Writing in The Blizzard a few years ago, the journalist Scott Murray outlined a theory that Roy Race — a fictional player, hero of the cartoon strip Roy of the Rovers, first published in the 1950s — was the most pernicious influence in the history of English soccer.
Murray’s reasoning was extensive, looking into the effect Race and the lessons he offered had on things like tactics, coaching and cultural insularity, but he might have added another: The most damaging impact Race had on successive generations of fans and players was the narrative arc of his adventures.
At the end of every story, no matter how dire the situation Race’s team, Melchester Rovers, found itself, Race would emerge to save the day. Sometimes that was rescuing a hostage or foiling a terror plot; more frequently, it was bursting into the box to score a thunderous late goal.
Over the decades, Race both reflected and burnished an image of how England views soccer: as an individual sport disguised as a collective one. It is a dogma it has been unable to shake. England always has a special place in its heart for a Roy Race.
That is why Steven Gerrard, the archetypal Race character, is so revered, just as Bryan Robson, the former United captain, was before him. It is why the high point of David Beckham’s career for England’s national team is considered to be his display against Greece in 2001, when he “single-handedly” secured a 2-2 draw that took England to the World Cup.
The individual, in the collective English imagination, comes before the unit. It is why, every December, the BBC stages a grand ceremony to crown the Sports Personality of the Year, a rather woolly award handed out to the individual who has won the most hearts over the previous 12 months. There is also a team award, but it is an afterthought.