, its plots were more outrageous. Take the time the Rovers were kidnapped by Fidel Castro lookalikes before the 1964 World Club Cup final in South America. They escape and 48 sleepless hours later they're one-nil down at half-time. Fortunately, in the absence of modern performance-enhancer nandrolone, they get hold of a local narcotic, "Carioca Juice", and recover to win 2-1 with a trademark Roy Race bicycle kick. Still, that's not quite as ridiculous as winning the 1986 Milk Cup with a line-up including Bob Wilson, Emlyn Hughes, and Martin Kemp and Steve Norman from Spandau Ballet.

Roy of the Rovers started in the first issue of Tiger on September 11 1954 and became a comic in its own right in 1976. Although the bastardised name encourages many to associate Roy's team, Melchester Rovers, with Manchester United, rumour has it that Tiger editor Derek Birnage and the original scriptwriter Frank Pepper actually modelled the Rovers on the Arsenal team of the 50s. Roy himself was based on nobody.

Of course, that didn't stop the public spotting player parallels. As another gentleman of the game who scored stunning goals, Bobby Charlton was probably the first footballer to be associated with the character and for a time his name appeared among the writing credits. "Later Malcolm MacDonald was likened to Roy," says Barrie Tomlinson, who served as the story's editor between 1963 and 1990. "His exploits on the pitch were similar but footballers followed Roy, rather than the other way around."

Roy's less squeaky clean team-mates had more obvious counterparts. Roy's best friend Blackie Gray looked and played a bit like George Best and even eloped with an attractive French actress before a European Cup final, while Derek "Mozzie" Mostin of the 1991 line-up was based on Gazza - except that, instead of fake breasts and tears, Mozzie was famed for impersonating a monkey after scoring.

Charlton was the first of a number of celebrity tie-ins. Geoffrey Boycott served as club chairman for three years , while Sir Alf Ramsey stepped in as Rovers manager for a short period when Roy went into a coma after he was shot in 1981. The signing of Spandau Ballet in 1985 was Tomlinson's brainchild. "They were so big they could get anything they wanted," says Tomlinson: "Apart from a place in a top league side that is. We provided that."

The mix of fact and fiction was an important facet of Roy's popularity. He took a bullet in the same year (1981) Ronald Reagan and Dallas's JR were shot, and turned down a "cool million" to coach in the Middle East shortly after Don Revie quit as England manager for a lucrative post in the Arab Emirates in 1977. Another concession to the outside world was Roy's haircut, which went through myriad styles over the years, embracing quiffs, glam rock bouffants, mullets and even at one point a frightening Brigitte Bardot-style effort.

More significantly, Roy of the Rovers anticipated events in football. Roy was a successful player-manager before Kenny Dalglish proved it was possible to perform both tasks and win trophies in the top-flight. Nowadays nearly every Premiership team boasts a French star or two, but Rovers recruited French winger Pierre Dupont way back in 1956, while in 1982, before Hillsborough and the Taylor report spelled the end for terracing, Mel Park became Britain's first all-seater stadium.

Roy also blazed a trail off the pitch and became the first boy's comic character to marry when he tied the knot with the manager's daughter, Penny, in 1976. So popular was this plot that when Penny left Roy because he was devoting too much time to the club, the BBC and ITV carried the story on the national news.

Sadly, Roy of the Rovers wilted under growing competition from television and video games and the comic stopped in 1992. Even more sadly, the legend is only likely to live on in football vernacular. Roy won't be coming out of retirement because in 1992 he lost his left foot in a helicopter crash - so his guest appearance (right) is strictly a one-off. Instead we're left to contemplate which Premiership player is most likely to do a "Roy of the Rovers" this season.

"Alan Smith is doing very well at Manchester United and he's blond," says Tomlinson. "But Roy wasn't as liable to get booked." Nor would Roy ever break supporters' hearts in the way another candidate, Smith's new team-mate Wayne Rooney, has Evertonians'. Plus, Roy probably wouldn't know what a prostitute was, never mind the address of every brothel on Merseyside. And Thierry Henry, for all his qualifications, is simply too French. "It's difficult to find a perfect Roy," sighs Tomlinson. "Even if you combine half a dozen players together, you can't quite replicate the man."

Tom O'Meara

* The Guardian, Monday 20 September 2004
* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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