AS Roy of the Rovers’ storylines go, the fact was even more unbelievable than the fiction.
A team from a smokey northern mill town went through the Football League’s inaugural season unbeaten to be crowned the first double winners - and earn the iconic nickname The Invincibles.
Now the game’s first fantasy football tale of how Preston North End became an unstoppable force and left its indelible mark on the game in 1888/89 has been re-told in comic book fashion.
Former Deepdale ballboy Michael Barrett, who lives within sight of the famous old stadium, has published The Rise of the Invincibles.
And if Roy of the Rovers’ fans think the artwork looks strangely familiar, it should be.
David Sque, the man who drew the North End cartoon strip, is the same illustrator who charted the fortunes of the legendary Melchester Rovers’ star player Roy Race for 11 years between 1975 and 1986.
“There are a lot of excellent illustrators and artists out there, but it’s very difficult to find one who can do football action in this style,” said Michael as he proudly flicked through the book at his home in Castleton Road, Deepdale.
“It’s a special talent and David’s artwork is vibrant - it’s simply fantastic.
“He has used the same style as he did for Roy of the Rovers, only this time the action is set in Victorian times.”
Michael spent two and a half years putting together The Rise of the Invincibles. He originally hoped to have it out for last Christmas, but the workload outgrew the timescale.“It took a lot longer than we envisaged,” he said. “But there’s no way we were going to cut corners.
“The research took me a long time because I wanted to get it as accurate as possible. And it was only after I had everything together that the illustrations could be done. But I’m glad it took so long because the finished product is absolutely spot on, just as I hoped it would be. I’m delighted.”
Michael grew up in the shadows of the Deepdale floodlights and as a schoolboy at nearby St Gregory’s RC Primary landed a dream Saturday job as a ballboy, watching his idols Alex Bruce and Steve Elliott up close.
He remembers being inspired by the unique Invincibles mural at the back of the old Pavilion Stand in Lowthorpe Road.
“It made a real impression on me,” he said. “They were the team that no-one could beat.”
It was while he was living and working in Ireland that he hit on the idea of a comic book telling the story of the Invincibles.
“I had a job in a book store cataloguing antique books and the radio was on one day and someone was talking about the book Blood Upon The Rose which was a graphically illustrated story of the Easter Rising in 1916.
“I came back to Preston with the Invincibles idea still buzzing around my head. But I didn’t sit down to write it straight away.
“Then I was teaching English in China in 2013 and when my contract was up for renewal I was offered another one. I knew I was coming back to England for Christmas and when I got back here I decided to get cracking on it and not go back to China.”
Researching the story of one of English football’s finest sides turned out to be a lot more than just recording the matches they played in the League and the FA Cup on the way to that famous first double.
To set the scene he dug deep into the social history of Preston in the 1800s and how that had shaped the emerging football club in Deepdale at the north end of the town.
Working with David Sque turned out to be a long distance partnership, with the artist living in Spain and Michael emailing him storylines and sketches of how he wanted the finished pages to look.
“I did all the research first and then we put the sketches together and the layout,” he explained. “I would email David the pages and for each one I had sketched I had to give him a full description to make it as authentic as possible. So it was like writing the book all over again.
“For the matches I had to describe what the fans would probably have been wearing in those days, what the weather was like for each fixture, what the pitch conditions would have been like.
“It all had to be very detailed so David could capture the scene accurately. Hundreds of emails flew between us, but the finished product is beyond my wildest dreams. “
Michael is financing the publication of the book himself and selling copies of a comic strip print of Fred Dewhurst, who scored the first goal for Preston in that Invincibles season, to help pay for it.
The Rise of the Invincibles contains 11 chapters and has a foreword by former PNE player and TV pundit Mark Lawrenson.
It sells for £19.99 and is available in the PNE shop, Halewoods book stores in Friargate, Preston, the Harris Museum, Waterstones and the Game shops in Deepdale and Preston. Michael is hoping to get it into supermarkets too.
The official launch will be on December 1 in the Invincibles Lounge at Deepdale, with PNE manager Simon Grayson doing a question and answer session. There will be a hot pot supper and a raffle, with the proceeds going to the Heartbeat charity.
Doors open at 7pm for a 7.30pm start and tickets are £15 each or £125 for a table of 10.
To book, call Mark Cassidy on 01772 717147, contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or as at the Heartbeat reception at Deepdale.