Part One 1938-1975
There’s never been a better forward in the history of the game. Many have laid claim to being the greatest yet pale into insignificance when compared with Roy Race of Melchester Rovers. Many people who read this will claim hyperbole but I speak from experience having seen the great man display his skills on a weekly basis. It wasn’t just his goals and displays that made him the best, it was his heart and seemingly superhuman ability to perform whenever it mattered most, usually following adversity that would finish lesser mortals.
This is the ‘unofficial’ story of ‘The Greatest Striker’ – Roy Race, Legend!’
The early years
Born in 1938 in the shadow of Mel Park, Roy Race seemed destined to become an all-time great from the second he was born. His grandfather, Billy Race had been a professional footballer in the early part of the 20th Century. His father, also a successful professional footballer was an immediate inspiration, having his medals on display at the family home. As a baby, Roy would be playing with the toys in his crib and before he could sit up, was able to volley his toys out onto the living room floor with his left foot. Neighbours wax lyrical about nine month old Roy being left outside his family home in his pram where passers-by would throw a tennis ball to him, whereupon he would either head it back or volley it into the road with his left foot. This was unheard of but his incredible development continued throughout his childhood. Comparisons with Dixie Dean and Tommy Lawton were inevitable at such a young age and if this kind of talent was to be discovered nowadays, there would no doubt be a bid from Chelsea or Manchester United to tie him to their club.
The outbreak of WWII didn’t hinder his progress. When other children were collecting shrapnel from fallen bombs or popping tarmac bubbles in the road, Roy would be looking amongst the damage for spherical objects that could double up as a ball. He would then form two teams and an impromptu match would take place with rubble for goalposts. It’s believed that at the age of just eight years old he could hit the crossbar of a goal from the halfway line, indeed great things were expected of him.
The post-war years saw a Britain rebuilding after the war. Rationing would continue until 1954 and after the Football League, having been abandoned during the conflict, was resurrected, Roy quickly made a name for himself at school and beyond. Typically playing for teams in two or three age groups above him, he would dazzle spectators with his incisive forward play and powerful shot. Racy’s Rocket was in its early days but made people sit up and take notice, particularly his school teachers. On one occasion whilst leading the line for his school team, he unleashed one of his left foot rockets which for once wasn’t on target. As it passed the goalpost it hit a spectator, one of the opposing team’s masters, square on the face and knocked him out cold.
Signing for Melchester Rovers and a colourful debut.
Race was spotted playing for Melchester Area Schools under-14’s and followed a natural progression signing schoolboy terms for his boyhood club Melchester Rovers. He made his first-team debut alongside close friend Blackie Gray against Elbury Wanderers at the ripe age of 16. A dream debut was on the cards when Melchester went 2-0 up with help from a goal by Race and were apparently coasting to victory. The two newcomers, however, found the going tough and in an era when substitutes didn’t exist, tired quickly. Elbury came back and went 3-2 up and with seconds left on the clock, defeat looked likely. Incredibly, Race found the strength for one last effort and when the ball came to him on the edge of the box, he unleashed a drive with his left foot that nestled into the top corner of the net. The sellout crowd went wild and Race was mobbed by his teammates. When the referee blew his whistle, he raised his arms in triumph but was unaware of a figure approaching him. It was Elbury’s England forward Arty Hedlow, who grabbed him and said “Not a bad show kid! But you’re not quite up to this class of soccer yet. I guess you’ll be back in the reserves next week. Tough luck!” Race, maybe taken in by the moment, let his inner 16 year old take over and replied in typical language of the time “I’ll knock your thundering block off” before briskly making his way off the pitch. Years later, in an interview, Race expressed his regret at that remark, he was young and inexperienced after all.
The honours began to arrive
Melchester Rovers were a wonderful club, moderate, sporadic success prior to and in between the World Wars were combined with inconsistency and were just as likely to spend seasons in the lower divisions than they were in the top flight. Their rise to the top table of the football elite coincided with the emergence of Roy Race, their blonde talisman. Race led them to the title in 1958 followed by the FA Cup in 1959 and Mel Park began to sell out each week. Comparisons were made between Race and his contemporaries Lofthouse, Finney, Charles and Greaves and he wasn’t found wanting. He was made Melchester’s youngest captain and led them to unprecedented glory while at the same time inspiring a generation of youngsters to take up the game in an effort to follow in his footsteps.
European Champions 1964
Britain’s first European Champions! Let that sink in as it’s often overlooked in these days of Premier League hype. The European Cup Final 1964 in Paris the ‘City of lights’ against crack Italian side Neltruno was the biggest game in the clubs and indeed British football history. Despite meticulous planning, controversy dogged the build-up to the game. Roy, by now the biggest name in British if not world football and his teammate, close friend Blackie Gray went out to sample the Paris nightlife in order to relax the night before the game. Looking back with today’s demanding and strict regime, it seems amazing that two such stars would be allowed such a privilege. Allowed they were and it wasn’t long before they were recognised, not just by anyone, but by the French film star Suzanne Cerise as they queued at a restaurant. Quickly ushering them aside, she took them to her nightclub where they were wined and dined. Ever the professional and with one eye on tomorrow’s game, Race left relatively early and went back to his hotel room. What happened next has been the subject of rumour and contention ever since.
The next morning, it quickly dawned on Race that his roommate hadn’t returned. Panic set in and the team travelled to the stadium without their forward in the hope he would turn up, hopefully, unaffected by his disappearance. Blackie Gray did arrive under his own steam and made his entrance less than an hour before the kick-off, with the boss, Ben Galloway threatening to replace him up front.
He had been with Cerise, who it turned out was in a very public relationship with Hollywood stuntman Ed Garrard and although Gray protested his innocence, and to this day no misdemeanour has been proved, Galloway was concerned that news would spread. The last thing he wanted was rumours getting out of control and affecting his teams’ performance. Although Gray arrived looking a little dishevelled he seemed fit to play and against the boss’s better judgement and following a humdinger of a row between the two, he took his place in the lineup.
A tale of two halves
The team took to the field in their famous red and yellow strip but all was not well. The team seemed unable to string more than a couple of passes together and quickly went 2-0 down. It seemed the European dream was over unless Galloway could perform miracles at halftime. Rovers fans were uncharacteristically quiet as the team trooped off, heads down. As they left the pitch, Blackie Gray looked up and saw his film star friend, Suzanne Cerise in the stand. Minutes later she had found her way into the team dressing room and delivered one of the most inspirational pep talks in the history of the game. Mesmerised by her stunning good looks and charisma, the players were transfixed as she took the floor in from of a perplexed manager. Her parting shot will go down in Rovers folklore and the players all cheered as she parted with the immortal line “Mes heroes! You win for me, Yes?”
The greatest European Cup Final comeback!
A team transformed, they lay siege on the Italian goal and it wasn’t long before the goals came. Race thundering the opener and following by a mix up in defence allowing Tom Dawson to slot home the equaliser. Sensing their lead was slipping away, Neltruno’s players began to use some of their more cynical tactics. Roy himself took a barrage of punishment from the opposition defenders and with time slipping away, the game looked deadlocked until out of the blue and clearly inspired by his ‘friend’ in the stands, Blackie Gray produced a moment of magic to take the game beyond the reach of the Italians.
That evening, with the cup on show, the players and officials celebrated in the Cerise nightclub as guests of the French star. As the drinks flowed, she stunned partygoers with her announcement that she would soon be marrying her boyfriend Ed Garrard. As everyone cheered, Blackie Gray sat quietly in the corner before leaving the celebration early.
Race had by this time developed a worrying habit of being kidnapped. In the first ten years of his career, he was kidnapped at least five times, the first prior to an FA Cup Final. Being the man he was, he was able to escape and make the game with minutes to spare. A dedication modern footballers would do well to observe.
One of the more breathtaking sets of circumstances happened in the summer of 1965. Melchester Rovers had qualified for the Intercontinental Cup and made their way into deepest South America to play Bagota. As the players took a light training session, they were startled when out of the nearby jungle, a gang of Brigands on horseback attacked and took them captive. Roy’s increasing reputation had even made it to the depths of the jungle as, to the players surprise and ultimately, relief, they weren’t to be robbed or used for a ransom. Instead, they wanted to play the most famous team with the most famous player on the planet. The game took place in a clearing and despite Rovers winning 17-2, danger didn’t seem too far away. Led by their audacious captain, the players escaped on horseback and able to make their way back to relative safety.
Arriving just in time for the game, the players took the pitch with no sleep for nearly two days behind them. A rearguard action saw them just 1-0 down at half-time when worryingly, the rebels turned up to the ground. Concern turned to hope however when the team were offered a rejuvenating potion, Carioca Juice, by their kidnappers. The full contents of this potion have never been disclosed but the players were rejuvenated and went on to win 2-0, Race scoring both goals, cheered on by their new ‘friends’.
The swinging 60’s
By this time, Roy was a superstar and regularly seen out and about in town. He was in the rare position in that he was loved by fans of all clubs including most of his rivals. A clean-cut figure, he would be seen sipping tomato juice in the trendiest nightclubs and made friends of the biggest stars of the time. Three League Championships, a further European Cup, two FA Cups and a European Cup Winners Cup were all won during the rest of the decade by the most successful Rovers team in history.
By contrast, his international career was littered with misfortune. Having missed both the 1958 and 1962 tournaments, he was looking forward to pitting himself against the best in the world on home soil. Just prior to the 1966 World Cup, Roy was appearing in a charity bowls match when, as competitive as ever, he went over on his ankle as he attempted a ‘drive’ shot. Rushed to hospital with suspected ligament damage, it was touch and go whether Roy would be able to play in that summers tournament and regular updates were passed to Alf Ramsey. Sadly, with the final squad announcement minutes away, the decision was made to leave him out of the squad. History tells us that England went on to win their one and only World Cup without their star striker. In true Roy Race style, he never blamed the green at the bowls match and insisted he did the right thing playing as it was for a worthwhile cause. Following the final, he did arrive unannounced at the celebrations on the evening of the win. The nearest Roy Race ever came to the actual World Cup.
Mexico 1970 was a little better as he made the squad alongside teammates Geoff Giles and Tubby Morton. Playing in two group games he failed to score and England went out at the quarter-final stage. Remarkable as it may seem for a player of such immense talent, Race only played 43 times for England, the same amount as Jimmy Armfield, Chris Woods and Martin Keown. He scored 52 goals which took Wayne Rooney 119 games to surpass. He was incredibly unlucky with injuries and kidnaps, which often took place before international matches and tournaments. Thankfully these days, with health & safety, the kidnapping of England footballers is a rare occurrence.
His last England appearance was against Turkey in May 1987 in a Euro qualifier where he scored two goals in a 2-0 win. It is widely accepted that the best goal he ever scored was his spectacular effort in the 1-0 win against Brazil in 1981 at Wembley. In all 52 games, he was only on the losing side once, the 1970 quarter-final defeat in the World Cup.
The elusive Double
Melchester Rovers won their only League and FA Cup double in 1972 in an age when both competitions were much more competitive. Pitches were often like ploughed fields from November onwards and the idea of ‘resting’ a player had never been heard of. Maybe that contributed to Race’s injuries? Those conditions did seem to affect the consistency of the team, often following up a great season with a relegation fight. The club with Race leading them won a trophy most years, only missing out in two years during the 1970’s (1976 & 1978). I began watching him in January 1970 and was instantly transfixed by his play. Although he led the line, he had the silky skills that would enable him to play any creative position in the team, often morphing into a more traditional No10 role. His shot was fierce and those that saw him say it was almost as powerful as “Hot shot” Hamish Balfour, who often burst the net when he scored for Scottish side Princes Park.
Following their ‘double’ season, manager Ben Galloway took a role ‘upstairs’ and former player Tony Storme took charge. Despite winning the European Cup for the third time against Portuguese side Corados in 1973 and a domestic cup double in 1974, results in 1975 went against him. Many blamed their change of kit a few years earlier for the eventual loss of form. Things came to a head after non-league Sleeford Town beat Rovers in the FA Cup 3rd round, 1975. Storme went missing and when he reappeared, immediately resigned. Roy Race then stepped up to the mark and became player/manager. At his first attempt, Race led his side to European Cup Winners Cup success with a 2-0 victory over Niarkos of Greece. This was to be the beginning of a new era in the Roy Race story.
Penny Laine proves to be a hit
Race strikes Gold!
Tragedy in Basran
Roy finally has to hang up his boots
The adventure continues…