How Roy Race Ruined English Football
He may be Britain’s most popular comic footballer, but Roy of the Rovers embodies everything that is wrong about the English game
The early 1950s saw English football suffer several hammer blows from which it has arguably never recovered. In 1950, the national team was knocked out of their first-ever World Cup by a gaggle of part-time chancers representing the USA: a pot washer, a hearse driver, some postmen and a Haitian accountant. In 1953, England were finally beaten at home by Johnny Foreigner, the little fat chaps of Hungary popping over to Wembley to hand their haughty hosts a 6-3 skelping. Ferenc Puskás and the lads went one better the following year, dishing out a record 7-1 whipping in Budapest, a humiliation arguably topped later in 1954 when England were shamed at the World Cup again, this time losing 4-2 to eight fit Uruguayans.
These incidents knocked the stuffing out of the English, who had previously considered themselves the cocks of the walk when it came to the game they invented. But they had been given a rude awakening. It was time to go back to the drawing board. In this they were not alone: the Brazilians, for example, had been outthought by Uruguay in 1950 and outfought by Hungary in 1954, so came up with the 4-2-4 to land the 1958 and 1962 World Cups. England too put their thinking caps on, Alf Ramsey eventually working out that repeatedly shuttling the ball out wide to a wiry gent who reeked of pomade and pre-match eggnog was a tactic that had been old since 1928. There would be benefits to this come the sixties.
But the 1950s had still to plant one ticking time-bomb, one that when exploded would resonate through the ages. Seven months after Hungary had inflicted that record 7-1 defeat on England, someone came along to tell the nation's kids that English football wasn't on the bones of its arse. That in fact everything was fine, and would be forever more, so there was no need to worry, or indeed think, about anything. In September 1954, Roy Race signed for Melchester Rovers.
Destined to become the greatest cartoon footballer of all time, Racey's heroic influence on English football would, in fact, over the years prove disastrous. Roy was a good man at heart, virtuous, sporting and honest, attributes rewarded by his popularity with both the fictional Melchester faithful and the millions of young football fans who followed his adventures via the pages of Tiger magazine. He was super-talented, too, able to belt in goals from all angles, usually thundering home one of his trademark Racey's Rockets in the last minute to save the day. But while his insistence on sportsmanship offered a valuable life lesson for impressionable young readers, his talent for timely goalscoring and pulling irons from fires warped their minds in far more harmful ways.
While little schemers from Italy dreamt of becoming fantasistas, conducting their team-mates to victory from the centre of the park, while South American youths honed their skills and picked up a few street-smarts in the dusty favelas, hoping to put it all together in a gambeta; thanks to Roy Race, English children spent their formative years sat on their arses being taught a very strange lesson: it doesn't really matter what you do for 89 minutes, because a superhero will turn up eventually, welt the ball into the net, and you can all go home with your cups and medals.
Such was the sermon preached from the Melchester pulpit. In the big games, Rovers were perfectly happy to wing it, knowing Racey would amble along to the rescue at some point. As a result, nobody would bother preparing for anything. More often than not, Melchester would yawn onto the pitch, and end up a goal or two down not long after kick off. A Race-inspired comeback was nearly always on the cards. In one early adventure, Melchester's French winger Pierre Dupont was kidnapped ahead of a game, and only escaped his captors just in time for kick-off. The match started as he was getting changed, Rovers not giving a toss about kicking off a man light. By the time Dupont arrived on the scene, Rovers were three down. Roy's hat-trick helped them to a sweet 4-3 win.
Years later, having reached a European Cup Winners' Cup final in the mid 1970s, Racey — by now player-manager — simply could not be bothered to scout both sides from the opposite semi, deciding to run the rule over the one team he liked the look of. Sure enough, the team Race ignored and knew bugger all about won through. Once again, Racey did what the English do: shamble about, wing it, hold on for dear life, and grab a late winner.
Tactics were usually non-existent in Roverland. And on the few occasions Race scrawled a few dots onto a blackboard, the results were underwhelming. Here's his tutorial as caretaker boss to the England squad ahead of a World Cup warm-up match against Holland in 1978: "I don't think there's any point in trying to match the continentals for skills. I think we've got to believe in ourselves and rely on the things we're best at: fitness, speed, and POWER IN THE AIR!!!" The cartoonist's use of bold type illustrated how central these tenets were to Racey's credo; Gusztav Sebes our hero was not. England still won 5-1, though, and English football stumbled into the 1980s, a jurassic era in which Harfords and Fashanus roamed the earth freely, creating wanton havoc.
Race was aptly named, trumpeting attitudes to foreigners which could be charitably described as being a good width of Big Ron's bulbous head to the right of the Daily Mail. In the early years of the 1950s and 1960s — during which he was regularly kidnapped by swarthy Latin types, and once drugged while on tour in Australia by a poison dart launched by an 'Abbo' — this take on foreign cultures could just about be explained away by the times, Rovers coming from a country still reeling from loss of Empire. But from the 1970s onwards, there really was no excuse. The 'continentals' would regularly be portrayed kicking lumps out of their opponents, deploying cheeky antifútbol tactics that would have put Estudiantes to shame. Even as late as the early 1990s, Italian sides would be depicted surrounding referees demanding sendings off for spurious offences, while the national team of the USA once resorted to utilising hi-tech bugging equipment in the English changing room in order to lug in on whatever vacant nonsense Race was jabbering to his charges at half-time. Racey's sides, visibly piqued at the saucy boldness of Johnny's wily ways, would inevitably storm onto the pitch with a steely determination to mete out a few strokes of punishment, the last lash inevitably coming from Racey's left boot of justice.
His attitudes to women were barely more sophisticated, marrying Penny, a Rovers office administrator, and forcing her to follow him around for years like a spare part, with no useful function of her own. Small mercies: at least he never spit-roasted her with Blackie Gray.
So, then: instilling into generations of children a disdain for tactics and organisation, a fear of progressive thought, and myopic Little Englander viewpoints. Yep, Racey single-handedly scuppered the progress of English football alright, snipping it off at the bud, warping young minds during those crucial formative years. Don't believe it? Then see how life subsequently imitated art at the highest level of England's club and international game. The nation's most feted European Cup wins are Liverpool's 2005 miracle of Istanbul, a Melchesteresque tactical cock-up followed by a one-man supershow, and Manchester United's 1999 triumph, another organisational balls-up saved only by a last-minute whirlwind. Italians, by way of comparison, may point to Fabio Capello's Milan coolly dissecting a superb Barcelona team 4-0 in 1994, while the Spanish have Real Madrid's signature strokes of 1960 to fawn over. As far as we're aware, Italian or Iberian kids were never lectured by a Roberto or Rafael Race.
As for the national side? England have long pinned their hopes on a Roy Race figure to take them through the big tournaments — from the days of Kevin Keegan and Bryan Robson to the modern era of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney — only to suffer when something went wrong, the country's mood zipping up and down at the mere crack of a metatarsal. It's not healthy, this; by any other measurement, that's manic depression. And consider this: everybody involved in the 1966 World Cup squad, with the possible exception of Alan Ball, would have been too old to bother with comics when Racey made his debut in Tiger. And look what they achieved. Having taken on board the lessons from the Magical Magyars, while remaining blissfully unaffected by the pernicious influence of Roy Race that would stifle subsequent generations, England's tactically innovative team, built around a system which took precedence over its stars — spare a thought for poor old Jimmy Greaves, the Roy Race of his day — took their country to the top of the world.
This article appeared on Episode One of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.