Published in issue 2 of Late Tackle magazine.
Tevez, Eto’o and Gyan are among the latest breed of players to be tarred with the ‘football mercenary’ brush. But they have nothing on this 1970s Scoop comic superstar.
Jon Stark arrived on the football scene in the late 1970s, a prolific striker who played for numerous clubs in England and abroad on a nomadic career path motivated entirely by money. A self-styled ‘Matchwinner for Hire’, his terms of service were set out on his business card: ‘£1,000 per match plus £250 per goal, no payment for lost games.’ Playing for different clubs every week, wherever the promise of payment took him, Stark was the ultimate football mercenary. He was, of course, entirely fictional – a comic book character created against the backdrop of a real-life transfer revolution under the strapline: ‘Meet the Footballer of the Future…’
Stark first appeared in the debut issue of Scoop comic (15p every Thursday) in January 1978. Stone Orient were rock bottom of the second division after three consecutive defeats. A cup match against top-flight Belmoor saw the club turn to Stark, who told them, ‘Play me against Belmoor and I’ll guarantee you victory for £1,000 plus £250 for every goal I score. If we get beaten, you pay me nothing.’
Stark’s left foot strike and diving header saw Orient win 2-0. But the Orient manager wasn’t happy with Stark’s modus operandi, remarking, ‘He’s good alright, but I don’t like him or what he stands for.’ Stark wasn’t bothered: ‘Just give me my £1,500 and I’ll be on my way.’
Stark’s buccaneering debut was startling in the context of the often anodyne world of football comic strips, where clean-cut role model heroes played for pride and glory rather than pounds and pence. A self-centred maverick, Stark was a world away from Roy of the Rovers, but he nevertheless became hugely popular, and established himself as one of football’s most enduring comic strip characters. Stark’s adventures remain (mostly) good reads, but the most intriguing aspect of the strip – and what makes it so memorable – is its against-the-grain portrayal of a footballer who was unashamedly in it for the money.
Stark was by no means the first football mercenary. They’ve been around for well over a hundred years, ever since Alf Common switched from Sunderland to Sheffield United, then back to Sunderland, and then to Middlesbrough for transfer record fee of £1,000, all within the space of four years between 1901 and 1904.
And then there was Charlie Mitten – the Bogota Bandit. The post-war Manchester United star was unhappy with maximum wage rules, which restricted his earnings to £8 per week, or £6 in the summer. So, in 1950, he jumped aboard a slow boat to Colombia and signed for Independiente Santa Fe, having been offered a huge £100 per week plus a signing on fee reported to be anywhere between £5,000 and £10,000. Unfortunately for Mitten, after just one season in South America he was sent home, with FIFA outlawing Colombia’s use of expensive imports.
By the time Scoop launched, the football transfer market was flooded with money and controversy. Newspapers used the phrase ‘football mercenary’ to describe Kevin Keegan following his £500,000 move to Hamburg in 1977. Then Liverpool smashed the British transfer record when they handed £440,000 to Celtic for Kenny Dalglish to replace the departed Keegan. In January 1978, the month that Scoop and Stark first appeared, Joe Jordan demanded that Leeds United place him on the transfer list. He was quickly sold to Manchester United for £350,000, an English League record beaten a few days later by the £353,000 paid by Liverpool to Middlesbrough for Graeme Souness.
So Stark was a perfect fit for the times – a footballer-for-hire who was forgiven for his lust for money because he was so ruddy good at kicking a ball about. Although fans welcomed his goals and sang his name, Stark was rarely welcomed at the clubs he played for. ‘We don’t want your kind here!’ one manager told him. During a training session, the manager yelled, ‘Stop that money-grabbing bighead any way you can!’ (‘I’d like to see you stop him, boss!’ replied a beaten defender as Stark fired a shot into the net.) ‘This would never have happened in the old days,’ the manager reflected. ‘It’s freedom of contract that’s to blame for all this.’
Indeed, freedom of contract was to blame, and it surely inspired the creation of Stark. Introduced in 1977, freedom of contract rules gave players the right to leave their clubs at the end of their contracts, as long as there was a willing buyer. The George Eastham case from 1963, concerning the player’s move from Newcastle to Arsenal, had already broken up football’s archaic ‘retain and transfer’ system, whereby clubs effectively owned their players. However, players weren’t really handed control of their own contracts, and their careers, until 1977. Now footballers could go wherever they wanted, and make more money than they could spend.
Scoop was dead against freedom of contract. ‘Professional footballers have been squealing for years that the clubs have been treating them like slaves,’ wrote the comic’s columnist ‘Mike the Mouth’. ‘A footballer’s life is a good one. He works 15 hours a week at something he likes doing, he’s well paid, keeps physically fit, sees a bit of the world. Players owe a lot to the clubs and the public, and if they are slaves, there must be a lot of people queuing for chains!’
Jon Stark had ultimate freedom of contract, because he didn’t have one, allowing him to switch clubs on a weekly basis – and sometimes more often than that. Although no real-life footballer could match Stark for club-swapping frequency, the comic strip introduced a whole cast of football mercenaries, including Stark’s great friend Cosmo Kent (occasionally starring together as ‘Stark & Cosmo’), nephew and apprentice Barry Frazer, and goalscoring rival Caspar Rambold.
Stark’s mercenary approach extended beyond club football – it also shaped his international career. After being selected to play for England against Scotland he was asked how he felt. ‘Well, it’s flattering of course,’ Stark replied, ‘but you may not know that my mother’s Scottish, so I’m eligible to play for them as well. I’ll probably play for the highest bidder.’ He initially agreed to play for Scotland, but switched sides after England manager Kevin Venables offered him twice his match fee. Stark scored, of course, netting England’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw. The Scotland manager was magnanimous afterwards: ‘You played a great game! Pity it’s not a blue jersey you’re wearing!’ ‘That’s life!’ Stark replied. ‘But then, I don’t know what colour of shirt I’ll be wearing week to week!’
Not that Stark was entirely lacking in morals or ethics. He donated money to boys’ clubs, took younger players under his wing, and refused to play for unscrupulous chairmen. On one occasion, annoyed by Gildale City’s ‘bully boy’ tactics, and by the club’s chairman referring to him as a ‘money-hungry vulture’, Stark halved his normal fee to play for their opponents Ralston United. He scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win, and warned the Gildale chairman, ‘That was only a warning. Clean up your methods and your team, or you’ll find me playing against Gildale EVERY WEEK!’
Stark regularly put his body on the line for the game – and the money. In one adventure Stark was diagnosed with ‘a rare pelvic disorder’ that required treatment from a ‘laser machine’ that cost £350,000. He was forced to play back-to-back games all over Europe with the aim of winning the Platinum Boot Award and using the prize money to pay for the operation. On another memorable occasion, Stark actually died. Playing against doctor’s orders after a head injury, he collapsed after heroically blocking a goalbound shot. ‘He’s not breathing!’ yelled a teammate. ‘And there’s no pulse! He’s KILLED HIMSELF!’ Luckily, he was somehow revived, and was back in action within weeks.
Stark played on for a good 20 years, outlasting Scoop comic after it folded in 1981, and continuing in Victor and then Football Picture Story Monthly. By then, the football transfer system had changed again. The 1995 Bosman ruling allowed players to move for free at the end of their contracts, and ushered in a new generation of football mercenaries.
Nicolas Anelka, Carlos Tevez, Winston Bogarde, Samuel Eto’o, and Asamoah Gyan are just a handful of players who’ve subsequently been tarred with the ‘football mercenary’ brush, and supporters of almost every club will have stories of other players who were plainly only in it for the money. None of them can match Stark in the mercenary stakes – although that may simply be down to lack of opportunity. For a start, FIFA rules mean that players can only be registered with a maximum of three clubs per season.
But if Stark was around today, and if the rules allowed, would Manchester City or Chelsea call on his services? Could he make a fortune by switching to Anzhi or Al-Ain? If Jon Stark is the Footballer of the Future, then that future hasn’t quite arrived. But his story isn’t entirely far-fetched, and remains a fascinating football ‘what if’.