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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.

Roy Race comes to life in a charming biography of the Melchester Rovers legend

Publishers love football biographies and autobiographies.

They can estimate with considerable accuracy the likely sales, based on the regular attendance figures at the player’s club, with additional sales added on if the subject is an international.

The process is also more straightforward than conjuring marketable fiction out of a “blocked” novelist. All that is required is a willing and competent ghost-writer, a tape recorder and a fortnight in an acceptable Caribbean hotel.

Footballers can occasionally turn awkward, particularly when confronted with chapter headings such as “The Totalled Baby Bentley”, “Me, the Barmaid and the Handcuffs”, and “Back to The Priory”. Swift mention of the likely tabloid serial rights will often quell the nerves.

The wisest authors seek players who cannot answer back: either those who have gone to the great dressing-room in the sky, or those who never existed in the first place.

Great credit in this connection to Mick Collins, who has written the story of the greatest fictional footballer in English history. Roy of the Rovers: The Unauthorised Biography (Aurum) will take enraptured fans of a certain age back to the days when Melchester Rovers bestrode the footballing world like a colossus, with their blonde-mulletted striker, captain and later manager always at the heart of the action.

The author is certainly not short of material. As well as battling for the FA Cup, for the League title or (occasionally) against relegation, Melchester and Roy were subjected to plot twists that could - and often did - come straight from contemporary soap operas.

On their regular pre-season tours to South America, for example, Roy and/or a sizeable proportion of his squad could expect to be kidnapped on a regular basis, escaping only just in time to triumph in the tour-closing fixture. Helicopters and cars crashed, Roy got shot in the head and half the team were massacred in the Middle East. Perhaps most shocking of all, though, was the occasion when Roy’s long-suffering wife (and former secretary) Penny walked out on him with the kids and took a brief holiday in Crete.

Collins has pitched his biography well: he notes the risibility of the plot-twists and Roy’s unlikely longevity as a player, but he constantly reminds us of the affection that his subject commanded among his vast young audience.

He has conducted interviews with the surviving editors, writers and artists, who provide insights into the challenges of conveying football-related excitement on a weekly basis. Did you know, for example, that Roy Race’s nose was based on that of Cliff Richard?

Towards the end, events at Rovers started to spiral out of control. Geoffrey Boycott was appointed as the club’s chairman, and some of the players recruited on his watch were unusual, to say the least. Bob Wilson is, as the author rightly notes, a fine man, but perhaps 11 years of retirement might not have been the best preparation for assuming the goalkeeping duties at Mel Park.

A similarly retired Emlyn Hughes was another questionable signing, but he seemed positively sensible by comparison with Martin Kemp and Steve Norman, who when they were not turning out for Melchester had a lucrative sideline performing for the pop group Spandau Ballet.

Roy and his eponymous comic were chasing an audience that had other things on their minds, and the relentless rise of computer gaming and the unromantic evolution of the Premier league eventually sunk Roy, Melchester, the comic and the wonderful world they had inhabited.

Collins’ cracking book will inspire many former Melchester fans to seek out back issues of the comic on Ebay, but happily there is an easier source of nostalgia. Titan Books now has the rights to Roy’s adventures, and recently brought out a large-format paperback with the self-explanatory title The Best of Roy of the Rovers: The 1980s.