Last time around, we looked at Roy of the Rovers‘ start to the 1990/91 season, but there was one strip in particular conspicuously missing. Having sat out the summer in favour of the woefully laugh-free Sunday Squad, Hot-Shot Hamish made a triumphant return in the issue dated 28th July.
Hamish had debuted in Scorcher in the early 1970s, and after bouncing around various titles, joined Roy of the Rovers in 1985. At this time, he joined up with Mighty Mouse – a strip by the same writer/artist team of Fred Baker and Julio Schiaffino – to form a new combined Hamish and Mouse strip, that saw the unlikely duo (one a giant Scottish striker with a thunderous foot, the other a short, fat and bespectacled English dribbling wizard who worked as a hospital porter during the week) team up at Scottish side Princes Park. Following the break, when Hamish returned in July 1990 it was with surprising news: Princes had been relegated from the Scottish Premier, and Hamish had been transferred to Glengow Rangers in a £2.5million deal… without Mousie!
While Kevin Mouse glumly reflected on the departure of his friend, things weren’t much happier for Hamish – and in the first couple of strips, we saw him struggling at his new club, where he was unpopular with team-mates and fans alike, and couldn’t get amongst the goals. If readers were in any way fooled by the notion that the duo would be split up for long, however, then fears were assuaged just a week after the relaunch, when Glengow’s manager angrily confronted his Princes Park counterpart over the apparent uselessness of Hamish – and so was offered Mouse on a free transfer to make up for it.
So on 11th August, Hamish and Mouse were reunited once more, and although it took some time to win over the hearts and minds of Glengow, they quickly began to renew the old goalscoring magic. Still and all, it felt like there was something missing in the early weeks of the new strip – while the story was settling down, the jokes weren’t really fizzing the way they used to.
This changed with the beginning of a new storyline on 25th August, when Glengow signed a new sponsorship deal with a firm called Mazota Motors. Along with a natty new kit, Rangers’ players were promised a new car each if they won their next game – leading to some gentle ribbing of the popular old, pre-backpass-rule method of holding on to a one-goal lead.
The farce quotient was swiftly ramped up after this, with the hapless Hamish and Mouse accidentally destroying Mr. Mazota’s own car, then having a run-in with his personal bodyguard while attempting to apologise (and thus get back the sponsorship, and cars, that had been withdrawn). This was only heightened further when said bodyguard, Gordon Wang, was suggested by Mouse as a possible new signing for Rangers (despite, in what would become something of a recurring theme in upcoming Hamish strips, never having been near a football pitch before).
The Wang storyline followed a few fairly predictable beats (including the unsurprising moment in which the kung-fu expert decides he can play better without boots), and possibly occasionally veered a little too close into stereotyping on occasion – but its outcome, in which Hamish and Mouse were forced to deputise for him as Mr Mazota’s security guards (thanks to a succession of injuries sustained to his boot-less feet) set up a memorable next few instalments, which we’ll deal with next time.
The other strips in the mag all began their new-season storylines in the 25th August edition, and as we mentioned last time, it was Playmaker that had undergone the biggest transformation over the summer. Fifteen-year-old Andy Steel found himself transferred to moneybags Second Division club Lands Park United for a British record £3million – and so the early days of the revamped strip would see him struggling with the expectations that his transfer fee brought, as well as settling in to his new surroundings, and the attempts of Lands Park to get into the top division.
Perhaps the biggest asset of the new-look strip was the return of original artist Barrie Mitchell. Mitchell would later go on to become the main Roy of the Rovers artist through several different eras, and before Playmaker had also been known for the excellent Jack of United and Jimmy of City strips in Scorcher and Score magazine. He was one of the absolute best artists at drawing realistic, energetic football action, and as a result Playmaker was consistently one of the best-looking strips throughout its run in the mag.
Andy’s first game at Lands Park started badly as he tried to adjust to the hustle and bustle of second tier football, but his class quickly shone through and won him fast approval with the club’s fans. Nevertheless, he still faced several obstacles – the first of which was the club chairman’s son, Ronald Grimthorpe, who saw Andy as “just the kind of southern softie I hate!” and quickly made it his mission to interfere with the youngster’s career. This was helped by their happening to be in the same class at Lands Park Grammar School – kicking off a recurring theme in the strip as Andy struggled to balance his football career with his responsibilities at a school where some of the staff were notably opposed to his being a professional player.
In the September strips, Andy also made an enemy on the pitch, as central defender John Hardcastle – another person with an apparent distaste for Southerners – became aggrieved that Steel was temporarily given the captain’s armband while the regular captain was out injured. This story would come to a head in the new year, but in the meantime Andy’s biggest concern was Grimthorpe. The jealous rich kid first attempted to get Andy involved in a nightclub scuffle, before then hiring a school bully to pick a fight with him in the playground. This latter plan had the desired effect, to an extent – Andy found himself in detention on the night of an important league game, and although he did escape (by helicopter, no less) in time for kick-off, he was distracted enough that he was off the boil in a 5-0 defeat.
The Grimthorpe storyline was pretty much resolved after this – the bully, Hogan, confessed to the set-up after being given a taste of his own medicine (and his addled mind presumably accounts for the continuity error of referring to Ronald as “Norman Grimthorpe” – this also after, a week earlier, a caption had accidentally referred to “the Millside bench” rather than Lands Park) – but Lands Park’s on-field woes continued, and Andy was the cause of his own next bout of misfortune, as in the December issues he bought himself an early Christmas present of a motorbike; and promptly crashed it. While Andy would suffer with an injury as a result, however, this incident would bring an unexpected bout of good luck to the club come the new year.
Having had the summer strips to serve as his character introduction, Rapper Hardisty – the star of Goalmouth – was now able to get down to the everyday grind of fourth division football. As the season kicked off in late August, Rapper’s fellow Railford Town players were suspicious of his motives – presuming that he was busy securing himself a move to another club while his father bought the ground and put Railford out of business – but he had a surprise for them in the 8th September instalment. As a birthday present from his mother, he’d managed to get himself ten percent of the club’s shares – giving him enough of an interest to block any destructive plans of his dad’s.
In the following weeks, the main angst in the strip was over the question of whether Railford might sell Rapper – thus earning the cash they’d need to buy new players and ultimately survive, but also losing unquestionably their most talented star. After learning in October that a scout from First Division Highboro United had been watching him, Rapper found himself equally torn – and made an impromptu visit to Highboro’s ground to get the measure of the club in person. Ultimately, though, his loyalties lay with Railford – but the confusion over the possible move began to affect his form.
It was in the November strips that Rapper hit upon an unusual solution to his dilemma. With large numbers of Highboro fans having flocked to Railford to watch the young goalkeeper their club was supposedly interested in, Rapper realised that they were also becoming impressed by the form of the club’s American attacking full-back, Harvey Benson. With a little help from his sister, he got Harvey talked about in the papers – bringing several bigger clubs’ managers to Railford’s next game to check Benson out. The plan hit a hitch, though, when Rapper turned in a characteristically brilliant performance – and so found himself the subject of even more big-money transfer offers than previously.
Salvation would come from an unlikely source, as Norman Hardisty realised that if his son moved to a top division club, he would never be persuaded away from a career in football. With Railford on the verge of bankruptcy, their only option was now to accept a bid – unless Norman himself came to the club’s rescue. This he did, with the 15th December issue revealing that he’d bought a million pounds’ worth of advertising space at Railford’s ground, in exchange for naming a representative of Hardisty Enterprises as the club’s new chairman. The club were saved, for now – but it was this latter stipulation that meant that Rapper’s troubles were just beginning…
Back in the main Roy of the Rovers strip, the focus was on how the young players who had performed well during the club’s pre-season youth tournament would adapt to being thrust into the spotlight as first-team players. Unsurprisingly, after an initially exciting start, the first problem was a conflict between veteran defender Johnny Dexter (who older readers might have remembered as the star of a strip called The Hard Man, before his transfer to Rovers in 1986) and newcomer Alex Ritchie.
This tension was nothing, however, compared to the lingering spectre of fan trouble as Rovers prepared to make a return to European competition. It’s interesting that, while obviously taking place in a fictional world, ROTR carried over the ramifications of the Heysel disaster – without ever giving a specific reason for why English clubs were banned from Europe, it was simply the accepted status quo. In the end – and after an impassioned public plea by Roy to the club’s fans in the 15th September issue – the first tie passed off without incident, save for the small matter of Rovers losing the first leg 1-0 to their Belgian opponents.
Fortunately, by October, Rovers were comfortably through to the next round – and in November, came through a tricky tie against a side renowned for playing constant offside traps, with speedy youngster Broz Bamber proving the difference as the club made it to the quarter finals. This storyline made for over two months worth of strips in which league form was barely mentioned – as the parallel storyline back home instead shifted its attention to Roy Race Jr (still at this time nicknamed “Little Racey”), who began to have trials for Melchester for the first time.
It was a trying time for the younger Roy, however, as he faced resentment from his fellow trainees, who believed he’d only got where he had due to his famous dad. After a cruel initiation prank, he got into a fight with one of them, and found himself suspended for two weeks. It was an inauspicious start to his career at Melchester, but the subplot of his attempts to get signed on a schoolboy contract would continue to run throughout the season.
Meanwhile, league football made a return to the strip’s pages in December, as a short storyline kicked off that centred around Rovers’ goalkeeper, Andy Styles. “Streaky” Styles, as he used to be known, had joined Rovers back in 1985, when he was a somewhat mercurial youngster – but had dropped in and out of the strip over the next couple of years as, variously, the stalwart Charlie Carter and the stunt-casting of Bob Wilson (yes, that Bob Wilson) had been preferred to him. Following the Basran tragedy and the relaunched strip in 1986, he’d settled in as the club’s comfortable first-choice keeper – and this was the first time he’d had a story based around him in some time.
“If I make a mess of this cross,” Styles thought to himself in the closing panels of the 1st December strip, “and they score… I’ll know it’s starting to come true. I’ll know I’m flamin’ jinxed!” But who had jinxed Andy, and how would it affect the Rovers’ steamroller of a season? Find out next time.
Finally, although we’re generally skimming over the more magazine-ish content in the comic in these features (except for when it’s interesting), I couldn’t let December 1990 pass without comment, as this was the month in which Roy Race made his assault upon the pop charts. Yes, an advert in the comic declared that Roy had a new single out – Europe United, memorably described as “a hot-rocking heavy metal rap with Gary Lineker and Roy on lead vocals and Roy on lead guitar!”
Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to get hold of a copy of this apparent masterpiece, nor have I even ever heard it – but if anyone out there can help out, let me know…