Roy of the Rovers ready for another kick off

THEY were a priceless lot, Melchester Rovers, circa 1976.

There was Roy Race, of course. And his good pal, Blackie Gray. There was Geoff Giles, who gave lectures on rare insects in his spare time, and Vernon Eliot, who co-owned an antiques shop. Big Lofty Peak was a tough nut if ever there was one and Noel Baxter and Mervyn Wallace were dashing midfielders. Jimmy Slade was the unpredictable tyro under the thumb of his scrap dealer guardian, Reg Gunter, and how could we forget the great Scot himself; with beard and headband, Duncan McKay was truly a one off.

Duncan used to have opponents for breakfast. He'd clatter into them in the tackle and say. "that's as far as you go, laddie" before playing the ball into Racey's path. Roy was being watched by 50,000 people at Mel Park, all of whom had this amazing ability to talk to each other despite being at opposite ends of the ground.

"Mervyn's unmarked!"

"Well spotted! Cross it, Vern!"

Uncannily, Roy could hear everything they said.

Voice in Row Z: "Goal number three...It must be! Roy's only got to knock it back!"

Voice in Roy's head: "Yes, that's just what Carford are expecting me to do... especially their goalkeeper."

Voice of Carford goalie as Roy nutmegs him for the hat-trick: "Uuunngh!"

Back to Row Z: "My stars! Talk about cheek! Roy's done it again!"

No Saturday at Mel Park would have been complete without the surly presence of the press, or one member of the press in particular. Eric Eddlestone was the fearsome football correspondent of the Daily Gazette. Roy could do no right in Eddlestone's eyes.

Racey went on to get five against Carford but Eric wasn't satisfied.

"He hasn't done much harm today," he conceded, rather generously, "but the first time his hunt for goals results in a defeat for the Rovers, I'm going to have something to say about it... something that ROY RACE WON'T LIKE!"

Naturally, Roy heard all of this going on from his place down on the pitch. "I've a horrible feeling that I'm about to become the most controversial footballer in the land," he confided to Blackie.

Roy, Blackie, Lofty and Duncan. At this point you might be asking, "what the hell is he going on about?" And it would be a fair question.

Where's this coming from and what is it leading to? Actually, I'm not sure I can answer that. All I can say is this: the other night I took a sudden notion to dig out some old Roy of the Rovers comics that have been gathering dust for 31 years. I was a child of that generation.

Tommy's Troubles, Mike's Mini Men, You are the Star!, The Hard Man, Smith & Son, Millionaire Villa and, in later years, the medical student and footballer and best mate of Hot Shot Hamish Balfour (apart from McMutton, that is), the incomparable Kevin "Mighty Mouse" Mouse.

The only explanation for this trip through the 1970s that makes even the slightest bit of sense (emphasis on the slight) is that it was somehow brought on by the growing excitment in the lead-up to Scotland v Italy. Perhaps all the football nostalgia in the papers this week, all the reliving of times past, did something peculiar to my subconscious mind. All I know is that one minute I was reading about Big Eck's plans for Italy and the next I was in the fantasyland of Mel Park. Real Roy of the Rovers stuff. James McFadden was the new Racey (though I doubt Faddy's partner's name is Penny). Paul Hartley was Mervyn Wallace. David Weir was Lofty Peak. Scott Brown was Jimmy Slade.

Then again, maybe Weir is more akin to Race, given that the Rangers defender is evergreen at 37 and that Roy played for Melchester from about 1954 to 1993 without ever ageing much.

Anyway, the point of this is that Roy of the Rovers as a comic was a work of genius that sold more than a million copies a week in its heyday. And it wasn't just the central character that captivated young minds. It was the whole barmy lot of them.

Tommy Barnes was the hero with the aformentioned Troubles. Tommy wasn't very bright at school but was brilliant at football. His mate Ginger Collins wasn't very good at football but was brilliant at school. Their friendship was an odyssey.

You are the Star! was trippy. "Here your dreams can come true!" it announced. "You are the star. Put your name in the title panel and where spaces are left blank. Remember you are a striker playing for a First Division side... Brentville Albion. After scoring two goals in your first game of the season you are dropped because you stayed up too late!" Like I say, genius.

The stories came and went but Roy was a constant. Frankly, even now, his comic knocks spots off computer games. Offer me the choice of a go on a Wii or some back issues of Roy of the Rovers and I'd take the reading material every time. Quite honestly, I pity the youth of today with their computers and their "more realistic than ever" graphics.

Isn't the point of being young that you can lose yourself in the unreal?

It's true that things started to get a little weird for Roy in the mid to late 1980s and then into the 1990s. Weird in a good way at first.

Roy was shot by a mystery gunman in 1981 and was brought out of his coma after hospital staff played live radio coverage of the Melchester fans chanting his name. When it was reported back to the stadium that Roy was awake the team were so happy they went on and won 14-0. Beat that for comic value! In the mid 1980s things started to take bizarre little twists.

One of these surreal plots saw two members of Spandau Ballet, Martin Kemp and Steve Norman, sign for Melchester, along with Bob Wilson and Emlyn Hughes. In 1986, in what you can only imagine was an increasingly desperate ploy to stay relevant, the squad was kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists in the fictional country of Basran. They looked to have made their escape when their coach was blown up. Eight of the Rovers first team fried.

The fun started to go out of it then. Damn the idiot who ruined the magic. I mean, Roy had to get his famous left foot amputated after he crashed his helicopter in a field, then Penny died in a car crash, then all sorts of corruption and bribery scandals kicked-off at Melchester who were now being managed by Blackie. Blackie resigned after getting death threats. Melchester were relegated.

It ended as it should have ended. Roy returned, won them promotion, clinched the FA Cup and then the Premiership. The artist's pencil was laid down for the final time in 2001. Roy owned the club by then.

Hooray.

Watch out, though. It's making a comeback. The original strips have been bought by Setanta and they're running them on their website as we speak. Roy is twentysomething again. Blackie and Lofty and Duncan and the rest are in their pomp once more. Melchester have gone digital.

Personally, I'll stick with the originals. You can't beat them for charm. Ah yeah, there's definitely been a bit of Melchester Rovers in Scotland's story this past year.