Oh Melchester – So Much To Answer For
September 25, 1976
Portsmouth 0 Reading 2, Blackpool 0 Chelsea 1
Heartwarming news! Rebellion, an Oxford based company, are reviving the Roy Of The Rovers franchise with a series of Graphic Novels, the first of which arrives in September, 42 years after the late,lamented Roy Of The Rovers COMIC was launched.
During my student years, spent at what Edmund Blackadder once described as one of the three great universities (Oxford, Cambridge & Hull) we had a Students Union President who seemed to have stepped fully formed out of The Kinks song David Watts so flawless did his existence appear. Academically bright, & pleasant looking, he was also a star striker for the university football team. One day he walked into the Union refectory, something of a second home for me as it allowed me to indulge my main diet of coffee, toasted cheese sandwiches, Mars bars & cigarettes for hours on end. Evidently unimpressed by his seemingly bland mixture of perfections, a female friend who had joined me at my table, prior to finding someone more interesting to talk to, looked up him up & down with true Northern disdain & sneered ‘Here he is. Roy Of The Fookin Rovers.’
If you are expecting a sting in this tale, that this exceptional young man ended up freebasing cocaine & found dead in a sparse hovel, dressed only in exotic lingerie, you will be severely disappointed. He is now the CEO of a major publishing company, working for John Prescott at one point possibly dimming any political ambitions he may once have had. The nearest he ever came to blotting his copybook at Hull was reputedly discussing the allegedly poor personal hygiene of the lead singer of 2 hit wonders JoBoxers too loudly prior to their appearance at the University. Just got mucky?
The irony of the Roy of The Rovers putdown, a staple insult for any Goldenballs types combining sporting & academic achievements with a worthy public image, is that dear old Roy Race himself has endured many a torrid experience since his original incarnation in 1954. He may never have been booked, & won dozens of trophies, but it has been rather a long way from plain sailing off the pitch. He was kidnapped on numerous occasions, doubtless based on the misconception that all small boys would grow up & pass the reading baton on to the next generation who would be oblivious to repeated plot lines. He was once shot by an embittered actor called Elton Blake. In 1986 eight of his team were killed by a terrorist bomb. His wife was the delightfully named Penny Laine. It would be nice to think that he met her behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout. He didn’t. She was the secretary of then Melchester manager Ben Galloway. After a sometimes turbulent marriage she died in a car crash, which left Roy struggling with amnesia, & a son convinced our hero was the one to blame. Roy’s own, near 40 year playing career, ended when he lost a foot in a helicopter accident in 1993. Not an entirely enviable existence all things considered.
Rebellion are going all the way back to the beginning, with football’s very own Dr Who regenerating in the modern age as a 16 year old starting out with his beloved Melchester Rovers now struggling in the second tier of English football. I doubt we will be seeing Roy’s best friend, the unfortunately named Blackie Gray this time around, & the size police may also do away with goalkeeper Tubby Morton & Defender Lofty Peak too. It would be nice to see some of the stout yeomans of the past, perhaps Jimmy Slade or Geoff Giles, resurrected with the many maverick team mates Roy played beside in previous incarnations. Roy Of The Rovers usually kept pace with change. Melchester had a black player long before it was the norm, in the shape of winger Vernon Eliot, likewise a foreign player in Paco Diaz. One of my favourites among the more flamboyant characters was Mervyn Wallace, with flowing locks & fulsome moustache pleasingly redolent of Jason King era Peter Wyngarde combined with that bloke off The Flashing Blade. Once again, would the last teenager out please switch off the lights. There were many others, though strangely I can remember little of ’70’s ex circus juggler turned striker Sammy Spangler. He must have moved into films alongside Dirk Diggler with a name like that, presumably borrowing Mervyn’s ‘tache along the way. I don’t want all the old players back anyway, Tubby’s successor between the sticks Charlie The Cat Carter for one. Any Chelsea fan of a certain vintage knows there is only one goalkeeper worthy of that particular feline epithet, the impossibly great Peter Bonetti. Charlie never cut the mustard for me, & also appeared at one point to be rivalling the eternally youthful Roy in a late ’70’s Leif I Was Made For Dancing Garrett lookalike contest. I saw a photo of former skateboarder Leif recently. Eternal youth, alas, sadly appears to have bypassed him. The drugs really don’t work.
Having finally escaped from the pages of Tiger, leaving long-term colleagues like Native American wrestler Johnny Cougar & F1 driver Skid Solo (another unfortunately named individual) Roy Race led fellow footie strips Hot Shot Hamish & Billy’s Boots into his own, eponymous comic at the end of a week I spent on holiday in Southsea with my mate Bill & his parents. It was a good week for Chelsea, with league wins over Bolton & Blackpool either side of a League Cup victory over Huddersfield Town. The home win over Bolton featured a rare goal by my favourite player of the time, the injury plagued David Hay. At home we got Star Soccer on Sunday afternoons, for years wedged between The Champions or Randall & Hopkirk Deceased & The Golden Shot. The upside of all this was the chance to enjoy the golden larynx of former World War 2 pilot Hugh ‘That’s A Naughty One’ Johns, prone to mispronouncing the odd name (Ray Lewington becoming Kenny Lewiston on one occasion at Molineux) & giving players nicknames nobody else knew they had, including them, but always a welcome vocal presence in the prevalent Midlands gloom, his voice enriched by a smoking habit that had survived the loss of a lung to TB. Southsea would mean Brian Moore & The Big Match, & David Hay’s toothless grin after his splendid header from Steve Finnieston’s cross. Except it didn’t, because Bill’s dad had the revolutionary idea that a holiday meant more than sitting around watching football & took us on a boat trip round the Solent. Licensing laws were more stringent back then, & on a chilly afternoon there was a flurry of latecomers on to the boat who disappeared straight into the bar & stayed in there the whole time, things being a little more relaxed on the ‘time gentleman please’ front for those electing for a life, or at least an afternoon, on the ocean wave. Missing David Hay’s header against Bolton on The Big Match was clearly not an issue for these old juicers.
Roy Of The Rovers was launched the following Saturday. Bill & I both bought it. I don’t remember much about any of the newer comic strips, except for one called Millionaire Villa about a wealthy young man who spent a couple of million on a football club with the proviso that he be given a game. He would need billions now of course, though I can’t see it being revived. The concept may be the ultimate fantasy fulfillment for the super rich club owner, but people like that seem unlikely to spend too much time reading comics. In truth, we were a little old for Roy Of The Rovers in theory, but I still dutifully filled in the promotional wall chart in my scruffy handwriting, & notice that I elected that day’s away win at Blackpool, courtesy of one of Steve Finnieston’s many goals that year, as the best performance away from Stamford Bridge all season. My pubescent peripheral vision must have been exquisite because I was at Fratton Park watching an impoverished home team lose 0-2 against Reading in the old Division 3.
Portsmouth were managed by former Liverpool hero (& future TV sidekick to Chelsea great Jimmy Greaves) Ian St John. He had a fellow Scouse refugee in veteran full back Chris Lawler in his squad, along with a clutch of youngsters of varying quality, including future England centre half Steve Foster, current Sky Sports favourite Chris Kamara (a decent if one paced player & a considerably less cuddly proposition for opposing team’s players than he is to Goals On Sunday viewers nowadays) & a spectacularly unpopular forward by the name of Maitland Pollock. The Viz character that got away. Times being hard at Fratton Park, one player who featured in this match, the late Billy Wilson, eventually subsidized his salary by taking over The Pompey pub with his wife. The pub was a stone’s throw from the pitch. The aforementioned licensing laws meant it shut half an hour before kick off, reopening an hour or so after the final whistle. Billy had a stinker against Grimsby one afternoon, but was still back behind the bar serving the fans at 6, & queried why one punter had given him way over the odds for a large round of lagers. ‘The rest is for you, we want you to buy a length of rope and hang yourself!’ he was told. They still sang One Billy Wilson to him. Different times The pub has gone now, spewing bile on social media the modern poison for many contemporary fans.
It is ex Portsmouth players I largely recall from this week. Bill & I had tracked down the sports shop of Oxford United (& former Pompey) goalie John ‘Dracula’ Milkins & stood aghast peering through the window as he held court with customers wearing a pair of those horrendous Rupert Bear trousers only ever donned by golfers (& Rupert himself in fairness) outside of this inglorious era for the British wardrobe. The other Fratton favourite briefly appeared for Reading in this match, limping off with an injury to sympathetic applause shortly after the game began. Ray Hiron had previously played over 300 games for Portsmouth & scored over 100 goals. He wasn’t remotely sexy or rock ‘n’ roll , but he was one of those stalwarts that supplied the backbone to many football clubs in this era. As someone who went to lots of games back then, I always remember players like this fondly. There were more colourful & controversial characters playing for Reading at the time but Hiron’s poignant departure remains my main memory of the game, other than Bill & I being collared by a dipshit Reading fan who found out we were from Oxford & proclaimed ‘Oxford? Shit team. Good fighters though.’ Thanks for coming Confucius. Roy Keane’s future biographer & spiritual father, the wilfully gittish, cantankerous & perverse Eamon Dunphy, was his usually skin & bones self in midfield. Dunphy & Keane fell out after the book was published. Quelle surprise. Combative, beardie Welsh international midfielder Trevor Hockey once clashed with Dunphy & spat out the old ‘how many caps have you got?’ line to which the old curmudgeon, rarely short of an answer, gleefully replied ’25.’ 17 more than poor Trevor as it happens, who clearly did not realize he was baiting a Republic Of Ireland regular.
The other big personality at Reading was Robin Friday. An habitual drinker, drug user & woman chaser throughout his adult life, Friday died in 1990, reportedly of cardiac failure brought on by a heroin overdose. His all too brief career had ended before the ’70’s were over, but his name was belatedly & posthumously put in lights in the late ’90’s via a book called The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw by ex music hack Paolo Hewitt & a member of Oasis who wasn’t one of the tedious Gallagher brothers. Friday died around the time English football started to emerge from the doldrums. It was nice to move away from the era of stadium disasters like Bradford, Heysel & Hillsborough, nice to see people who had turned their back on the game engage with it once again, nice to see a new generation of fan attracted to football matches, especially nice to see more women going to games. Cliche though it has become, the pivotal moment in this transformation was the England-Germany match in the 1990 World Cup, capped off by the tears of Paul Gascoigne. By Euro 1996 the national team could get away with drawing against Switzerland, winning an undeserved penalty shootout against Spain (after their opponents had a perfectly good goal disallowed for offside) & losing (on penalties again) to Germany on home soil. The cracks were papered over not just by a moment of Gazza brilliance against Scotland, allied to an emphatic win over a deeply divided Dutch team, but more generally by what seemed like a collective national hysteria. Three Lions topped the charts, politicians were embracing a sport they had treated as an infectious disease for decades, & the tournament was a vibrant showcase for the new & improved stadia that had sprung up in the wake of the money pouring into the game via the Murdoch/Sky sponsored creation of the Premier League. There was a downside though, & one of them was an influx of people poncing off the sport & its newly regained popularity. The aforementioned politicians, especially the liar & future Prime Minister Tony Blair, were among this obnoxious & unwanted breed. Give me a football hater who stays true to their code any day. To go to football in the late 1980’s was to be seen as a weird mix of sporting geek & social pariah. Suddenly, God help us, it was fashionable again. It was laughable to see ageing music writers, belatedly sussing they could not sustain a living any longer by wearing baseball caps the wrong way round & pretending to like Public Enemy, now adopting football as a meal ticket into middle age. I shared football grounds with some desperate people in the 1980’s but at least knew that all of them, for whatever reasons they had, wanted to be there, not merely to be seen there.
The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw seemed to typify this trend. Plenty of people did see Robin Friday play. I saw him at least twice, a clearly talented & charismatic performer. Sadly, I can’t remember anything about him at Fratton Park on this occasion. If the title of the book was aimed at younger readers fine, but clearly there are scores of greater players than Robin Friday they never saw. As for old farts like Hewitt & me, if you didn’t see him perhaps you didn’t go to enough matches until it was deemed cool to do so again. In fairness, however, the book is a decent read, largely because of the frenetic lifestyle of its sadly doomed subject. Robin was never going to make old bones & must have been a nightmare to be around. His 38 years witnessed three marriages. One wedding ended in a free for all with the wedding gifts being purloined, including an apparently generous stash of cannabis. Robin apparently also took LSD in his playing days & was an enthusiastic drinker, once taking to the dance floor in a Reading nightclub to strut his funky stuff totally naked save for the hobnail boots on his feet. He once left a bar citing boredom only to reappear shortly afterwards carrying a swan he had acquired in the intervening period. He was a wild presence on the football pitch too on occasions, managing to get sent off seven times in his Isthmian League career prior to joining Reading. Even legendary hard men like Tommy Smith & Chelsea’s own Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris found it quite difficult to get sent off in those days. Not Robin. A few months after the Portsmouth game, he left Reading for Cardiff City, his last appearance for The Royals being one I witnessed at a snowy, ice-cold Manor Ground in the last few days of 1976. His arrival at his new club was delayed by him only having a platform ticket for the entire journey & being detained by Transport Police until his new manager arrived & settled the debt. This set the tone for a short & unhappy stay at Cardiff despite a glorious 2 goal debut performance & his wrongfully being credited with dealing with Bobby Moore as an opponent by spitefully grasping the great man’s testicles. This is one story that is not entirely true if only because Bobby Moore only had one testicle, having had the other removed due to cancer in the mid 1960’s, prior to his World Cup heroics. Another story in dispute about Friday is that having been sent off for kicking Mark Lawrenson in the face (yes, that Mark Lawrenson) he returned to the dressing rooms & compounded the felony by defecating into the latter’s kit bag. Hewitt’s book does not mention this, & Lawrenson has, to my knowledge, never confirmed or denied it. If it is true it’s no wonder he always sounds so world-weary. Mr Friday did have form in the fecal department, once reacting to a poor Reading performance at Mansfield, to which he had been excluded, by depositing a sneaky Richard The 3rd into the team bath. It may be fun recounting these tales, but I can’t help thinking of Jack Dee’s response to a zealous hi-fi salesman trying to sell him a system that would make it sound, he was assured, like the band were actually in the room. ‘I like The Pogues but I don’t want them in my living room.’ Friday slipped out of football & into obscurity, then prison, for impersonating a police officer in an attempt to steal everyone else’s drugs. He was just 38 when he died. RIP Robin & a Happy 75th Birthday for his former team-mate Ray Hiron next month.
In many ways Bobby Moore was a real life, defensive Roy Of The Rovers. Robin Friday was the anti Roy Race. Roy’s life may have been blighted by tragedy & disaster, but they were rarely self-inflicted. It’s great to have him back in the trusty hands of Rebellion & I look forward to sneaking into Oxford’s best bookshop to buy a copy of the first graphic novel in the series later in the year. Good old Waterstones. Doubtless there will be less kidnappings at the hands of swarthy bandits on ill-advised summer tours. He’ll have enough on his hands warding off internet trolls. Hopefully he doesn’t lose either a foot or a wife this time, & though there will be a need to adapt to changing times, I think we can be confident we will never see him carry a swan into a pub, impersonate a police officer to snaffle other people’s drugs, or poo in anyone’s kit bag. Not even one belonging to Mark Lawrenson.
Welcome back Roy.