On this day, 19 July 1986: Roy of the Rovers
On this day, 19 July 1986 … ‘There is tragic news concerning the mighty Melchester Rovers.’ And so we come to one of the most shocking and controversial individual issues in the history of IPC’s comics range. Roy of the Rovers’ Melchester team had, for the previous few weeks, been hostages during an attempted coup in the fictional Middle-Eastern state of Basran. Last week the revolutionaries who held them were vanquished but, unaware that Roy and the lads (who were kitted out in their full red-and-yellow strip throughout the whole affair) had been released and were being driven to a helicopter rendezvous to bring them back to Blighty in time for the new season, a lone Basranian royalist was dispatched on a suicide mission in a car full of explosives. In a completely avoidable accident the car smashed into the Rovers’ escape bus and a huge explosion left the streets of a small Basran village littered with debris and the bodies of several members of the Melchester team.
Who lived? Who died? Well, this week we discovered – astonishingly – that very few lived and several died. Noel Baxter. Vic Guthrie. Steve Naylor. Carl Hunt. Neville Jones. Kenny Logan. Jimmy Slade. Trevor Cassidy. I’d stopped reading Roy of the Rovers by this stage but all these names are familiar to me from the Melchester whose on-pitch exploits had captivated me as a regular reader of the comic two or three years earlier. I find it disturbing to read that roll-call of the injured and the dead even now. Perhaps even more disturbing now than I would have done at the time.
I’ve been preparing to write about this issue for a few weeks. I was quite looking forward to it in fact, as it’s an unusual one that I expect will be quite a popular blog post, and I imagined I’d take a rather tongue-in-cheek approach to what has always seemed a ridiculously unlikely and poorly-conceived storyline. But in the last week I have seen pictures of devastating human tragedy from the streets of Nice, Istanbul and Ankara which make these pages from this week’s issue seem sickeningly familiar.
Was it a poor call to run this story in 1986, with such macabre imagery on the cover and centre pages? Seb Patrick of the Branch of Science football culture blog thinks so, and writes an intelligent piece about it here. Certainly if it’s true that the only thinking behind Basran was to ‘clear the decks’ for a new Rovers team and a re-boot of the Roy of the Rovers storyline, then yes, it’s gratuitous and ill-judged. But I’ll play devil’s advocate and suggest that there’s a bit more to the story than that. We live in a crazy world in which nothing really does seem crazy any more. Recent events enable us to glimpse a horrible reality within the lines and frames and speech bubbles of this kids’ comic non-reality, and while that’s not what was generally expected of this particular publication at the time I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to prompt young minds to consider the shadows of our world from time to time. And the more unexpected the context, the greater impact such prompts will have.