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tragi-comic

The Cult: Roy Race

As a comic strip, ‘Roy of the Rovers’ was so famous that it entered the English lexicon forever. Sometimes forgotten, however, is the dark and tragic life of its protagonist.

by Will Magee
24 January 2017, 11:05am

Illustration by Dan Evans

This week's inductee to The Cult is a cartoon footballer who, through his fictional heroics, entered the English lexicon forever. What people forget is that, along the way, he witnessed some absolutely horrific shit. You can read previous entries here.

Cult Grade: Tragi-Comic

With the last new material for the Roy of the Rovers comic series published in 2001, many people now have only a vague grasp of what it was all about. Most people know that Roy Race, the titular protagonist, was an excellent footballer and prolific goalscorer, so much so that the phrase "real Roy of the Rovers stuff" – denoting a barely believable occurrence in a football match – has entered the English lexicon and become a permanent fixture in the national consciousness. Those with a more intimate knowledge of the comic will know that Race turned out for Melchester Rovers, a fictional football team from an unspecified part of the country who lurched from title winners to relegation candidates on a season-to-season basis. They might also know that, over the course of his illustrious career, Race won nine league titles, eight FA Cups, three League Cups, three European Cups, four Cup Winners' Cups and one UEFA Cup, scoring 533 goals in 565 games for club and country along the way.

What most people don't know is that, despite his success on the pitch, Roy Race's life was also tragic, brutal and unforgiving. He suffered terrible loss and grief, witnessed mutilation and death, was irreversibly maimed and disfigured and pushed to his psychological limits and beyond. When Prince Philip met Roy of the Rovers editor Barrie Tomlinson at the height of the comic's fame, he apparently asked: "This Roy of the Rovers, is it a soap opera?" This is perhaps indicative of the limits of Prince Philip's imagination, for it was not so much a soap opera as a journey into the heart of darkness, a voyage of overarching bleakness which opened the reader's eyes to the cruelty of society, of fate, of humankind.

READ MORE: In Celebration of Jossy's Giants, The Eighties Football Show That Went Too Soon

Follow the narrative arc of Roy of the Rovers for long enough, and it becomes apparent that Race is no normal sportsman. Despite playing over 40 seasons for Melchester Rovers, he aged at an abnormal rate which left him somewhere in his late thirties even after all that time. His career was peppered with surreal incidents, such as when he played alongside Martin Kemp and Steve Norman from Spandau Ballet during the 1985/86 season, when he lived through Geoffrey Boycott's strident tenure as Melchester Rovers chairman, or when he found himself mercilessly parodied by other comic strips, which may or may not have been available to purchase within the confines of his own fictional universe. Clearly, his was no normal existence. Roy Race occupied an implausible dream world, a land where disbelief was suspended in perpetuity. Unfortunately, his dreams would become nightmares, and his world would gradually crumble to ash.

When Roy of the Rovers reached its popular peak in the mid-to-late seventies and early-eighties, the team of writers and editors behind it decided that the series needed meatier plot lines. Though the comic was still adored by children, they were also catering for an audience of teens and young adults who had been following the strip since its inception in 1954. Accordingly, they began to add adult touches to the comic, such as Roy's marriage to Melchester Rovers secretary Penny Lane, and her giving birth to twins a year later. These modest droplets of realism had soon become a torrent of graphic desolation, however, with the writers forced to open the floodgates to sate the supposed demand for drama.

So, at the pinnacle of his footballing powers, Roy Race was shot by a would-be assassin in a plot which was lifted straight from Dallas. He spent a prolonged spell in a coma, and was only awoken when commentary of Melchester Rovers' game against Keysborough came over the radio near his hospital bed. What had previously been an innocent children's comic about an exceptionally gifted footballer had now been graced by a vicious felony, with a recent father left at death's door by the bullet of an unknown nemesis. In the end, the culprit turned out to be a jealous actor who had played Race in a television programme, hence introducing the comic's younger readers to themes of envy, narcissism, selfishness and hate.

Though Race survived that particular encounter, the misery and pain would not end there. In perhaps the most shocking episode of his life, he and his teammates were caught up in a terrorist coup in the unimaginatively named Middle Eastern state of Basran, where their team bus was rammed with a car full of explosives and consequently eight of the squad were killed. Though the comic mercifully declined to portray the worst of the bloodshed, it was left to the children to imagine Race, his shoulder dislocated, extricating himself from the flaming fusilade of the annihilated bus, watching his injured friends burning alive before his very eyes, nostrils filled with the acrid stench of incinerated cartoon flesh. In the words of Mick Collins, author of Roy of the Rovers: The Unauthorised Biography: "Even as youngsters, we knew that this certainly bordered on bad taste."

On top of that, Roy had serious marital troubles, with his wife leaving him in the early eighties and later dying in a car crash in Italy. Her death was highly controversial, and would serve as the grounds for Race's temporary estrangement from his kids. He and his Melchester Rovers teammates were kidnapped on multiple occasions, usually on overseas tours of South America where they would invariably best their captors in an impromptu kickabout. Race was threatened at gunpoint, terrorised and generally roughed up while representing Melchester, with the club suffering from sporadic financial problems in the meantime. Eventually, his ridiculous longevity as a player was curtailed in dramatic and violent fashion, though more on that anon.

All things considered, it is hard not to feel that Roy Race's life was dogged by devastating, chronic misfortune. By turns, he lost his freedom, his health, his wife and his friends, often in the most horrific of ways. Most other men, cartoon or otherwise, would lose their minds in such calamitous circumstances, or at least end up becoming a hermit and living a peripatetic life of solitude. Race ended up in Match of the Day magazine, managing his adult son Rocky at Melchester Rovers and eventually becoming owner of the club, all of this after his own weekly comic was discontinued in 1995 owing to poor sales.

READ MORE: The Cult – Alan Shearer

While regular readers of Roy of the Rovers would doubtlessly contest this interpretation of Race's life, blinded by their nostalgic memories and their idol's weekly goalscoring heroics, the fact is that the major events of his career were depressing and traumatic rather than cathartic and uplifting. Often forgotten in among the cheerful antics, the ingenuous dialogue and the litany of Race's terrible haircuts is that, off the pitch, everyone's favourite fictional footballer suffered constant trials of the flesh and the mind. His tale is worthy of Titus Andronicus, of Macbeth, of the goriest and most lachrymose tragedies in all the canon of English literature. Perhaps when we refer to "real Roy of the Rovers stuff", it would be more appropriate to speak of blood, and death, and the endless despair of mourning, as opposed to plucky comebacks against unsportsmanlike shithouses and the occasional hat-trick in the FA Cup.

Entry Point: Innocence Lost

When Roy of the Rovers was first published in the mid-fifties, it was a recurring strip in the children's comic Tiger. Before the sensationalised narrative arcs and the melodramatic storylines aimed at adults, it was an artless tale about a promising teenage striker, who signed for Melchester alongside his wonderfully fifties-sounding friend, Blackie Gray. Having scored twice on his debut against Elbury Wanderers, Roy Race was soon a rising star at the club. He would score most weeks, Melchester would win most weeks, and conflict and jeopardy were essentially minimal. This was simple, naive comic-book fare, and was beloved of an entire generation of kids.

Roy of the Rovers with a fan circa 1990 // PA Images

It was only in 1976, when Roy Race got his very own comic, that his life started to take a turn for the tragic. Perhaps the writers were right to try to generate fresh interest, perhaps they rather second-guessed their audience, but either way the darker stories started to encroach on what had previously been an innocent world. In that sense, Roy of the Rovers reflected the state of the nation, with the hope and simplicity of post-war Britain lapsing into the excess of the sixties, the gloominess of the seventies, the tension, fear and loathing of the eighties and, last of all, the melancholy doldrums of the early-nineties. Indeed, perhaps the writers intended Roy Race as an extended metaphor for the ills of British society. It seems highly improbable but, then again, improbable goings-on were a characteristic part of the comic.

The Moment: The Fateful Crash

After all the trials and tribulations of his last couple of decades in the game, Roy Race's time as a professional footballer came to a fitting end in 1993. Now player-manager with Melchester, he went on a routine scouting mission in a helicopter which, being Roy Race, he somehow had a license to fly. There was a mechanical fault with the vehicle and, as spectators watched on screaming below, the chopper spiralled out of control and crashed into a field, sustaining massive damage. Considering how extreme some of their previous storylines had been, it's a surprise Race didn't crash directly into the stadium, severing limbs and heads with his rotor blades in an orgy of destruction, slaughter and gore.

Instead, as it transpired, the only victim of the crash was Race himself. His famous left foot, with which he had scored so many of his goals, was severed in the accident, and so his career was finished for good. Even for Roy of the Rovers, the idea of an amputee Race continuing to dominate the top flight was a little far-fetched, especially considering that his venerable age was already something of a running joke amongst readers. With his seeming timelessness becoming more and more absurd, the writers retired him the only way they knew how – by horribly mangling one of his limbs.

While Race's character was revived in a purely managerial role for Match of the Day mag in 1997, he had scored his last goal for Melchester. His legendary career, and sad life, had reached an apposite denouement in the form of a dramatic fall from the skies. Where once, in the innocent post-war era, Race had been an exciting young prospect, here he was a jaded adult with a dead wife, no left foot and a trail of anguish and heartbreak behind him. As such, Roy of the Rovers prepared children for the worst of all eventualities, and taught them the valuable lesson that even the greatest of heroes have to put up with a lifetime of agony and strife.

Closing Statements:

"I think it was one of the great tragedies of children's picture strips that Roy should lose his foot. I'm sure he could still be playing now."

– Barrie Tomlinson on the helicopter crash that finally ended Roy Race's career.

Words: @W_F_Magee // Illustration: @Dan_Draws