By 1975 Melchester Rovers had become the most successful team in England and Roy Race the best striker in the world.
Success was inevitably followed by tragedy
Tragedy in Basran
The success of Roy and his team carried on from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s and into the 80’s. Roy continued to lead the line and score the goals, with trophies continuing their well-furrowed route to Mel Park. Almost as if to keep supporters on their toes it seemed tragedy was never too far away. Roy continued to be kidnapped at an alarming rate, most tragically in 1988 when on an ill-advised tour to Basran. Roy had previously turned them down when they approached him to manage their National side, so had played for them instead. Caught up in the middle of a military coup with his teammates they were taken hostage by rebels, before being rescued by the S.A.S before escaping in the team coach. The coach then disastrously collided with a bomb-laden car blowing itself and the team coach up. Eight players lost their lives. This was dark, maybe even too distasteful for Roy of the Rovers.
Roy even survived a shooting when a masked gunman burst into his office and opened fire on him before fleeing. With blood pouring from his wounds, the gunman escaped and staff called the emergency services. He was rushed to hospital where he lay in a coma for several weeks. Five suspects were identified and eventually, police charged TV actor Elton Blake with attempted murder. Blake had played Race in a TV soap about Rovers but was sacked by the company after complaints about his portrayal of the legend. Blake blamed Race for his sacking and shot him in apparent revenge.
When the earth moved
Maybe it was destined to happen, but the earthquake in the opening game of the 1988/89 season decimated Mel Park. The extension of Melchester’s underground system had caused the old mining tunnels under the ground to collapse causing the quake. The pitch gave way and the goalposts sunk into the ground. Thankfully, the crowd escaped with only a handful of injuries between them. Mel Park was decimated and Rovers moved to Wembley while the ground was rebuilt. Results once again dipped and the team were sucked into a relegation fight that came to a head on the final day when Rovers beat Melboro 3-1 to stay up.
When Roy of the Rovers finally had to hang up his boots
It was the accident that brought Race’s career to an end that signalled the end of an era. It was 20th March 1993 and Roy Race was on his way to scout up and coming talent, Darren Lewis. Being a qualified pilot, Race took the controls of his helicopter and all was well until he lost control due to a mechanical failure. Trying desperately to save himself, he fought with the controls for what seemed an age but in reality was only seconds. Sadly, this was a battle Roy could not win and the helicopter went down in a field. He was raced to hospital where he remained in a coma for weeks.
Fans were desperate for news of their hero and it was 6 months later while lying in his hospital bed listening to a radio commentary of their league record 14-0 victory over Keysborough that Race regained consciousness. Tragically, however, he had suffered severe damage to his legs in the accident and the most lethal left foot in world football had to be amputated. Roy Race would never play competitive football again in the year of his 55th birthday.
There have been many absurd moments in the Race history. There was the occasion Vic Guthrie was caught putting dog shit in his managers’ shoes. He was immediately jettisoned out on loan and told never to come back, a message clearly returned by the boss. There were Race’s international appearances for the Basran national team, his ambition in 1984 to enter Formula 1 motor racing driving a car called ‘The Rocket’, as well as the continual cycle of amazing success followed by intense low, ‘s often laced with disaster. There was even the time Johnny Cash stepped in to walk the line when a linesman was injured during play. Nothing, however, could compare with a period in the mid-1980’s when the club seemed to lose its sense of reality (yes, even more than previously).
Race strikes ‘Gold!’
The first one was signing Spandau Ballet duo Martin Kemp and Steve Norman who at the time were playing for Rockola Wanderers. I suppose you call that the ‘Gold’ generation. Combining pop music stardom with top-flight football hadn’t even been considered until that point. Roy Race though had the vision to make this a reality despite real concern from fans and ridicule from the media. Thankfully, fears were alleviated somewhat when Kemp scored with a volley on his debut and the duo regularly scored on the way to their League Cup success in 1986. It got the fans wondering whether other clubs had missed a trick when ignoring the hidden talent in rock bands, after all, wasn’t Rod Stewart meant to be a decent player? A different face in the dressing room may have freshened up many a squad. Sadly, other managers weren’t as savvy as Roy so we will never know.
Race had also previously brought both Emlyn Hughes and Bob Wilson out of retirement, the latter keeping goal during their record 12 consecutive clean sheet record, but the club itself wasn’t immune from further bizarre appointments. Making DJ Simon Mayo honorary Vice-President for his halftime entertainment was just about acceptable but appointing Geoff Boycott as Chairman made some question whether the board had Rovers best interests at heart.
Roy of the Rovers culture often followed popular culture
When Penny Laine proved to be a hit
When Race married club secretary she became one of the first ‘WAG’s’. Roy wasn’t one for womanising like many famous footballers of that era. There would be no all-night clubbing while on England duty nor would he found on a hotel bed covered in cash, a glass of champagne in one hand and Miss World on his arm. Instead, he married club secretary Penny Laine and within a year twins Melinda and Roy ‘Rocky’ were born, coincidentally within a year that the ‘Rocky’ films were released. They had their third child in 1982, within a year of a royal wedding. Their daughters’ name? Diana.
The Saturday dinnertime football show was a must before travelling to the match but towards the end of Roy’s playing career, he became involved in a public, light-hearted war of words with TV pundit Dennis ‘Chippy’ Croker. As those who watched will know, Croker’s catchphrase was “silly ole sport, ennit?” and he had said on his Saturday lunchtime programme that Race was “past it”. A £10,000 bet was the result with the winnings going to charity. On the last day of the season and the title in the balance, Roy sealed a 1-0 victory against Kingsway with his classic Racey ‘Rocket’ unbelievably, with the last kick of the game. As ever, Racey’s timing was perfect and the winnings were secured. It was the 436th goal of his career.
Roy and his Melchester team would be affected by hooliganism, he was very vocal in his disapproval and the resulting ban from Europe for English clubs extended to Roy of the Rovers. He would also be involved in the formation of the Premier League and was courted by Sky. He famously announced his resignation as manager live on Sky Sports.
I would also like to give a special mention to Vernon Eliot, who was one of the very few black players to turn out for an English club. He played from 1969-1982 and started in an age when you could probably count on one hand the number of black professional players in the English game. Given the times you could maybe make the accusation of tokenism but I would like to think it was forward thinking. Looking back it maybe highlights the hundreds and maybe thousands of talented footballers the game missed out on due to racism.
Roy’s revelation that he had depression in the mid-1990’s was an issue that may well have been ahead of its time as then it was a much misunderstood and hidden condition. It followed the death of his estranged wife, Penny who was she killed in a car crash and his son had blamed him for her death. The circumstances were never really made public and there were always suspicions that foul play was involved but no charges were ever brought against anyone at the scene. Reflecting reality somewhat, Race had managed to keep going throughout the clubs troubles despite how he felt. Looking back, he had felt that he couldn’t admit to his depression as it would be conceived as a sign of weakness. Roy sought treatment in private and refused to comment on the many rumours being circulated in the media. His TV interview years later was groundbreaking as he opened his heart about his condition. Many of his peers had drink and gambling problems but Roy had found the stress of trying to keep going after his wife’s death together with the expectation placed on his shoulders whenever he went to work, extremely difficult. He opened his heart to help others to seek support and closed his interview with a plea for people to be available to listen to others, particularly men who were statistically more likely to commit suicide at a young age.
Nowadays, Mental health is gaining recognition and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) reported that 403 of their members requested support in 2017, up from 103 in 2016. The amount of footballers seeking support in 2018 is on course to pass that figure which shows that the message is getting out. It’s good to see we’ve moved on somewhat from the phrase “stress-related condition”.
Roy of the Rovers legacy
Roy was a hero to millions who exemplified all that is good about the game. Clean cut, fit, absent of ego, scored goals, devoid of any scandal. He was an old-fashioned honest and decent man. He came up with the goods whenever it was required, often and conveniently very late in the match, many times with the last kick of the game. Like other famous players and role models such as Gary Lineker, he was never booked. He even went one step further than that by never even committing a foul in the near 40 years he played.
Roy’s career was relayed weekly from 1954 when he first appeared in the Tiger comic, later to be merged with Scorcher & Score. He eventually ended up in his eponymously titled Roy of the Rovers. His seasons mirrored the ‘real’ football season which meant that readers would have to be entertained throughout the close season summer months. This would be why Rovers would spend their off season touring far-flung places, mainly in South America and usually ended up with them being kidnapped. Participation in cricket matches and other summer activities would sometimes keep him out of trouble but not for long. Stories became darker in the 1980’s to keep fans interest. Roy probably played more games in exotic laces or gunpoint than any authentic player managed.
Games against foreign opposition would often form a typical pattern. The opposition would invariably go 1-0 up then spend the rest of the game holding on to that lead. Not for them, trying to extend the lead, oh no. They would employ devious and downright dirty tactics in order to keep their precious advantage. Opposition managers would be stereotyped as devious types out to gain any advantage they could, often styled in a suit and pencil moustache, just in case you were in any doubt.
Every season had a cliffhanger, not for Roy a season of mid-table mediocrity. Fans would live in almost suspended motion whilst watching their heroes. Often when Roy would take a shot, a member of the crowd would say “Racey’s had a shot” while the person next to him would reply “The keeper won’t make it” but it went by, completely accepted by fans. Stories were often recycled which probably accounts for the number of times Roy was kidnapped. In fairness though, it’s estimated that Roy would have been read for around 4 years on average, by your average comic loving fan.
Yet all the time, Roy’s longevity was never questioned. When his accident cut short his playing career, Roy will have been approaching 55 years of age. Quite incredible to still be playing at the top level as such an age yet fans ran with it. The normal circumstances of going from youth to the first team, then to international footballer and ultimately management still took their places. Roy however, refused to stop playing and more importantly scoring until the loss of his lethal left foot forced the issue.
A Fan’s view
I started watching Melchester Rovers in January 1970 when my dad took me one Saturday afternoon as a surprise. Two tickets in the main stand, I still have the stubs in a small tin in the sideboard. The atmosphere as we walked up to the ground was electric. We were European Champions at the time and our captain Roy Race was pretty much every fans favourite player. We lived in the shadow of Mel Park and as a small child, I would fall asleep to the sound of the crowd, the ooh’s and ahh’s, the singing and deafening roar when we scored. We would even pretend to be Roy when we played in the school playground. I’d pestered dad to take me but he told me years later that he thought I was too young, especially the evening matches. I had to make do with pictures of my favourite players all over my bedroom wall, Blackie Gray, Jumbo Trudgeon, Lofty Peak, the man mountain Duncan Mckay, Vernon Eliot and of course my favourite player, Roy Race. Luckily, I was able to keep up with the latest news in ‘Tiger & Scorcher’ and later, ‘Roy of the Rovers’.
That first day will stay with me forever as Melchester Rovers beat Stambridge City 4-0. Roy scored twice to help Rovers put pressure on the teams at the top of the table. Sadly, we were to finish 2nd that season but the consolation of winning the FA Cup was more than enough. This was a fabulous time to be a fan. Roy would regularly pop up on TV, appearing with his teammates on ‘Quiz ball’ and it was a real treat one day when he was on ‘A Question of Sport’. It felt like Rovers would win every game and even when we went 1-0 down, I was sure we would still win, usually with a goal in the last minute by our star player-manager.
As I got older, I would stay behind after the game to collect autographs with dozens of other boys eagerly awaiting their heroes. Roy would always stop and chat with the fans and never leave until he had signed all the autograph books. He was the player-manager at that time but it didn’t seem to affect his performances on the pitch. By then I’d graduated to standing behind the goal which was great with a fantastic atmosphere but in the 1980’s as the seasons went on our attendances started to drop like most clubs in the First Division. We went through a couple of bad years when we were relegated but Roy was kept even though some fans wanted him out, he still scored goals after all. Even when he left for Walford Rovers we always knew he would come back.
I graduated to standing behind the goal, became a season ticket holder and was able to travel to away matches. I’ll never forget the many trips to London for the FA and League Cup Finals which became a regular thing for us. I’ve enjoyed all the high’s and suffered all the lows. I was devastated when Roy was shot and was really shocked when Alf Ramsey took his place while he recovered. Like most fans, I cried when eight first-team players were murdered by terrorists in Basran. Waiting for news following Roy’s numerous kidnappings kept us all on a knife edge, there was no social media for immediate news in those days. We may have been a successful club but being a fan could seriously age you.
As fans, we empathised with Roy when he separated from his lovely wife and grieved with him when she was killed in a car crash. We were all disappointed when we were banned from European football in 1985 and angry when the small minority of hooligans seemed intent on ruining the game for us.
When Roy’s playing career finished in 1993 it seemed football had gone away forever but he carried on stoically, managing the club to further success. His son Roy ‘Rocky’ Race has carried on the family tradition and even though he isn’t as good as his dad, he’s a Race, so we love him. We don’t win much anymore but are grateful for the amazing years of success that Roy gave us. We don’t spend our time complaining as our team slides down the divisions, we just look back and appreciate the good times and feel blessed that we saw the greatest striker there ever was, play for OUR team week in and week out. Roy of the Rovers, we salute you!
The return of Roy of the Rovers
Following Roy’s accident in 1993, Roy of the Rovers went monthly where the focus moved to his son, Rocky. Sadly it lasted only 19 issues and eventually moved to Match of the day magazine in 1997 where it stayed for four years. The story ended with Roy and his son patching up their differences and Rocky duly signed for Rovers. Roy stablised the club, regained their status in the Premier League and closed with them closing in on Champions League qualification.
In June 2018, Roy was resurrected by Match of the day magazine as a reborn 16-year-old and featured until August. You can still buy the Melchester Rovers kit from many sellers and there are three 56 page hardback novels planned over the next six months.
Roy may have only just been reborn, he may have gone away for a short while but to some of us, he didn’t go anywhere. To us, he was Roy Race, The Greatest Striker!
Roy of the Rovers Stats
Melchester Rovers 501 apps 436 goals
Walford Rovers 21 apps 45 goals
England 43 apps 52 goals
Basran 3 apps 6 goals
Total 568 apps 539 goals
Watch and enjoy!