GLF77: True Steelmen - Joe Wark

GLF77:  Eddie gives a fine tribute to the hero that is Joe Wark.

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True Steelmen,    Legends of our Club      Joe Wark

Thursday the 9th of October 1947 may have been a typically cold, clear autumnal day in Glasgow, but within the parameters of Motherwell Football Club, surely the excitement would have been at fever pitch, had they known what the effect of the events a few miles away would eventually have on us all.   Joe Wark may have been born a “Weegie”, and his “boyhood heroes” may well have been from somewhere north of ML1, but from the minute he made his debut in a Pre-Season Friendly against Tranmere Rovers in 1968, he was destined to be forever a Steelman.     

As was the norm at the time Joe had begun his career in the Ayrshire Juniors, running up and down Cochrane Street Park playing in the Tangerine and Black of Irvine Victoria, and soon scouts from the senior ranks all over Scotland were alerted to the performances of the strong, tidy, creative player with a throw-in akin to a corner kick.   

Of course it was Motherwell Manager, Bobby Howitt, who made the first move and Joe was more than happy at the age of 20 to make the Fir Park dressing room his home for the next sixteen seasons.      

Strangely enough on his debut previously mentioned, Joe spent 87 minutes in goal after Keith McRae was injured. The clean sheet he achieved was to be the first small step on his journey towards legendary status at our Club, as a Jumbo Muir double won the game for Motherwell.

The fact that Motherwell had begun season 1968/69 in Scotland’s Division Two probably helped him make the step up in class a little easier as Joe was an ever-present in midfield, driving the Club forward in a glorious romp to the Title, netting 112 times, losing but 23 goals and a mere two matches (Forfar and East Fife away) along the way.  Joe showed that first season, he could augment his excellent defensive duties by scoring 8 league goals, including a fine Hat Trick against Montrose at Fir Park, which I’m delighted to say I actually witnessed sitting on the wee white wall in front of the East Terracing !!   

It would be the following season, when the Steelmen returned to the top flight that Joe would make the Left Back berth his own.  That year would also signal his first national Semi Final, in the League Cup v St. Johnstone, after an incredible comeback in the previous round against Morton, but sadly for all of us the disappointing defeat at Hampden Park would not be the last Semi Final anguish suffered by the great man. League-wise, it was an efficient if unspectacular return to the First Division, although it was a good enough effort to secure a place in the new British (Texaco) Cup which was kicking off the following term, and would provide the major  highlights for ‘Well fans in season 1970/71, a term in which Joe Wark would further endear himself to the Motherwell faithful, continually showing an impeccable timing in the tackle, and an ability to rescue a lost cause without committing a foul !!!.  

First up in the new competition was Stoke City, with World Cup winning Goalkeeper Gordon Banks between the sticks in the first leg at Fir Park.  A terrific display by Banks wasn’t enough to stop John Goldthorp netting the only goal, and it was down to Victoria Park for part two.  Stoke managed to take the tie to penalty kicks, but it was the ‘Well ‘keeper, Keith MacRae who was to be the hero, with two saves as the Steelmen celebrated a great win.  The Mighty Tottenham Hotspur were next up, with a host of Internationalists and even more World Cup winners !!   After a narrow defeat at White Hart Lane, a near 23,000 fans were encouraged to visit Fir Park to roar Motherwell onto a famous victory with goals from Donnelly, Heron and Watson. The Semi Final saw more heartache for “Guiseppe,” as my Dad used to call him, as a injury time Donald Ford goal for Hearts in front of 25,500 fans at Fir Park sent them  through to the first ever Final, at the expense of the brave men in Claret and Amber.   

League form over the next few years continued to be in and out, with Joe yet again keeping a clean sheet as he took over in goal for the second half after Billy Ritchie had broken his leg at Fir Park against St. Johnstone on January 1972, as Billy Campbell and Kirkie Lawson scored in a 2-0 success.                           

When new Manager Ian St. John arrived in 1973, it became apparent that a “Premier League” of 10 teams was on the horizon, and all efforts would be directed towards attaining that goal not only within Fir Park, but within Clubs throughout Scotland. 

Sinjy’s first full campaign in charge saw Joe complete yet another season as an ever-present (his third in 6 years!!),  playing 52 competitive matches and displaying a tremendous enthusiasium, athleticism, dedication, and an understanding to not fall foul to refs.   League-wise the Club relied heavily on the scoring expliots of  Bobby Graham and Willie Pettigrew to guide them to the new Top Ten, which was achieved on the final day of the season at Fir Park against Dumbarton. Graham scored his 14th goal of the campaign (although Pettigrew failed to add to his 26!!) in a 3-1 win.

The Scottish Cup was to be the heart breaker for not only Joe Wark that April, but for all Motherwell fans.  Pettigrew had put the Steelmen ahead at Hampden Park against Airdrieonians, and were comfortable unitl a late cross was headed into his own net by Fir Park stalwart, Stewart McLaren. In the replay, ’keeper Stuart Rennie was penalised for taking too many steps whilst carrying the ball (a rarely enforced rule at that time!!), and the indirect Free Kick was deflected past the helpless goalie, leaving the Diamonds, who we were to narrowly pip for the final place in the new Premier League, celebrating a place in the Final.

The following season would see the pinnacle of a terrific Motherwell side as Joe Wark would once again be an ever-present (54 games). 1975/76 also saw Joe return the goalscoring charts, just.  A fine strike at Ibrox would earn the Steelmen a creditable draw in the League Cup, although it wouldn’t be enough for the Club to progress from a Section that also included Airdrie and Clyde. The Texaco Cup had a new name this year, as the Anglo-Scottish Cup made it’s bow, with Motherwell yet again “in amongst it“.  Dundee and Blackburn Rovers were both seen off to earn us a crack at Fulham, who boasted such stars as Bobby Moore, Alan Mullery, Rodney Marsh and George Best.  A great draw down at Craven Cottage was wasted as we lost to the odd goal in five thriller at Fir Park.

For the second season on the bounce, the Scottish Cup would prove to be devastating for our Captain. It had all started so promisingly as Motherwell came from two down at home to Celtic at half time, to post a never to be forgotten win with goals from Pettigrew, Graham and Taylor.  When Cowdenbeath, and then Hibernian (after a second replay at Ibrox) were taken care of, a Semi Final against the forces of darkness and evil weren’t to be feared. Twenty minutes from time, Pettigrew and McLaren had us two goals to the good, home and hosed, with Joe Wark surely dreaming of lifting the old trophy and bringing it back to Lanarkshire.  Enter JPR Gordon, the Referee (who was later found guilty of taking bribes in a European tie!!). He  gave Rangers the most incredible Penalty decision I’ve ever seen (and boy, I’ve seen a few!!!) to give our opponents the impetus they needed, and the rest, well………….do I really have to spell it out to you ?

Early 1978 saw Joe and his Motherwell side hit a slump that would see them plying their trade in the First Division 18 months later.  That Summer, West Brom arrived at Fir Park as Joe was awarded an Testimonial by the Club. Sadly, the 8-1 defeat was to be a precursor to horror season that was to follow.

Relegation meant radical changes to the playing staff by new manager, Ally McLeod, with Joe Wark being one of the few surviving the cull.  It would be at the third attempt in 1982 that the Steelmen would return to the top flight , with Joe playing an integral part in the success.   Following Davie Hay’s departure from the Fir Park Managerial chair, Jock Wallace was the man given the task to keep the ’Well in the Premier Division. Wallace was not a popular choice amongst the Motherwell fans, and he certainly wasn’t on Joe’s Christmas Card list as the ex-Ranger only selected our hero for one league game in the first 8 months of the season, a 7-0 reverse at home to Celtic.                                             

Wark’s final season, 1983/84, would see the Club relegated once again with Joe, now 36 years old, appearing eleven times for Motherwell.  The boots were finally hung up after a second Testimonial against a Rangers/Celtic select in January 1985.   Only two players in the history of the Steelmen have played more games for Motherwell than Joe Wark, (George Stevenson and Bobby Ferrier). Joe made 469 appearances in league games, which is a post War record, which given the nature of the transfer system these days, will be almost impossible to beat.

Many Motherwell fans have waxed lyrical in a bid to describe what Joe meant to this Club.  On the field, his “Mr Consistency“ tag was well earned, as he took his “teeth oot“, rolled up his sleeves and went to work, playing the game the “right way“.  Never would you see Joe commit a cynical foul, indeed he very rarely was booked in his 500 plus games in Claret and Amber.     Off the field Joe was (and still is ) always immaculate, and dare I say it rather good looking with his teeth in, and every inch a gentleman and an ambassador to Motherwell Football Club. All the Club has stood for, and should continue to stand for today.

It was a travesty that this true legend was never given a full Scotland Cap (although he did earn a Scottish League Cap at Hampden against the English), but in truth although he may have hankered for that dark blue jersey, to us ‘Well fans, that only made him even more special, as it means we don’t have to share Joe Wark with anybody else.

Joe was probably the only Motherwell hero in our family which crossed the generation between my Old Man and myself.  My late Dad thought the world of Joe, as did I growing up.  For a Left Back to hold such affection not only within the fergiecrew, but throughout great swathes of Lanarkshire, tells you more about the guy than anything I could write  about him.

Joe Wark may never have knew my Father, but I’m so proud to say, my Father most certainly knew, and loved, Joe Wark.

Eddie Ferguson



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