Culture Shock: My soccer heroes? Roy Race and Billy’s Boots
World Cup? What’s that? ‘Roy of the Rovers’ was much more exciting than the real thing
Melodrama: Roy of the Rovers
Apparently some sort of soccer competition is happening in Brazil. Let me get into character: “Umpire! That player touched the ball with his hand, which is against the rules. Give him a coloured card.”
I don’t really get soccer. Luckily I don’t think anyone has noticed. As a child I blended in with my soccer-obsessed peers by imitating them, much like a sociopath. (Openly not liking soccer wasn’t considered.) I chose a team to support, the options in 1980s Kildare being Manchester United or Liverpool. I picked Liverpool, because Manchester United were more popular and even then I had hipster aspirations. (“Liverpool? You probably haven’t heard of them.”) I also preferred the shade of red of their jersey, which, I thought, brought out my eyes.
My favourite player was Liverpool’s Peter Beardsley, because he was one of the few I’d heard of. I would find ways to get him into the conversation even when he wasn’t playing. I once used the word “Beardsleyesque”. I also collected soccer stickers but desperately and without context. I long feared someone might say, “Why do you have a picture of an obscure Eastern European goalkeeper stuck on your headboard? It looks almost as though you chose it at random.” But nobody did. Instead they assumed that I had a more sophisticated knowledge of the game.
I even played soccer when I was younger. I didn’t play well (I got bored and distracted), but I was big so they put me in defence and let me half-heartedly wander around the pitch, groaning. My nickname was Bonecrusher, because occasionally, as with Lenny in Of Mice and Men, there were accidents. My team-mates hoped that the name might at least be intimidating.
I also played Subbuteo, but I felt it lacked something. So I gave the little plastic men names and backstories and would enact melodramatic off-pitch scenarios. “I’m afraid, Dennis, I’ve been sleeping with your wife,” Andre would say, wobbling tauntingly on his curved plastic base. “You swine,” Dennis would reply, launching himself at Andre, his immobile painted face becoming, in my mind, a mask of rage.
I got much of this melodrama from soccer comics. British comics were still a cultural force then, and boys could chose between two constants of masculinity: war and sport. I liked war best, because of the jingoism and consequence-free violence, but I also enjoyed sports stories.
Roy of the Rovers was an action-packed soap opera about a footballer called Roy Race. As sneaky, moustachioed foreigners cheated and fouled, Roy and Melchester Rovers demonstrated the superiority of British pluck. They were often victims of terrorist attacks, and Roy was in a coma a lot. This possibly played a part in his estrangement from his wife, Penny.
Rovers fans were a learned bunch, given to expository declamations from the stands. “The cocky northerner has outflanked the defender. I wonder what Race will think of that, given his recent demotion to the benches,” a bescarfed drawing of a working-class stereotype would say as a ball hovered between foot and net. That’s a lot of information, I’d think, but I would memorise it for use later.
Hotshot Hamish in Tiger comic was a musclebound Scotsman with a kick like a rocket and an ill-fitting shirt. (I had one of these things.) Like many comic characters of the time he was a “hilarious” racial caricature, but the stories were funny. He had a pet sheep called McMutton and a manager who would dress up as a monster (“the Claw”) to scare the team into playing better. Dunphy and Giles never suggest such tactics. Okay, Dunphy probably has. Roy Keane is probably doing it now.
Billy’s Boots was about a schoolboy magically granted skills by boots once owned by the deceased striker Charles “Dead-Shot” Keen. Most plots involved Billy mislaying the boots only to find them in time to give some meanie his comeuppance. Once, for variety, Billy discovered Dead-Shot’s cricket gear and became an expert cricketer. We were encouraged to root for Billy despite his mystical sports wardrobe’s similarity to performance-enhancing drugs, but Billy’s existential angst was also a feature. “Is this me or is it Dead-Shot Keen”, he’d say. It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times.
All of these stories were much more exciting than actual soccer – I feel safe saying this on the Arts & Books pages, where it’s just us nerds – and led me to hugely overestimate the role international terrorism and haunted footwear played in sport. (The racism was pretty accurate, though.)
I still don’t get soccer. It’s probably a character defect. I never enjoy things with straightforward rules and clear-cut winners and losers. I much prefer activities in which “everyone is a winner”, such as avant-garde art, utopian socialism and drunk Scrabble.
But I like bluffing. The film-maker John Waters gets annoyed when taxi drivers ask, “How about them Mets?” and responds with, “How about that Strindberg play?” But thanks to Subbuteo, sticker books and Roy Race, I take a different approach. “I enjoyed it when our team scored goals,” I tell the taxi driver. “But I disliked it when the other side did. And didn’t Beardsley play well? He must have haunted boots.”
Fintan O’Toole is on leave