Saturday, August 8, 2015

English Soccer Preview: Roy of the Rovers

I have no idea who will win the English Premier League this year -- actually, of course, that's not true:  it will be Chelsea, Manchester United, or Manchester City.  But the point here is that I'm not really in a good position to preview the new soccer season that kicked off today.  (I didn't even realize until today that AFC Bournmouth -- which plays in a tiny stadium that seats only 11,000 people -- have been promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history).  To be honest, last season was so boring -- Chelsea dominated from beginning to end -- that I didn't pay much attention.  (I also don't watch as much soccer when UK's basketball team is very good.)

But yesterday, I got a copy of Roy of the Rovers:  Best of the 1970's.  In reading British journalism, you will often read that this or that amazing play is "real Roy of the Rovers stuff."  And I got to wondering what they meant.  It turns out that from the late 1950's until 2000, there was a British comic book called "Roy of the Rovers," which told the story of Roy Race, a fabulous soccer player for the (fictional) Melchester Rovers.  This sounded interesting.  So I wanted to see what it was like.

I don't know what the whole series was like -- I just finished reading about the 1976-77 season.  But it was fantastic.  This is what Gil Thorpe should have been but never was -- an entertaining comic series for 10-year-olds who are obsessed with sports.  Here are some of the problems that Roy and his squad faced during the 1976-77 season:

1.  A grocery chain is offering a prize of 30,000 pounds for any player who can score 50 goals in both League and Cup competitions during the season.  A reporter thinks that Roy cares more about winning this big prize than about playing for the team.

2.  The Rovers have a "super-sub" who's great at scoring last-minute goals.  The fans want him to play more often.  But only Roy knows that the "super-sub" is actually out of shape, and can't stand the pace of a full game.

3.  The Rovers lose a game because of a goalkeeper's mistake, and the goalkeeper loses his confidence.  How can Roy -- who is both a player and the manager -- get his goalkeeper's head back in the game?

4.  The Rovers open the year with a long undefeated streak.  How will the lads withstand the pressure as the streak grows and grows?

5.  Roy's wife is pregnant.  How will the pregnancy affect Roy's concentration?

6.  The Rovers are playing a big F.A. Cup game in heavy fog.  How will they overcome the difficult conditions?

Now when I was 10 years old, these were exactly the sorts of story lines I would have found interesting -- there just wasn't enough sports on TV or the radio, and I was always looking for more.  Plus, the folks who did Roy of the Rovers really knew their soccer.  A lot of the fictional stories I read about football and baseball barely got the rules right.  But they get everything right in Roy of the Rovers -- at least as far as I can tell.  The League Cup and F.A. Cup games happen in the season exactly when they are supposed to, the game stories themselves are dramatic but by no means incredible, we get to see the complete lineups when there's a particularly big game, and at one point we even get a glimpse of top of the league standings:

Melchester:  8-0-3 (19 points)
Tynecaster:  7-2-2 (16 points) (goal differential of 16)
Burndean:  6-1-4 (16 points) (goal differential of 12)
Kingsbay:  6-1-4 (16 points) (goal differential of 7)
Portdean:  6-1-3 (15 points)
Carford:  6-3-2 (14 points)

When I was 10 or 11, this sort of thing would have kept me busy for hours -- I would have eventually figured out the names of all the teams, and I would look for old issues so that I could figure out who had won the League in the past.  And my guess is that this is exactly what a lot of British boys did.  (For example, here you can find a loving and detailed Wikipedia article about the Rovers.)

Oh, and during the summer -- since there's no British soccer -- they had to come up with other things for Roy to do.  My book has a story about him coming over to America to help a British friend who plays for an American soccer club.  (Roy even suits up for an American football game!)  Again, I'm so happy that they didn't have the Rovers playing in the summer.

Unfortunately, we didn't have anything like Roy of the Rovers in America -- I had to make up my own imaginary sports leagues, and to be honest the team names I came up with weren't nearly as good as "Melchester Rovers" or "Carford."  But it makes me happy to know that so many British fans my age got to have so much fun.

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