Interview with John Wark

Nick Loughlin spoke to John Wark, about his career as a footballer, and of course about Escape to Victory.

JOHN Wark played 771 Football League games for Ipswich, Liverpool and Middlesbrough, won the PFA Player of the Year award in 1981, lifted the UEFA Cup with Ipswich the same year and played in the 1982 World Cup.Yet the former midfielder admits he is more likely to be recognised for his role on the big screen than for his on-field escapades.Wark was part of the Allies team in the cult film Escape to Victory, which brought World War Two and the beautiful game together to produce not perhaps a beautiful film, but one which has stood the test of time and grew in stature since its 1981 release.

Newly-packaged and released on DVD ahead of the World Cup - well it is football in Germany isn't it? - Wark freely admits it's hard to envisage that he would be talking about it some 25 years on.

"A few weeks ago I was walking down the street and my mobile rang,'' he recalled. "Someone said on the phone 'you are on the TV' and I thought 'bloody hell, what have I done?'."Then they told me the film was on. It was on after that Legends game between England and Germany, so I suppose there was some link there. "But, to be honest, I find that a lot of people remember me for the film and not my playing career."I played football for 25 years, but nobody mentions that or winning the PFA award in 1981. All I get is 'you were in Escape to Victory'.''He added: "It's unbelievable, it really is. It seems thats on TV every Christmas and it's still getting played. Now it's out on DVD it will probably get even worse for me!

"It really was a great time making it. It was the best summer I have ever had. Not everyone gets the chance to play with Pele and it was a real joy being with him. He had just turned 40, but he certainly still had something and was still fit.

"When he first arrived we were in awe of him. He's a legend, probably the best footballer the world has ever seen. But then you get to know him well when you are spending so much time with each other and he is a great man."

Escape to Victory is the film which brings footballers and Hollywood stars together.Michael Caine takes the role of John Colby, a West Ham United defender whose career has been interrupted by the war, Max von Sydow the Nazi officer who instigates the game and Sylvester Stallone as Hatch, the Yankee POW whose sole aim is to escape the camp, yet ends up in goal. Of sorts. And while the football fraternity -- Ossie Ardiles, Bobby Moore, Mike Summerbee and Wark among them - mixed freely with the actors, there was one who remained somewhat aloof.Stallone arrived in Hungary for filming fresh from his Oscar winning role in Rocky.

"He turned up with bouncers and bodyguards and used to go to Paris on a weekend when we weren't filming,'' said Wark. "I suppose he was big time after Rocky.''

Wark wasn't the only Ipswich player to take part. Russell Osman was an Allies team-mate, while Laurie Sivell, Kevin O'Callaghan, Robin Turner Paul Cooper and Kevin Beattie all had roles on and off screen.Half of Portman Road was temporarily transported to Budapest.

"Some guy in the film industry knew Bobby Robson,'' said Wark. "He came to the ground and asked if any of us wanted to take part in a movie."Five of us put our hands up -- and that was only because we weren't doing anything that summer. We genuinely didn't realise how big it was going to be until we were in Hungary.

"We got out there and there was Michael Caine and Pele turning up. We thought we were going over there just for the football, then they started handing out scripts and we had to act as well.

"It was a big daunting in front of the cameras first time, but we were there for five weeks and around the cameras and filming for most of it."If we weren't involved in the acting, we were heavily involved in the football scenes, so you got used to the cameras.

"I think the footballers probably took to acting more than the actors took to the football. I don't think Stallone got the hang of it -- he wanted it written in the script so that he scored the winning goal at the end.

"He had to be told that goalkeepers don't score goals."He saved the penalty at the end, but look at his reaction. He starts bouncing the ball about and gives it away, so I don't think he understood about football.''

Stallone might have struggled, but it's fair to say Pele (Luis Fernandez)was never going to. One of the defining images of the film is when he buries an overhead kick from 12 yards.Back to goal, with cracked ribs, he takes off, meets a cross from Terry Brady (Moore) and levels the scores at 4-4.Wark said:

"It only took one take for Pele to score that overhead kick.For most of us, it would have took ten attempts and even that might not have been enough. He got it right first time and smashed it in. I suppose that's why he's Pele.''

Filmed the MTK Stadium in Budapest, Wark played the first half, but is seen on the bench throughout the second period, after injury.

"The game itself was played against a first division Hungarian side, so it was more realistic, and the actors were cut into the final film,'' he said. "I got walloped against them and you see me sat on the bench with Pele for most of the game because I wasn't fit.

"I ended up going back to Ipswich and missed the first few weeks of pre-season training because of it.''

While the Allies team might have drawn their big game on the Continent, all eyes are now on Germany.And it might hurt the passionate Scot to admit it, but he sees England as one of the teams capable of winning this year's event.

"If Rooney is ready then England can go a long way,'' he believes. "They have a very good squad, but he gives them that bit more.

"They are one of probably eight teams who can win it -- Brazil, Argentina, France, Holland, Germany and the like - and there's always someone who comes from nowhere.

"It's a tournament I'm really looking forward to and there will be some great football. It's going to be a close one and, if Rooney comes through it, England can go far.''

Wark's biggest taste of the international game came in 1982 as part of the Scotland squad at the World Cup in Spain.A win over New Zealand was followed by a defeat to Brazil and a draw with Russia, which only meant one thing for the Scots -- a trademark first round exit.

"We had a great squad at the time,'' said Wark. "It was full of top class players yet we went out on goal difference. We were a proper international team with players who would get into most teams.

"We took the lead against Brazil and all that cost us was conceding two goals against New Zealand because we went out on goal difference.

"I suppose our team was a bit like the one in Escape to Victory -- we had lots of good outfield players but the goalkeeper (Alan Rough) was lousy!"

© Nick Loughlin of The Northern Echo