Much in the fashion of a Roy of the Rovers instalment itself, we left our roundup on a cliffhanger last time around. In December 1990, with Melchester Rovers high-flying in both the league and Europe, there was a blip on the horizon in the shape of a shaky run of form for goalkeeper Andy Styles. But what was it that was causing the man sometimes known as “Streaky” to suffer a total loss of confidence?
Ah, yes. A “curse”. Superstition was a key part of ROTR stories down the years, and so it proved again – as Andy admitted at the halfway point of a crushing 4-1 defeat to unfancied Niton Town that after a visit to a “leisure complex”, he’d encountered a fortune teller who told him that a “sphere of destiny” would “penetrate the stronghold of his spiritual being”. “There’s no way I can play for the Rovers again… until that prophecy’s been lifted!” he cried.
After a brief diversion for Roy Jr.’s first games for Melchester’s youth team, 1991 began with young goalkeeper Nicky Watson, in his first appearance since ignominiously being knocked out by a Japanese footballing robot in his summer 1990 debut, deputising for the hexed Styles – although the youngster was blameless as Walford Town scored an equalising free-kick. Roy was adamant afterwards that Andy would be playing in goal for Melchester in the third round of the FA Cup, against tiny non-league side Darlboro Town. But could the curse be lifted in time?
Well, yes, actually, it could. The story was over almost as soon as it began, as Roy drove Andy to Dalboro to reveal that the “fortune teller” was none other than the social secretary of their upcoming opponents, who had been jokily putting the frighteners up the goalkeeper and just happened to uncannily predict his conceding four goals against Niton. Problem solved, curse lifted, and Rovers were free to go on and beat a hard-battling Dalboro 1-0 in the snow, with Styles turning in a man of the match performance.
That snow, however, was the portent for a far bigger storyline to greet the new year: probably the the biggest piece of drama to hit the club since the Mel Park earthquake of 1988. A coach crash is probably the single most predictable disaster that could happen to a fictional football team – just ask Harchester United – but there’s no denying that it made for a pretty gripping cliffhanger to the eyes of an eight-year-old reader.
Wouldn’t you know it, however: Race himself wasn’t on the coach. Having taken his own car up to Darlboro in advance of the match (a nice bit of advance plotting linking the “curse” storyline with the crash), he was a few miles back down the road when the Rovers’ coach was speared by a car that had skidded through the central reservation. Arriving at the crash scene, he discovered that fortunately, nobody had been killed – but Blackie Gray was the most seriously injured, and was transferred to hospital in a coma.
With several other players suffering minor injuries, Roy was forced to play “the youngest ever [team] fielded in a British professional cup-tie” – which seemed like an oddly-specific statistic, but we’ll allow it – in the fourth round against Tynecaster. Beforehand, there had been talk of Rovers asking for a postponement due to a shortage of players – which actually seemed pretty melodramatic. Despite their young age, the likes of Des Chapman, Alex Ritchie, Broz Bamber and Gary Gunn were all either regular first-teamers or on the periphery, while Roy and Terry Spring were fit to play in midfield. It was only really Nicky Watson, Denis Tyler, Brynn Jones and Merv Wallace’s son Russ that were lacking in first-team experience.
Despite this, the young team lined up as rank outsiders for the Tynecaster match, but battled frantically for most of the ninety minutes to keep the score at 0-0. In the closing moments of the 9th February instalment, however, the unthinkable happened: a cross came into the box and struck young Denis Tyler on the hand. “Never!” cried a fan in the crowd. “It was an accident! The ref can’t give it… he can’t let this game be decided by a penalty!”
The following week, however, taught any young reader – not to mention the Tynecaster players – a lesson in the concept of playing to the whistle. While their opponents surrounded the ref demanding a penalty, Des Chapman hoofed the ball upfield to Roy. Dashing into the box, he crossed towards Gary Gunn – only for the ball to bounce off the shin of a defender, and into the net. The score was 1-0, and Rovers’ “kids” had made it through to the fifth round.
In classic ROTR fashion, however, what goes up must come down. The glory of the youngsters’ surprise win was followed by the return to action of most of the injured players. Expecting a walkover away to struggling Kelburn in the next round, the first-teamers were shocked – despite initially taking the lead – as their overconfidence led to two sloppy mistakes in a 2-1 defeat. Whoops.
And so the 1990/91 FA Cup story was over. Meanwhile, the team hadn’t been shown in league action for several months, so could only be assumed to have been languishing somewhere in mid-table mediocrity. So there was just one tournament left to focus on for the rest of the season: but we’ll follow the story of how their Cup Winners’ Cup campaign played out next time…
For now, though, let’s go back to October 1990 and catch up with Hamish and Mouse, who had made their triumphant return to the pages of the magazine in August. Their time at Glengow Rangers had begun with a storyline surrounding the club’s sponsors, Mazota Motors – and after Mr Mazota’s bodyguard Gordon Wang had become the first of a long line of unlikely players to get a game for Glengow over the next few years, the injuries he sustained in the process meant that Hamish and Mouse were called upon to fill in for him at Mazota’s mansion.
Successfully defending Mazota from kidnappers in typically Hamish-esque fashion, the pair were rewarded by the Japanese tycoon with a big bundle of cash (although not before an amusing moment in the 3rd November instalment – one of the first issues I remember reading at the time – where Mouse managed to get two players sent off simultaneously for a double foul on him).
The next couple of issues saw madcap scenes as the pair attempted to do some good by giving away the cash to needy causes in the local community – but instead simply caused chaos and violence as the people of Glengow greedily fought over it. This caused them to be hauled up in front of a magistrate – who fortunately turned out to be a Rangers fan, and let them off the hook. But despite the fact that the victory had nothing to do with their hopeless legal counsel Horace McGilty (who could quite easily have been played by Hugh Laurie circa Blackadder the Third), the Rangers directors had promised the footy-mad lawyer a trial with the club if the pair avoided jail.
One thing led to another, and despite having even less talent on the pitch than in the courtroom, McGilty was given a starting berth in the team’s next match (in lieu of payment for his legal services). Somehow, the useless lug managed to become a hero with the Rangers fans in short order, despite his every moment of good fortune in the match coming as a direct result of Hamish and Mouse helping him out. Replaced by Mouse at half time, McGilty was paraded in front of the fans as the next big superstar, while Rangers conspired to throw away a two-goal lead: thus ensuring Horace’s position in the team for their next game, too.
The story continued through the December issues, with the glory-hungry McGilty bribing Rangers’ scoreboard operator to flash up his name whenever a goal was scored – no matter who had scored it. Despite his now readily apparent hopelessness, the Rangers manager and directors were forced to keep him in the team, so tasked Hamish and Mouse – who else? – with attempting to train him at least vaguely towards competence.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work – and McGilty, now bereft of confidence and disillusioned with football, pleaded with his chums to help him escape the club. Before they could assist, however, Rangers accepted an offer from an Italian club for him – but salvation came in the form of a beach-based training exercise. Chasing a loose ball into the sea, Horace was swept away – apparently for good, but readers learned in the closing panels that he’d been picked up by a fishing trawler, and he happily set sail for a new football-free life in Iceland.
The McGilty story ran up to mid-January, and so was one of the longest storylines Hamish and Mouse had ever run. The next storyline was shorter, but introduced another unusual character to the team’s ranks: Ginger McBisket, a former reserve team player with a reputation for having a fiery temper (indeed, with both this and his long red hair, he felt slightly like a pastiche of early-1980s Melchester Rovers hot-head Vic Guthrie). But after having seven shades of shit kicked out of him during a Scottish Cup tie, McBisket reacted with surprisingly calm grace.
Hamish and Mouse found out the reason for this after a chance encounter with Dr Herman Brane-Prowber, the psychologist who had treated McBisket for his aggression. Inviting Hamish to undergo the same treatment – essentially, unleashing tension by smashing up bits of an old castle with an axe – the gentle giant agreed, and soon found himself acting with equally kitten-like softness and grace. This was all too much for Mouse, however, who found his own irritation and anger growing and growing as he was repeatedly clobbered during their next match.
The punchline to this story, in the 23rd February issue, is that Mouse finally undergoes Dr Brane-Prowber’s anger-management therapy… and promptly destroys the guy’s car with a hammer. And yes, the good doctor immediately flips out and drives off in a huff. And so ended an amusing, but ultimately quite slight and throwaway, little story.
The way that Hamish and Mouse was serialised meant that the narratives would generally overlap with one-another: so in contrast to Roy of the Rovers (which had frequent, handy break-points) a new story would begin either as a direct result of, or in the same issue as the end of, the previous one. So when Hamish and Mouse encountered an opposing club’s mascot in the same 23rd Feb instalment, it was a surefire hint that this would be the subject matter of the next arc. But that one was a biggie as well, so we’ll get into exactly how it played out in our next chapter.
So, then, to Goalmouth, where we last left Rapper Hardisty having narrowly avoided being sold to a First Division club to save his beloved Railford Town. But the intervention of his football-hating father – who bought enough advertising space at the club’s ground to ensure its medium-term survival – came at a price, as a new chairman was forced on the board. A new chairman that just happened to be a tough-guy fixer on old man Hardisty’s payroll named Adrian Stark.
Stark made his debut on 22nd December, where he was told by the elder Hardisty that his job was to make Rapper’s life such a nightmare that he’d want to turn his back on football forever. He set about doing this in the first issue of 1991, putting Rapper under an intensive training regime – somehow missing the point that given Rapper’s love for goalkeeping, forcing him to do more of it was hardly going to have much of a negative effect.
Indeed, in the 19th January issue, Rapper showed that even an arm injury wasn’t going to stop him playing – as Stark attempted to make the injury worse by taking him out of goal and playing him up front instead. The tactic did, however, have a temporarily negative effect on the team: defending a corner, Rapper forgot he was no longer in goal, and gleefully punched the ball away. Fortunately, the resulting penalty was saved by his replacement – and as he’d earlier assisted the only goal of the game, Railford made it through to the next round of the cup.
Stark’s next plan, which played out through the February issues, was to damage Rapper’s reputation by planting a false story in the press – in which Rapper had purportedly bad-mouthed Railford’s fourth round opponents Highboro, the same First Division club who’d nearly signed him weeks earlier. The game consequently took place in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, but Rapper played out of his skin, impressing the fans so much that a pitch invader turned out to be intent not on attacking him, but congratulating him. Railford were ultimately knocked out 1-0, but the match again did little to dampen the young ‘keeper’s enthusiasm for the game.
It took until March for Stark to finally come up with a half-decent scheme – and it involved a change of tack. Rather than trying to dissuade Rapper from playing football, it occurred to the chairman to take the decision out of his hands altogether, by getting him banned from the game for life. But how would he do it? The story would play out over the next couple of months’ worth of issues, and it very nearly worked…
When we last saw Lands Park United’s teenage sensation Andy Steel in the 15th December instalment of Playmaker, he’d responded to his club’s poor run of form by treating himself to an early Christmas present: a motorbike. Literally three panels after buying the thing, however, disaster struck, as he rode head-on into a car pulling out of a side road.
In typical Steel fashion, however, this moment of misfortune actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While the injury he sustained to his knee put him out of the next game, he was befriended by the rich tycoon who’d been driving the car that hit him. The man just happened to have a son, Eduardo Suarez, who just happened to be a talented Spanish youth team player, and who just happened to be living in the U.K. for two years. One thing unsurprisingly led to another, and Suarez was a Lands Park player before December was even out.
Even this exciting new signing didn’t come without problems, though: Suarez’s immediate addition to the team resulted in midfield mainstay John Hardcastle – who’d already developed a dislike for Steel – being dropped. Suarez’s debut started poorly, until Andy (or “Andee” as his new friend referred to him) realised that the kid was shivering in the northern winter cold. Sending him off the pitch to don tights and gloves did the trick, and the pair were instrumental in an eventual 6-0 win.
Hardcastle, unimpressed at being dropped, immediately handed in a transfer request. The circumstances of his move away from Lands Park weren’t actually shown on-panel, but a few months later he’d return to haunt Andy. In the meantime, there were bigger problems to deal with. The club’s topsy-turvy run of form continued, and on 12th January they were hammered 5-0 in the Cup by a thuggish Third Division outfit. It was the death knell for manager Howard Watson, who was sacked immediately. “The football world is awash with rumours. Who will be the lucky manager to have the Playmaker’s wondrous skills at his disposal?”
The answer followed on 19th January, in a strip that even now feels rather terrifying in its prescience. For the new Lands Park manager – actually, in fact, their new player-manager – was a legendary figure in the game. Scotsman Stevie Sinclair was so heavily modelled on Kenny Dalglish that one of the images that flashed back to his glittering career was practically a direct trace of a famous photo of Kenny lifting the FA Cup for Liverpool.
With the benefit of hindsight, the idea of a Dalglish-inspired character becoming manager of a Second Division team from the North of England, who play in blue and white and have a lot of money, feels like a direct reference to the real Dalglish’s time in charge of Blackburn. But here’s the scary part: this story was published in mid-January 1991. Dalglish resigned as Liverpool manager the month after it came out – and didn’t take over at Blackburn until October. So what happened? Eerie coincidence? Or did King Kenny happen to be a Roy of the Rovers subscriber who decided to take events in the mag as a suggested future career plan? We may never know.
In the meantime, Kenny… sorry, Stevie… had work to do at Lands Park, and despite watching a 2-0 win just after his arrival, declared that the club’s midfield needed improvement. To achieve this, he had the club fork out £1.8m on yet another teenager… and it was a name that gave Andy an almighty shock. Kevin Radnor had been Andy’s main antagonist in the earliest days of the Playmaker strip, coming up through the youth ranks at the same time, but at Millside County, the local rivals of Andy’s old club. While seemingly consigned to history after Andy moved to Lands Park, his return to the strip was a surprise – but a welcome one, as it turned out to be a canny move that breathed a bit of fresh life into the strip. But we’ll find out exactly how… next time.