Melchester Rovers. Is there any more evocative name in the history of English football? Well, yes. To be exact about it, there are dozens – but I’d bet a pound to a penny that you wouldn’t be able to think of a more evocative non-existent football club name. Melchester Rovers were the team featured in “Roy Of The Rovers”, the long-running cartoon strip which started out as part of the Boys’ Own-esque “Tiger”, before branching out on it’s own in 1976. I was an avid reader of it for about four years, between 1980 and 1984 and, to this day, the team of the early 1980s is pretty much imprinted into my brain to the same extent as the Liverpool team of the same era. Charlie “The Cat” Carter, Nat “Grandad” Gosden, Jimmy Slade, Vernon Elliot, Blackie Gray, Paco Diaz and, of course, Roy Race himself – these are names that invoke the feeling of being curled up on the sofa with a mug of hot chocolate and a biscuit. In 1982 or so, you could even buy a replica Melchester Rovers shirt – it was made by Gola, and came with a badge and sponsors’ logo – and yes, readers, I owned one (though, having a 28″ chest, it’s a bit tight fitting these days). They almost felt like a real team. Sadly for them (and, I occasionally think, for me), I grew out of them. As you may have noticed, I haven’t yet quite grown out of real football.
Roy’s career (which was always one of the least interesting things about the comic) began in 1954, when he made his debut for Melchester Rovers. Like all good cartoon heroes, it went on and on and on and on and on. Fortunately, my interest in it coincided with the most eventful period in the comic’s history. Melchester had been (shock horror) relegated in 1981, but there was more drama when, in a storyline lifted hook, line and sinker from the TV series “Dallas”, Roy was shot – shot! – in December 1981. He stayed in coma for six weeks, with former England manager Sir Alf Ramsey taking over as caretaker-manager (quite how the editors of ROTR managed to persuade the famously humourless Dagenham Alf to let his face be used for this is a mystery up there with that of how the statues Easter Island were built). Eventually, he came round (the assassin, for those of you that care, was an actor playing him in a TV series who suddenly went psychopathic for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained). My interest in the comic waned as the storylines, in the manner of a soap opera that has to keep outdoing it’s last spectacular, got more and more absurd. The former England cricketer Geoff Boycott was installed as chairman, Martin and Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet were installed in Rovers’ midfield, and eventually, about eight of the players were killed in a terrorist bombing in the Middle East. By 1993, when the comic folded, the apparently ill-starred Roy was back in coma again, after having (somewhat carelessly) crashed his helicopter. Various incarnations of the strip appeared throughout the 1990s, the last being in “Match Of The Day” magazine, which closed down in 2001.
Looking at the excellent and informative (though, to my geeky eyes, not nearly completist enough) royoftherovers.com, it’s easy to see why it died out. It wasn’t simply a matter of the “Boy’s Own” style story looking dated, or the suspension of disbelief that one was sustain to swallow the concept of Roy’s forty year long playing career. As with any fictional medium, it’s important for a comic book to keep some sort of balance between being consistently interesting and vaguely realistic. ROTR went down the sensationalistic cul-de-sac in the early and mid 1980s, and its writers had nowhere left to turn when the stories became too incredible. Some collateral damage may have been done by Viz’s “Billy The Fish”, which mercilessly mocked ROTR’s more “exciting” plot twists, though not much – readers of Viz were unlikely to be reading ROTR at the same time. It’s telling that the protests over the strip’s closedowns were more often than not started by middle-aged men than boys – and, ultimately, the sales figures weren’t lying.
(NB: And I didn’t even mention the other strips in ROTR during this period – “The Hard Man”, “Mighty Mouse”, “Goalkeeper”, and the rest. I’ll save them for another time. Possibly tomorrow.)