Obituary: Joseph Wark, former footballer

Joe Wark: Motherwell FC left-back who was stalwart of their defence during their yo-yo years. Picture: SNS
Joe Wark: Motherwell FC left-back who was stalwart of their defence during their yo-yo years. Picture: SNS
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Born: 9 October, 1947, in Glasgow. Died: 1 October, 2015, in Stonehouse, South Lanarkshire, aged 67

Joe Wark, who has died after a courageous battle against early-onset Alzheimer’s, was a footballing icon to the followers of Motherwell Football Club.

He belonged to an illustrious cadre of Scottish full-backs. They were players such as Wark, or his predecessor in the No 3 shirt at Motherwell, Archie “Baldie” Shaw, Paul Jonquin at Airdrieonians, John Murphy at Ayr United, Matt Watson at Kilmarnock, John “Cockles” Wilson at St Mirren and Bobby Cox at Dundee. They were all legends at their own clubs.

These players were a guaranteed seven out of ten every week in local journalists’ form guides. All were good enough to have worn the lion rampant at international level, but their careers coincided with outstanding Old Firm full-backs. In Wark’s case, this meant Sandy Jardine at Rangers and Danny McGrain at Celtic – therefore Wark and his ilk were never going to get the international recognition their class deserved.

In Joe Wark’s case, he made one appearance for the Scottish League XI. This came on Wednesday, 17 March, 1976, at Hampden Park, in what was to be the last game between the Scottish League and the Football League, a game won 1-0 by Trevor Cherry’s goal for the English team.

But Wark had something money cannot buy – the adoration of the likes of the Ravenscraig workers who spent their Saturdays on the terraces of Fir Park, following the team nicknamed The Steelmen. John Swinbourne, lifelong Motherwell supporter and historian, ranked Wark alongside Shaw and Welshman Ben Ellis – left-back in the League-winning Motherwell team of 1932 – as the three best left-backs in the club’s history.

A Glaswegian, Wark joined Motherwell as a 20-year-old from Ayrshire junior side Irvine Victoria, for whom he played on Saturdays; Mondays to Fridays were spent in the Cremola factory in Glasgow, where he helped make custard and the instant powder drink, Cremola Foam.

He made his Motherwell debut in a pre-season friendly against Tranmere Rovers in 1968. His debut was memorable, since goalkeeper Keith McCrae was injured in the third minute and Wark spent the next 87 as stand-in ‘keeper, achieving a clean sheet, as Motherwell won 2-0.

But before the new season was properly into his stride he had become a first-team regular and that’s how it would stay over the next 16 seasons, 539 games – a post-war club record, placing him third in the all-time Motherwell appearances chart.

Motherwell were in the Second Division that debut season. With Wark driving the team on from midfield – and chipping in with eight of the eventual 14 goals he would score for the club, including a hat-trick at Montrose – the ’Well stormed to the title and promotion, 112 goals to the good.

The following season, in the First Division, Wark was switched to left-back, where he would remain, a constant presence through the years of ups and downs to come.

He never featured in a national cup final, suffering several semi-final heartbreaks along the way, but he did feature in some epic Anglo-Scottish Cup clashes, in which his skills compared favourably against World Cup-winners such as Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters in the ranks of the opposition.

His timing of tackles was immaculate, he rarely saw a yellow card and was never sent off but throughout his career Motherwell were something of a yo-yo club, bobbing between the Premier League and the First Division during the early days of smaller divisions in the 1970s.

Players came and went, as did managers, but Joe Wark was a constant. Bobby Howitt signed him, Ian St John, Willie McLean, Roger Hynd, Ally MacLeod, Davie Hay, Jock Wallace and Bobby Watson all selected him, before he finally hung-up his boots at the end of the 1983-4 season.

He had two testimonials, the first, to mark his ten years with the club, featured a star-studded West Bromwich Albion team, the second, in 1985, saw Motherwell face a combined Celtic-Rangers XI.

Joe then had a spell back in the juniors, where he was player-manager at Benburb. He had a spell as a coach back at Motherwell before he became one of the former players delivering the Youth Training Scheme for young footballers across Scotland. He later ran a licenced grocers in Wishaw, with wife Maureen, while his final job saw him working with a Stonehouse company dealing in office water coolers.

It was in this job that he was given the devastating diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, aged just 62.

In retirement he golfed, mainly at the Colville Park and Wishaw clubs.

His final years were clouded by his Alzheimer’s. He fought this affliction bravely, even playing a significant part in the Living Memories project, run by North Lanarkshire Council, which saw him publish a “memory book” of his football exploits, gleaned from the many cuttings he kept over his career.

He was supported by wife Maureen, sons Stephen and Kenneth and his many friends during this difficult period, which ended with his death on Friday. Joe Wark’s funeral will be held on Friday, at Trinity Church, Larkhall, at 1:45pm, followed by the final commital at South Lanarkshire Crematorium, Blantyre, at 2:45pm.