Jamie Johnson, Noah Murphy, Maggie O’Connell, Charlie Stubbs, Shakes, The Blok, El Matador. Are we seeing the emergence of a crop of fictional footballers worthy of standing on the shoulders of giants like Roy Race, Blackie Gray, Tommy Barnes, Billy Dane, Hamish Balfour, Johnny Dexter and Glipton Grasshoppers’ star man Ross Nelson?
Jamie Johnson, a spin-off of the Dan Freedman book series, screened last month on CBBC, featuring cameos by Gary Lineker, Ruud Gullit and Roy Carroll, with a second series already commissioned. A small boy who dreams of becoming the best footballer in the world, Jamie moves to a new school, deals with bullies, searches for his dad and most crucially, makes the school football team.
The animated Supa Strikers have been on Disney XD for a while, but got another push on Sky during the Euros.
El Matador and the lads have dealt with a lot more than even the natural disasters, shootings and kidnappings regularly thrown at Roy Race. Tussles with ninjas, UFOs, zombies and the odd T-Rex aren’t unknown as the ‘world’s greatest football team’ deal with everything old rivals Invincible United — motto: ‘Whatever it Takes’ — can muster.
And the impression that the latest generation are finally being catered for was cemented when two new Irish children’s books recently arrived at Examiner HQ, again with a football theme.
The Mighty Dynamo, by Mallow writer Kieran Crowley, tells the story of Noah, a wannabe pro who knows playing in the Schools World Cup is his big chance to impress the scouts and earn the money to bring his father home from Australia.
And Legends’ Lair — by Dubliner Joe O’Brien — tracks the exploits of Charlie Stubbs, whose dreams of playing for Manchester United suffer a blow when tragedy forces him to move from Manchester to Dublin where he finds solace with a grandfather who was once a great soccer player.
So is there a revival in football fiction for kids?
“It’s always been there in the background but it’s probably coming to the fore a bit more,” says Crowley.
“Sports fiction is not as popular overall as fantasy, the likes of Harry Potter. But Frank Lampard had a series of books and Theo Walcott had a series of books. They wouldn’t develop a series of seven or eight books if there wasn’t a market.”
“Children’s sports’ fiction is on the up,” agrees O’Brien. “I think that sport for children is so beneficial in so many ways and so too is reading. The two together make a wonderful marriage.”
Both Crowley and O’Brien were raised on a diet of Melchester Rovers’ exploits back in Racey’s pomp and see sports fiction persuading reluctant readers with a subject that truly interests them.
“Roy of the Rovers and Tiger. I read those incessantly. And staged the rematches on the back lawn as well,” says Crowley.
“In recent years, nineties music has been all over the place because our generation has reached positions of authority. Maybe it’s the generation who watched Jossy’s Giants back in the day commissioning works like Jamie Johnson.”
O’Brien has previously published a GAA trilogy; Little Croker, Féile Fever and Tiger Boots.
“My publisher O’Brien Press thought that there was room in the market for sports fiction, particularly GAA as there is such a big GAA following in Ireland. I really enjoyed the characters. I always had it in the back of my mind to write a soccer novel and when an old football friend of mine, Philly Gorman, suggested I should, I thought it was the right time to go for it.”
O’Brien’s books are aimed at the nine-plus market, while Crowley says The Mighty Dynamo is aimed at readers aged 9-12.
A very funny book, there are plenty of knowing references to “modern football”, from the nonsensical punditry of Chris Kamara to the ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ mantras of Roy Keane, and the comical preening of players like Cristiano Ronaldo.
Where things have changed since Roy Race’s day, when wife Penny was invariably sidelined, is the role of girls. And Crowley is anxious to point out his is not just a boy’s book.
One of the most engaging characters is Maggie O’Connell, a Zlatan-type show-pony with ‘unbelievable belief’ in herself and her ability to be a better footballer than any man.
“She feels she has to be tougher if she wants to make it to the top, so she has these Zlatan-like qualities, not just skill-wise, but in self-promotion and self-belief,” Crowley says.
Jamie Johnson, Noah Murphy and Charlie Stubbs all have their problems. Jamie Johnson writer Dan Freedman feels this type of fiction is an ideal way of helping children work through issues in their own lives and families.
“I never try to write down to children or make things simple. These are complex areas and kids can handle that. Many of them are having these experiences themselves, so it’s important to try to portray them in a realistic way so that they can believe in the story. If you don’t believe in a story, you can’t enjoy it.”
“It uses sport as a way of understanding each other,” says Crowley of The Mighty Dynamo. “You have different characters, the bully, the shy people, the people who don’t think there’s a role for them in sport. It’s the classic story of a group of misfits coming together.”
Larry Ryan picks his fictional football XI
1 Robert Hatch (Escape to Victory)
Clubs: ‘The Allies’
Pedigree: US-born keeper conceded four in his only top-level outing. But strong survival instinct keeps out Tynefield City’s Gordon Stewart.
Still do a job? One of the first sweeper-keepers. Tendency to stray off his line may be punished.
2 Jimmy Doyle (Fair City)
Clubs: Manchester United
Pedigree: Promising youth player but fell out of love with the game, returning to Carrigstown.
Still do a job? Didn’t come home for Mam’s funeral, so unlikely to be coaxed back to game from Australia. But if passion can be reignited, capable of producing uncanny Gary Kelly impression.
4 Johnny Dexter (Roy of the Rovers)
Clubs: Danefield United, Real Granpala, Burnside Athletic, Melchester Rovers
Pedigree: Eight England caps
Still do a job? Self-styled ‘Hard Man’ may find modern game has passed him by. Tackle from behind law will hurt.
5: Hamish Balfour (Tiger)
Clubs: Princess Park, Crawford Town, Glengow Rangers
Pedigree: Scottish Premier Division and Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup medals. Hardest shot in history.
Still do a job? Will be a potent force with the modern lighter ball. Conversion to centre-half should prolong his career, as doubts linger about his mobility.
3. Robin Walker (Renford Rejects)
Clubs: Renford Rejects, Chelsea Ladies
Pedigree: The Rejects star player.
Still do a job? Any suggestion she is a token female inclusion would rile her into a match-winning performance.
6. Tommy Barnes (Roy of the Rovers)
Clubs: Crowhurst, Barnes Utd
Pedigree: Fought a proud battle against the tyranny of rugby union
Still do a job? That good fight always needs its foot-soldiers.
7. Roy Race (Roy of the Rovers)
Clubs: Melchester Rovers, Walford Rovers
Pedigree: Muhammad Ali’s only genuine rival in the GOAT stakes.
Still do a job? All-round footballer, capable of dropping into midfield to partner best pal Gray. Another who will do damage with the modern ball.
8. Blackie Gray (Roy of the Rovers)
Clubs: Melchester Rovers
Pedigree: Roy Race’s best pal. If he’s alright by Racey...
Still do a job? Reliable solid citizen though he turned up late for the 1963 European Cup final due to his affair with French actress Suzanne Cerise. Still scored the winner.
9 Monday Bandele (Dream Team)
Clubs: PSG, Harchester United, Galatasaray.
Pedigree: Twice African player of the year
Still do a job? The kind of player who will go the extra mile; willing to briefly marry Irish wife Siobhan to force through EU work permit.
10 Karl Fletcher (Dream Team)
Clubs: Harchester, Real Mallorca
Pedigree: Leading goalscorer in Harchester’s history.
Still do a job? Hasn’t been same player since his dressing room murder by then manager Don Barker on the morning of a Championship play-off.
11 Jimmy Muir (When Saturday Comes)
Clubs: Hallam FC, Sheffield United
Pedigree: Hat-trick against Manchester United in 1995 booked an FA Cup final appearance for the Blades, who took advantage of the FA’s unusual decision to allow the game be played at Bramall Lane.
Still do a job? Not a top, top pro. Never looked after himself as a player and unlikely to still cut it at the top level.
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