Saturday 24 February 2018

Remembrance of joys past

Eamonn Sweeney

So who was the greatest footballer of all time? Pele? Not a chance. The honour goes to Roy Race who managed to play at the top level for 38 years, winning ten first division titles, ten FA Cups and eight European trophies with Melchester Rovers, before his career was cut tragically short by a helicopter accident.

And the best athlete? Carl Lewis? Are you having me on?

Carl simply doesn't compare with Wilson the Wonder Athlete, a man who broke three minutes for the mile a full 11 years before a big fuss was made about Roger Bannister going under four minutes.

Wilson was also the first man to climb Everest and for good measure led England to victory in an Ashes series, achieving all this despite the major handicaps of being over 200 years old and having to wear an odd black running costume at all times.

Some deluded souls would tell you that Arsene Wenger was the first continental manager to make a significant impact on English football. Get up the yard.

Over a decade before Wenger arrived at Highbury, the eccentric Hungarian Victor Boskovic was making waves at Danefield United where he'd been reunited with his former star at Real Granpala, Johnny Dexter, a hard man to make Vinnie Jones blanch.

Thirty odd years ago when I, and many other kids, were kicking a ball around the backyard we weren't just pretending to be Liam Brady, Pat Spillane or Tony Ward.

We also imagined ourselves as Roy Race, as Hot Shot Hamish Balfour, the Hebridean with the hardest shot in the world who played for Scottish side Princes Park or even as Gordon Stewart, The Safest Hands In Soccer, a goalkeeper notable for not just reaching shots even Peter Shilton wouldn't have stopped but for holding on to them as well.

Because back then comics were an essential part of a boy's sporting experience.

These days comics have largely gone the way of conkers, Space Invaders and watching Top of the Pops on a Thursday evening. But when I were a lad, Roy of the Rovers, the Tiger magazine its titular character had sprung from, Scoop, Action, Bullet, 2000 AD, Valiant, Wizard, Hotspur, Scorcher and Victor were part of the childhood landscape.

I'd forgotten just how big a part they played in my life until a kind Galway reader, prompted by a mention of Billy Dane from the Tiger story Billy's Boots, sent me on a few of them last week. Marcel Proust had a madeleine dipped in tea to spark remembrance of things past, an old copy of Tiger with an ad for Action Man on the back did the trick for me.

Roy Race was the towering figure in the world of comic-strip sportsmen but I suspect I wasn't the only one to find the man a bit squeaky clean.

Johnny Dexter, perpetually teetering on the brink of losing his explosive temper, was a much more interesting proposition while my all-time favourite was Twisty Lunnon, who overcame a gammy leg and diminutive stature to hit it big with Sleethorpe United, his elusiveness on the ball and hairstyle giving him an uncanny resemblance to a lad named Lionel Messi who hadn't even been born at the time.

Young Lunnon kept pigeons and, as far as I can remember, was brought up by his uncle, a dodgy rag and bone man. He wasn't the only character who came from the same kind of socially realistic world depicted in films like Room at the Top, Saturday Night Sunday Morning and A Kind Of Loving.

There was Alf Tupper, a welder whose path to the top of the athletic world was barred by posh rivals who described him as a 'guttersnipe' and usually elbowed him in the ribs or stood on his foot at a crucial point in the last lap, prompting Alf, The Tough of the Track, to respond with a last-ditch sprint which got him to the line first with inches to spare.

And there was Battling Bernard Briggs who owned a scrapyard yet still found time to excel at boxing, soccer, rugby league and cricket, responding to the disdain of the omnipresent posh villains with the cry, "I'll show 'em."

Bernard's versatility was matched by that of the magazines themselves. You had heroes from the world of motor racing (Skid Solo), wrestling (Johnny Cougar, a Red Indian who was often in, "Um big heap of trouble,"), subbuteo (Mike's Mini Men), stunt motorcycling (Eddie Topps) and, most intriguingly, sports which didn't actually exist.

The seventies film Rollerball, which starred James Caan, and told of a futuristic sport whose participants often got killed in front of bloodthirsty audiences, proved to be a rich source of inspiration for the comic boys.

Death Game 1999, later to become Spinball Wars, was pretty much a Rollerball rip-off, I seem to remember it involving motorbikes and ice. But Harlem Heroes in 2000 AD about the sport of aeroball, a kind of ultra-violent basketball played in the air by men wearing the jet packs that programmes like Tomorrow's World assured us we'd all be using by now, was perhaps the best sports story of all, its stars, Giant, Zack, Slim and Hairy owing a great deal to the world of Blaxploitation movies.

The Heroes moved on to play the even more violent Inferno while another future sport was Mean Arena, a kind of street football which I can remember myself and my brothers trying to play on one occasion behind the creamery in Gurteen. The violence and streetwise edge of these future games seemed a long way away from the world of Roy of the Rovers but they were actually scripted by the same guy, Tom Tully.

Confession time. Not only was I delighted to get those magazines from the man in Galway but it's a happy day for me when I find an old annual in a second-hand shop and renew acquaintance with my old companions. And, as I do so, I think of the words of CS Lewis, "when I was ten I read fairytales in secret.

Now that I am 50 I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness."

Because when you get past 40, You've got the kids' health and happiness to worry about, you're doing your best to bring them up properly and hold on to your job in the times that are in it, you're trying to keep the show on the road.

You realise that, in the words of Laughing Len Cohen, you 'ache in the place that you used to play' and you suspect that you might be nearer the full-time whistle than the kick-off. Maturity is coping with those things, it's nothing to do with what you read or listen to.

And sometimes it's good to be young again and back in those halcyon days when Racey unleashed the Rocket, Hamish hit the Hot Shot and the Heroes took on the Siberian Wolves.

T he writers and illustrators who brought us those strips are forgotten now, there's no auteur cult surrounding them as there is with the guys who wrote for Marvel, no big budget Hollywood spin-offs of their work.

But year after year they made the lives of an awful lot of kids that bit brighter.

There aren't many more noble things you can do with your life.

Sunday Indo Sport

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