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Τρίτη, 7 Απριλίου 2009

They think it's all over – but not for Racey


Author: Cole Morton meets Roy of the Rovers

But the fans who screamed for him wore football scarves, carried rattles and had a remarkable talent for dissecting a game in the split second it took for the ball to travel from his boot to the goal. "It's Racey's Rocket!" Even now, as he nods a greeting, the thoughts of the two dog walkers who have also stopped to watch the game seem to float above their heads in unfeasibly long speech bubbles. "Oh I say, the striker's through on the goalie and if he can just ... hang on, isn't that old Racey over there, talking to a gentleman of the press?" "Yes, I wonder if he has revealed anything about his life, now that the comic in which he starred for 40 years and which sold nearly half a million copies a week at its peak is to be reintroduced to the news-stands?"


Old Racey's playing career began in the Fifties and ended in the Nineties, but it is still shorthand for astonishing comebacks and unbelievable feats of skill. "That," a modern commentator will say as a young man scores on his debut or United come back from the dead to win in Europe, "is real Roy of the Rovers stuff."

Roy Race is part of the mythology of modern British football, and the fans who grew up with him are the ones that the publishers Egmont are after with the 64-page collector's edition of his comic Roy of the Rovers they released last Wednesday. Today we can also reveal that they are pandering even further to playground fantasies of the past by offering something that would have been inconceivable in the past: the chance to play alongside Roy, and score the winning goal in a cup final. Choose a look, type in your name online and Egmont will print a comic that looks and feels like the one you remember, but has you as the star. This internet-age wish-fulfilment will become possible in the coming weeks.

"That lad's pretty good," says Race of the tricky left-winger he has been sent here to watch by a club he won't name. "He's got talent, but he'll have to work hard and take knocks to become a pro. Would he stick it?" He smiles, and I realise he is quoting the words of Alf Leeds, talent scout for Melchester Rovers, when he first saw the young Race kick a heavy leather ball across a smog-ridden playing field in 1954.

That was before Elvis Presley, before footballers were given a minimum wage, let alone riches beyond avarice. The life that Alf Leeds offered – as depicted in the comic Tiger – did not involve a Baby Bentley. "Roasting was what the landlady in digs did to a chicken on Sunday," says Roy, with a shake of his head. "Those were innocent times."

The referee ruled like a sergeant major drilling National Service draftees. "Any nonsense like the lad Rooney goes in for would have been sternly dealt with," says Race, who made his first-team debut for Melchester Rovers a year after he was spotted. Playing alongside his lifelong friend Blackie Gray, he scored twice. Rovers were crowned league champions in 1958 and won the FA Cup in 1959, a pattern of alternating success that was repeated in subsequent years.

During his playing and management career, Race won the English league championship 10 times, the FA Cup 10 times, the European Cup three times and the World Club Cup twice, plus eight other European or domestic trophies. Yes, Rovers were sometimes down and out – losing 2-0 with five minutes to go, say – but Racey's Rocket would almost always come to the thrilling, last-gasp rescue.

"We never believed we were beaten," says Race. "Looking back, it was as if life kept placing ever more implausible obstacles in our path – injury, sickness, a broken-down team coach, kidnapping, even the earthquake that hit Melchester – but somehow we would always be delivered just in time. I came to rely on it." Does he believe in God then? "I believe in a higher power, certainly. I used to have these dreams in which a huge hand appeared in the sky and seemed to dictate everything I did." Used to? "Yeah. Not for years. I wish ..."

His voice trails off. Times have been hard lately for Roy Race, but for the moment he prefers to dwell on the golden era, which lasted from the first publication of his own weekly comic Roy of the Rovers in 1976 until it went monthly in 1993. "Penny and I were lucky. We had such good times together," he says of his wife. She was working as the manager's secretary when they first met. Not a WAG at all – no fake suntan, no bling, no D&G – Penny raised three children: Roy Jnr and his twin Melinda, then Diana, named after the princess.

"Penny was my rock," says Race without irony (which is something he has always been a stranger to), thumbing a small white square from a blister pack. It looks like nicotine gum. He may have had a squeaky clean image with chocolate his only vice, but Racey was in his prime in an age when they put ashtrays out with the oranges at half-time.

So has he been to see the new film about Brian Clough, The Damned United, that replays those days on screen? "I have," he says. "I thought they might have someone playing me, which would have been a disaster. You know what happened last time." I do. He was shot, in the same year as J R Ewing and Ronald Reagan, by a mystery man who later turned out to be an actor. Race was in a coma – his first, but not his last – but came round at the sound of fans chanting his name.

"Cloughie was like my, what do you call it?" Enemy? "No, not at all. When I was caretaker manager of England for one game in 1977, I said the full-time job should go to Cloughie, because he was not part of the footballing establishment. No, alter ego. That's what I meant."

It's true: Clough was as combative, cocksure and funny as Roy Race was calm, humble and a straight man for all the absurd characters who turned out in the Rovers strip, such as Sammy Spangle the circus entertainer. The writers and artists who put together Roy of the Rovers foresaw all-seater stadiums and celebrity players, but did Roy really have to have Geoff Boycott as chairman or – in possibly the worst move ever for a football team – the sax player from Spandau Ballet in the team? "It did go a bit strange," he says. "But we kept winning."

Not quite. Sales of the comic began to fall as the tastes of the core market – boys and nostalgic young men – began to change. The drama in Racey's life became more intense: in 1986, just as he was about to join the England World Cup squad, Middle Eastern terrorists accidentally blew up eight of the Rovers team. "That was so hard to accept," says Race, echoing the thoughts of many readers, although their reaction was more to do with implausibility. Things got worse. In 1993, on his way to scout a match like this one in Hackney, Race crashed his private helicopter. He survived, in another coma. When he came out, the comic had gone from weekly to monthly and surgeons had been forced to amputate his magical left foot. His playing days were over. "I don't want to talk about it," he says quickly.

These days only a slight limp reveals that he has a false leg. His life story just kept getting darker. When he moved to Italy to escape the memories and manage AC Monza, Penny was killed in a car crash. Roy Jnr blamed his dad. The readers just stopped reading. Computer games were coming in, and watching real-life football was no longer dreary and unpleasant. Match of the Day magazine tried to bring him back, but closed in 2001. It was sad.

One big question was left unanswered, for those of us who cared. How old was Roy Race? After 40 years as a player, he must have been 56 when he stopped playing – smashing all known records – so would now be in his 70s. Is that right? "Do I look it?" he says with a grin. No, but he never seemed to age. What about the hint dropped in the monthly comic that the Roy Race who made his debut in 1954 was actually the father of the star of the Nineties, and that they had swapped careers without anyone noticing? He doesn't answer. His face is inscrutable, like the cardboard cut-out they used to parade when he was unavailable for personal appearances. Wouldn't that mean that the original Roy race fathered a son at the age of just 16? "Well," says this enigmatic man, "they didn't call it Tiger for nothing."

The last time we saw him in public, Roy was struggling with ownership of Melchester Rovers, having sold the ground and installed his lawyer daughter Melinda as managing director. What happened? "Ah, well, that's football," he says with a sigh. "Actually, it's not. It's business. That's what the game has become." The new stadium he promised the fans never materialised. The developers turned out to be crooks. Roy couldn't cope, he fell out with his family as he had done with the directors of old, and Rovers were relegated before going bust. They were thrown out of the league.

"Now it is as if we never existed," he says, bitterly. Race applied for management jobs but was ignored. Was that because of his reputation for attracting trouble? "Listen," he says, paraphrasing his old friend Cloughie, "I may not have been the best ever player manager to score more than 400 league goals, win 30-plus trophies, lead England, escaped kidnapping, an earthquake, a shooting and two comas ... but I was definitely in the top one." He laughs, grimly.

The game on the pitch in front of us ends with a blast of the whistle. "Looking back," he says, "it has been an amazing life. Roy of the Rovers stuff. If I hadn't lived it, I would say it was all totally unbelievable."

To star in a Roy of the Rovers story visit www.egmont.co.uk/roy


Rover's return: Half a century of glory, tragedy and unfeasible drama

1954

Roy Race spotted by Melchester Rovers while playing for a youth team. Goes on to win trophies in almost every season, as well as many England caps.

1975

Becomes player-manager of Melchester, a position he holds for nearly 20 years.

1976

He marries his secretary, Penny, with whom he has three children.

1981

Life for Roy takes an explosive and near-tragic turn. After his team's shock relegation to Division Two, he is shot and lies in a coma for weeks. Eventually Elton Blake, an actor who had played Roy in a TV series about the team, is found guilty of the crime.

1983

Roy recovers and leaves to manage Walford Rovers, returning to Melchester a year later.

1986

Melchester side kidnapped in the Middle East and six team members die when a car full of Arab terrorists crashes into their bus, detonating a bomb.

1988

Rovers' ground collapses and the team has to play at Wembley for the season.

1992

Roy's final glory when he scores the winning goal to give Rovers the league title.

1993
Roy's helicopter crashes. The strip ends with him being rushed to hospital and fans left with no idea whether he will survive. He does, though his famous left foot has to be amputated. The new Roy of the Rovers Monthly sees him managing Serie A side AC Monza.

1997

He's back at Melchester as the cartoon returns to comic-strip format in Match of the Day magazine. He eventually turns the now ailing club around.

2000

Rovers take the Premiership title.

2001

Roy takes on full ownership of the club from the Vinter brothers to ensure his place at Melchester for ever. But the season is never completed, as the magazine closes down.

David Birchall


Posted by The Independent

Sunday, 5 April 2009 at 08:07 am

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