WORDS: BRYAN DAVIES
As we celebrate the immense durability of Ryan Giggs and Kevin Phillips, and the dash and daring of Gareth Bale, lest we forget it is 20 years since the man who inspired them hung up his boots. We recall the playing career of a man who helped footballers reevaluate what was physically possible…
“An athlete cannot run with money in his pockets. He must run with hope in his heart and dreams in his head.”
20 March 1993: a date when mechanical failure ended the most enduring and romantic playing career the game has seen, depriving the world of The Rocket.
When Roy Race – traveling to scout a player – lost control of his helicopter, time stood still. Race survived, but his famous left foot was amputated, drawing the curtain on a career spanning 38 seasons – longevity MilanLab can only dream of.
The Race legend is secure, yet his is a name often overlooked when pundits and pub patrons debate the greatest ever. It’s an impossible question, but Race deserves a place in the highest echelons of historical footballing royalty. The sheer decoration alone is staggering – Race won every major club trophy available, amassing a haul of 33 medals which included 10 Division One titles, nine FA Cups and three European Cups.
Race debuted for Melchester Rovers against Elbury Wanderers in 1955, bagging a brace in a 3-3 thriller. It set the tone for a career in which records were broken at every turn, including Chippy Croker’s long-standing total of domestic goals. Slovenly record keeping early in Race’s career deprives us of a complete statistical picture, but Opta figures point to well over 500 strikes for club and country.
A boyhood fan whose grandfather Billy had played for the club, Race was the ideal talisman for a prolonged period of Rovers dominance. The first league title of the Race era came in 1957/58. With Race the player, captain and on/off player-manager, Rovers collected trophies with almost arrogant regularity. European and intercontinental success was commonplace, as Rovers dispatched cynical yet technically excellent opponents with a classically British blend of heart, desire and fair play. Race shone in major finals, memorably grabbing braces in the World Club Cup triumphs over South American giants Bagota and Sao Madro Nacional.
International honours eluded Race, but his England career was prestigious, appearing in the Mexico World Cup of 1970 and the 1975 European Nations Cup. He presided over a 5-1 thumping of the Netherlands as caretaker player-manager in 1978, and was player-manager of England B in a four-nation tournament featuring the USA, Italy and Segovia. After injury prematurely ended his involvement at the 1987 European Championship, Race undertook a tour of goodwill across the Netherlands, Germany and France at the request of the Prime Minister – a reaction to the bruising England’s reputation was taking following the ban on English clubs in European competition.
Fiercely anti-hooliganism, Race was the obvious choice for such a tour. Competitive yet impeccably mannered, he never once committed a foul, swore or questioned a refereeing decision. With loyalty to match his temperament, Race spent his entire career in the iconic red and yellow jerseys, save for a brief spell as player-manager of Walford Rovers after board interference became untenable. Race rejected some lucrative offers in his time: £85,000 to join Stadia Batori; £1m to coach the Basran national team; $8m to coach the USA ahead of their home World Cup in 1994.
There were low moments, of course. In 1975 Rovers lost 2-1 to non-league Sleeford Town, a result which still ranks as the greatest FA Cup shock of all-time. More absurdly, Rovers were relegated in 1981 – setting the tone for a tempestuous decade.
Rovers won Division Two at the first time of asking, but 1981/82 was marred when Race was gunned down by a mystery assassin, as life imitated art. A year after Dallas and JR and all that, five suspects were identified by police amidst a media frenzy. The assailant was eventually revealed to be Elton Blake – an actor who had been sacked from playing Race in a TV soap about Rovers. With Race in a coma, Rovers were temporarily managed by Sir Alf Ramsey. Race regained consciousness during a league record 14-0 win over Keysborough, listening to the game on his ward radio.
Rovers made some eyebrow-raising appointments in the 1980s – acknowledged as inspiring Luciano Gaucci’s presidency at Perugia. Test Cricketer Geoffrey Boycott briefly served as club chairman, and 1985/86 saw the acquisitions of Emlyn Hughes, Bob Wilson and Spandau Ballet pair Martin Kemp and Steve Norman. Wilson helped Rovers to a record 12 consecutive clean sheets, while the New Romantics scored crucial goals en route to League Cup success.
Tragedy struck in 1986. On an ill-advised tour to war-torn Basran, Rovers were kidnapped and held captive by rebel forces during a military coup. An SAS unit rescued the players, still in full match kit, but as they were taken to safety their team coach was involved in a crash with a car packed with explosives – the driver on his way to commit a bombing. The bungled act of terrorism killed eight Rovers players. Noel Baxter, Vic Guthrie, Steve Naylor, Carl Hunt, Neville Jones, Kenny Logan, Jimmy Slade and Trevor Cassidy lost their lives. Finding solace in football, the indefatigable Race rebuilt Rovers and led the side to a League Cup triumph, defeating Stambridge City in the final.
Disaster befell Mel Park, Britain’s first all-seater stadium, 10 minutes into the 1988/89 season. An earthquake – caused by the collapse of old mining tunnels following the extension of Melchester’s underground system – hit, opening up the pitch and swallowing the goalposts into the earth. Miraculously there were only a few minor injuries, but the famous old ground was decimated. Whilst the stadium was restored, Rovers played home matches at Wembley, long before Arsenal had a similar idea.
Mel Park was the reception venue for Race’s wedding, and Rovers have been intrinsically linked with Race’s private life. He married Penny Laine – secretary to general manager Ben Galloway – on the same day as Rovers lost the FA Cup final to Oldfield, and the couple soon had twins, Roy Jr and Melinda (the former would become a legendary club forward himself). A third child, Diana, arrived in 1982 – the name inspired by the Race family’s trip to the Royal Wedding the year before. Before Hello!, WAGs Boutique and super-injunctions changed the picture, the Races were pin-ups for all that was good about wholesome family life in Britain.
Adored throughout the game, Race treated the notoriously talkative Rovers fans to feats more akin to comic book fare, routinely imposing his personality on matches and dragging misfiring Rovers to improbable victories. Race never shirked, producing the goods on cold, wet and windy Tuesday nights at Carford City. He owned the original wand of a left foot, and could strike a ball like nobody else, save for “Hot Shot” Hamish Balfour. Direct but cultured, he wore nine but also displayed many of the attributes of a classic 10. Younger fans who only have video footage of Race to enjoy should imagine a combination of Edinson Cavani, Robin van Persie and Francesco Totti. A complete footballer.
A man of champagne talent but lemonade ego, Race was a player of a bygone era – successful and charismatic yet humble and rooted in reality. Few of his ilk remain, so we should celebrate the likes of Xavi Hernandez as links to the game’s past – a past rich in the charm and accessibility of working class heroes: Gordon Stewart’s safe hands; Andy Steel’s playmaking; Kevin Mouse’s spectacles. A past of Blackie Gray, Merv Wallace and Andy Styles; Jumbo Trudgeon, Johnny Dexter and Paco Diaz.
Football has changed immeasurably in the 20 years since Race took that fateful journey to watch Darren Lewis play for Weltech Sports in the Bexley Homes League. The game is frequently cynical and clinical, with balance sheets and pragmatism too often prioritised over romance. The Race name lives on within the game, but the playing career of the man nicknamed Roy of The Rovers was truly a halcyon period. As scandal sweeps across the sporting spectrum on an almost weekly basis, it’s a fitting time to reflect on the genius of Roy Race – a sumptuous player, but primarily an inherently decent and dignified man who has enriched our lives, and changed the way we look at football, sport, and each other.