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When you think of the great midfield players of the last thirty years in English Football, you'd immediately mention Gerrard, Lampard, Keane, Robson, Ince but John Wark was an exceptionally underrated player. A man with an incredibly unfashionable moustache and haircut, but an uncanny knack for scoring goals, and scoring them more regularly than any of his more highly paid modern equivalents.
This is a book which tells us a lot about the man and his football, it is written after this career ended, which for me is always a bonus, as it allows time for honesty and reflection rather than the necessity to appear modern, current and inoffensive.
Purchased for £13.99 in Waterstones this hardback book follows the man with the coolest moustache in World football on an upward journey from Ipswich Town to Liverpool, playing in one of the strongest Scotland sides ever to play and also starring in Escape to Victory with Pele, Bobby Moore and Michael Caine.
Wark's story is an interesting one from the 1970's working with a young Bobby Robson with the elements of drinking culture that summed up clubs and footballers back then, through a dream move to Liverpool, where he was a success in parts, through experiences such as Heysel to the return to his spiritual home of Portman Road, this is an interesting and honest account of a career in football from somebody who played in the old booze and muddy boots culture right up to the start of the Sky era when money became phenomenal, therefore he has an informed view on lots of players, clubs and the development of football in the UK.
I would say the book at times pays too much attention to the boozing and at times I even felt he undersold his own role in some of the great Ipswich and Liverpool teams of the era, but this is a funny and at times sad account of a footballers life.
It's not one of the great football books and doesn't offer much for non-football fans, but for anyone who remembers this moustachioed wonder, this is an enjoyable read.
I roll my eyes when I hear the likes of Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard have Autobiographies coming out. What possible insight into the world of football can 23 year old Rooney possibly offer me, at least live a bit and actually get through your playing career before you dare to presume you have anything to say worth hearing. For me, a decent football biography has to be by someone who has lived a life worth reading about. Someone who has played the game to a close and has the many and varied experiences, bruises and memories that gives. This leads us nicely to John Wark; a football player many would have heard of thanks to his exploits in an Ipswich, Liverpool and Scotland shirt. A player who worked hard, was at the top of his game, and had a distinguished and fruitful career to talk about. Ripe for an Autobiography then, which is why I was more than glad to purchase 'Wark On - the Autobiography of John Wark' when It was released.
As is the standard fair in biographies we get to read about the subjects childhood, and John's seemed little different to most growing up in Glasgow with little money but plenty of love and support from kith and kin. We then get to enjoy tale of John's first forays into football with local team Drumchapel Amatuers before going to Ipswich to sign schoolboy forms where he enjoyed ten fruitful years. The fact that Ipswich - very much a provincial club - won the FA and Uefa cups in this spell is thanks in no small part to John Wark's contribution. Scoring thirty-six goals from midfield in the Uefa cup winning year is nothing short of astounding, a record that modern day heroes like Ronaldo and Gerrard can only dream about. We also get to read about John's role in the hugely successful Liverpool side of the eighties, lining up alongside such kop legends as Dalglish, Hansen, Souness and Rush.
Some of the darker sides to John's footballing career and personal life are also dealt with in a refreshingly frank and honest way; sitting in the changing room at the Heysel stadium waiting to play when news of the wall collapse that claimed the lives of thirty-nine Juventus fans filtered to the team, and then having to go and perform knowing such a tragedy had happened mere meters away. The drinking culture prevalent in many football clubs in the eighties and nineties is also touched upon, hard to imagine some of the players could even stand up come Saturday afternoon, much less run around a field kicking a ball!
Possibly my favourite chapter of the book concentrates on the Ipswich Town players reaching the FA Cup final in 1978 and deciding to sell the majority of their complimentary Wembley tickets to a tout to make some extra cash. This practice is illegal now but at the time it was considered a perk and a sensible way of making some extra money when wages were nowhere near the level they are today. The players all pooled their tickets and the hapless fellow who drew the short straw was so worried about the impending meeting he borrowed a gun for security! We also get to enjoy tale of John's time as an actor, appearing alongside Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone in the 1981 film Escape to Victory. Initially Bobby Robson casually asked his Ipswich Town players if they fancied earning a few quid over the summer appearing as extras in a film being shot in Budapest. With little better to do John readily volunteered only to find out that the role as an extra was actually a speaking part. Still, getting paid £1000 a week for pretending to play football sounded like a great deal, and something John enjoyed immensely. Only tempered slightly when the film premiered in an Ipswich cinema a year later when John's broad Glaswegian accent was dubbed to make it easier for the watching public to understand.
A facet of the book I wasn't expecting is the detailing of John's wages at Ipswich, Liverpool and Middlesbrough. It's hard to imagine present day footballers being nearly as frank with their financial affairs, yet John freely lists his wages at the time, as well as bonus payments and any signing on fees or extra pecuniary aid. Maybe the fact that he is happy to share these intimate monetary details stems from the fact that players today are paid a fortune every week, some pocketing over one hundred thousand a week - rather makes John's wage when he signed for Liverpool - £851 a week - pale by comparison.
The 170 pages of narrative are nicely broken up with various colour photographs. John's early life growing up in Glasgow as well as performances for Ipswich, Liverpool and Scotland and even his role in Escape to Victory all captured for prosperity in picture form. The book also commences with a foreword from Kenny Dalglish as well as glowing quotes from such footballing heavyweights as Bobby Robson, Alex Ferguson and the late Bob Paisley. You even get interchangeable covers for the book depending on your preference, with John in either an Ipswich or Liverpool shirt.
Five stars out of five from me then. Initially I thought that this book would have little appeal to those who had no affinity with the football teams of Ipswich, Liverpool and Scotland. But then I realised that this book is about more than just a player for those clubs, it's about a hard working footballer who always gave his best and who achieved a great deal of success thanks to his determination, hard work and skill. It's just a shame there are not more like him playing the beautiful game today, it would be the better for it.