Over the last five years or so, there’s been a reasonably healthy wave of nostalgia for Roy of the Rovers. While none of it’s actually seen the comic get any closer to having new stories published, there have at least been reprint books, tie-in merchandise and other uses of the character and strip license that Egmont currently hold, keeping Roy and Melchester hovering somewhere around the fringes of the public eye.
Almost all of this nostalgia, however, has been based heavily (and perhaps unsurprisingly) around the comic’s most successful and well-remembered period – that is, between the late 1970s and mid 1980s. It was during this time that it was selling between a quarter and a half a million (depending on who you read) copies a week; that Alf Ramsay briefly took over as Rovers’ manager while Roy was in his Who Shot JR?-style coma; that Bob Wilson, Emlyn Hughes and two members of Spandau Ballet all made appearances in the famous red-and-yellow.
The thing is, though: that might be most people’s clearest recollection of Roy of the Rovers, but it’s not mine. I first started buying the comic in 1990, around a year after I first became properly aware of football, and it quickly became an integral part of my weekly pocket-money trip to the newsagent (along with astro belts and – if I was feeling flush that week – Kinder eggs). To me, it was simply a new and exciting reading experience – what I didn’t know, of course, that these were the dying days of a long-running institution, with its creators fighting hard to keep interest and sales up in the face of an ailing print comics industry.
Both of these elements, though – my own childhood nostalgia, and the fact that it was an at times turbulent time for the comic – make it an era that, for me at least, feels worth revisiting in detail. So that’s what we’ll be doing in this series of features – going through the final three years issue by issue, detailing events in the main ROTR strip as well as looking at how the various backup strips fared, and the general direction taken as the title hurtled towards oblivion. Cheery, eh?
We begin in May 1990, which serves as a handy jumping-on point as it’s the month the comic finally became an all-colour publication for the first time, launching a selection of new features and also beginning a new storyline in the main ROTR strip. With the relaunch issue of 19th May, the mag gained a new editor – David Hunt, formerly of Scorcher, replacing the long-serving Ian Vosper – but the ROTR story itself maintained continuity with the previous era, keeping writer Tom Tully (a mainstay since 1979) and artist Mike White, who’d been onboard since the last revamp in 1986.
The main strip was, as usual, backed up by three other strip features – although the only story in the first revamped issue that carried directly on from before was Playmaker, by writer Gil Page (under the pseudonym “H. Manning”), which had joined the title a year earlier after its merging with the defunct Hot Shot. Long-running strips Hot-Shot Hamish, Billy’s Boots and Goalkeeper all moved over to a new monthly archive title, although one of these would be back with new stories before very long. Part of Hunt’s remit was also to move towards increasing the non-comic strip feature content in the mag – we won’t cover this in as much detail, but I might spotlight the odd feature as and when it looks of interest.
Taking Roy of the Rovers itself first, then, May 1990 saw the strip kick off a brand new storyline, as was customary following the end of the previous football season (in which, in this case, Rovers had won the FA Cup alongside a relatively modest league performance). This new story, however, was far from the most illustrious the strip would run, telling as it did the story of Roy (who, for reasons we can only speculate about, was nowhere near England’s World Cup squad) leading a Rovers youth team on a short tour of Japan.
Upon arrival, Roy – alongside Rovers midfielder Terry Spring and a host of youth players – discovered that a local entrepreneur named Ichio Tanaka had organised a megabucks “World Youth Cup” tournament between Japan, South Korea, the USA and England (the latter to be represented by the Rovers players). The story that followed largely consisted of a succession of outdated Japanese stereotyping, with some horrendously cliched dialogue and moments of subterfuge that border on mid-20th century “yellow peril” paranoia (the Japanese – or the “Japs”, as they were referred to with worrying frequency – had a different trick planned to scupper the Rovers in each of their three games, culminating in the final match when they sent out a team of obviously adult players masquerading as “youths”). The stereotyping wasn’t limited to the Asians, either: after all, it wouldn’t be a ROTR strip with Americans in it if there weren’t cheerleaders all over the shop.
Perhaps the nadir of the whole thing, though, was when a victorious Melchester side were greeted with chants of “LLHHOOOHHVERS!” The closest I can come to conveying the expression on my face upon reading these pages is directing you to the audience in The Producers as they watch Springtime For Hitler for the first time. Tully would show an increasingly (and welcome) progressive approach as the ’90s drew on, but it seems that at the start of the decade he was firmly entrenched in the “foreigners are the bad guys of football” mindset that had characterised his earliest strips.
Still, while this was a Roy story best forgotten, at least rendering it so requires wilful effort on the part of the reader. The same can’t be said of Playmaker, which from its outset seemed to be on a mission to make its lead Andy Steel the most tedious, personality-free character in football comics history. In later instalments, we’ll discover that it was possible for Playmaker stories to be quite entertaining, despite their star being a decade-early trial run of Michael Owen – but at this stage, the strip was firmly entrenched in snoozeville.
In fact, as the summer of 1990 drew on, Playmaker was setting the stage for a revamp that would see a new artist arrive, and Andy transferring to a new team. This was achieved by having the off-season story introduce an unscrupulous businessman, David Beresford, as the new chairman of Andy’s club Millside City. The 15-year-old midfield whizz-kid found himself swayed by the new boss’ lavish hyping of his future potential – but in fact, Beresford’s main interest was in wringing as much cash out of the playmaker’s profile as he could. This culminated in his using Andy as the centre of a publicity campaign for his theme park, “Beresworld” (seriously, stop laughing at the back).
At the same time, Andy was being goaded by Beresford into playing through an injury picked up at the end of the previous season – doing so via controversial pain-killing injections. This, alongside the eventual sacking of Andy’s foster-father Bill Steel as coach, served to build up a toxic atmosphere around the club, setting the stage for his upcoming move away. In the meantime, however, the July issues ramped up the drama quotient, with Bill falling into a coma as a result of an accident at the stadium.
And yet, with a swiftness that was a customary feature of Playmaker, the Beresford story came to an abrupt end. In the 18th August issue, just as Bill emerged from his coma, the announcement came that Beresford and Millside were cashing in on Andy, selling him to the previously-unheard-of Lands Park United for a British record £3million. But as to just who these free-spending Second Division chancers were… that’s a question for the weeks to come.
Going back to the 19th May relaunch issue, there were not one but two new features debuting. We’ll deal with the least interesting one first. Sunday Squad, filling the “comedic” role vacated by Hotshot Hamish, is perhaps one of the least-remembered footnotes in ROTR history. Drawn by venerable cartoonist Bill Titcombe and with the bizarre writer’s credit of “Brain Trust”, it was an overly cartoony series about a struggling Sunday League team. Lacking anything in the way of good jokes, storylines, dialogue or characters, it was quietly shuffled out of the comic towards the end of July after just ten instalments – its final strip even being preceded by a full-page announcement of Hamish‘s return.
A rather more sustained success story was the other May debut, Goalmouth. There had been a tradition for strips about goalkeepers in ROTR dating back to the late ’70s, as first Gordon “The Safest Hands In Soccer” Stewart and then his son Rick (in the rather more prosaically-titled Goalkeeper) showed that comic book stories could have as much focus on stopping goals as scoring them. In truth, though, while offering a fresh perspective, these characters had something of a bland, “goody-goody” nature to them – even the fact that Gordon was unceremoniously bumped off in a plane crash between series couldn’t really give Rick’s story much of an edge.
There was no such danger with the star of Goalmouth, a young lad named Nicholas Alexander “Rapper” Hardisty. In what might be the most misguided attempt by a childrens’ publication to tap belatedly into a zeitgeist ever conceived (certainly in this country, at least), Rapper’s gimmick was – as you’ve probably guessed – that he couldn’t go five minutes, on or off the pitch, without bursting into a succession of dubious-quality “raps”, rendered in a swishy pink font.
Despite this frequent annoyance, Goalmouth was actually quite good fun, with a couple of strong hooks. Firstly, the club Rapper played for, and to which he was utterly devoted, was a languishing Fourth Division outfit named Railford Town, who had about half a penny to rub together. And by deliberate contrast, Rapper himself was the son of an incredibly rich property magnate – who, predictably enough, hated football and just wanted his boy to wise up and join the family business. The strip was written by ROTR scribe Tully – a fact that would become significant a little further down the line – with strong art from John Cooper, who was generally better known as a mainstay of British action comics.
Given that Rapper was being introduced in the summer, it was perhaps no surprise that his first story saw him playing in – yes, you guessed it – a summer tournament. This one was in Italy, which conveniently gave Hardisty a chance to introduce new team-mate Denzil Bishop (and hence the reader) to his unique background – as, coincidentally or not, the rest of his family were celebrating his parents’ anniversary at a luxury villa. There’s not a huge amount of story in the earliest Goalmouth strips – Rapper’s dad made a half-hearted attempt to dissuade him from playing the game by bribing a couple of local players to duff him up a bit during a match, but that’s about it – so the time was generally spent setting up the concept and getting to know the character.
The story’s central conflict started to kick in towards the end of the summer tournament, in the August issues – as the Railford players became aware that Hardisty Sr was attempting to buy up shares in the club, in order to drive them out of existence. To several of the squad, the answer was obvious: Rapper should give in to his father’s demands and save the club. But he refused to be coerced in this way, playing out of his skin as Town won the tournament, before then quickly headed home without looking back. Convinced that he was only looking out for number one, the Railford players declared that he was “[going] to arrange his own transfer, I’ll bet!”
So ended the 1990 off-season in Roy of the Rovers. A summer of uncomfortable ethnic stereotyping, a mouthy self-interested goalie, Andy “Interesting” Steel getting a transfer, and a forgettable attempt at a “comedy” strip, it was hardly the most distinguished period the comic had ever had; but as the wave of post-Italia 90 football hysteria began, there were signs of the revamped mag finding its feet. It would take until the start of the new season for the final piece to fall into place, however – in the shape of a gargantuan Scottish centre-forward with a legendarily powerful foot…