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We Are United: Remembering the magic of Football Picture Story Monthly

A Football Picture Story Monthly image
Football Picture Story Monthly ran from 1986 until 2003.

Football Picture Story Monthly was the pocket-size comic which brought the beautiful game to life in black and white.

FPSM launched during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and writers Martin Lindsay and Bill Graham imagined a football landscape where anything was possible.

This was a world where the underdog could triumph against the odds and a young player always had the chance to be spotted by a scout and make it to the top.

A place where a vain, self-absorbed and selfish player could be healed by the embrace of a local community after being forced to move to a smaller club.

Jon Stark, match-winner for hire, appeared in the first edition of Football Picture Story Monthly in the summer of 1986.
Jon Stark, match-winner for hire, appeared in the first edition of Football Picture Story Monthly in the summer of 1986.

Martin and Bill loved the game and that passion jumped off the pages.

The stories were full of heart and the football artwork was world-class.

This was pure escapism.

DC Thomson produced 418 issues until 2003 with two stories in each edition inside a colour cover which included a picture of a footballer on the back page.

The United stories were hugely popular among fans of Football Picture Story Monthly.

Popular storylines included Jimmy Grant, We Are United, Kline and Powell and ‘Matchwinner for Hire’ Jon Stark who picked up a £1,000 fee if his team won.

Martin said: “I think it was popular with its fan-base of young adults and adults because the stories weren’t told in a comic larger-than-life fashion but tried to be believable and reflect real-life.

“The stories were filled with good guys, bad guys, heroes, would-be heroes, bullying managers/Jurgen Klopp-type bosses, greedy chairmen and loyal fans.

“This was the world of football on a black and white page.

Original artwork from the cover design of High Rise Rovers which was the story which featured in issue 31.

“The series resonated with a lot of people when first published and that popularity has endured.

“The stories, characters and artwork all still work today.”

Martin started life at DC Thomson in 1971 as the junior sub-editor on The Rover which was Britain’s last-surviving boys’ story paper which finally folded in 1973.

He earned his stripes on The Hotspur, Victor, Bullet, Scoop and The Crunch before working on Buddy, Champ and FPSM in the 1980s.

Original artwork from Invisible Manager which was number nine in the series and featured John Barnes of Watford on the back page in colour.

Martin and Bill put forward the idea for FPSM in 1985 and thought they stood a good chance by reviving some of the best DCT football stories in the A5 format.

Martin said: “We thought We Are United, Jon Stark and Jimmy Grant could be contemporised for an audience of both boys and adults.

“Then we had brainstorming sessions where we would submit new story ideas before doing a UK-wide round trip to meet the freelance writers and present the ideas for them to produce the finished scripts based on the existing DCT characters and the new ideas.

“These new ideas included other characters such as Kline and Powell that would go on to prove popular.

United would fight back against the odds in issue two for a famous win against Brutavian giants Dinamo Leipzag in the 1986 UEFA Cup Final.

“Inspiration and lots of ideas also came from diligently reviewing the Sunday and Monday newspapers, match reports, off-the field antics of players/managers and the football TV programmes where we ‘appropriated’ incidents, characters and game highlights to weave into storylines.

“Also, both having played football from five to 55 we had tons of personal experiences and memories.

“Both of us being big football fans and the opportunity to work with the best writers and illustrators from the UK and Europe meant it was nothing but a pleasure from day one.”

We Are United was widely accepted as the best-ever storyline.

There were 43 United stories across the 418 editions of Football Picture Story Monthly.
There were 43 United stories across the 418 editions of Football Picture Story Monthly.

First published in Champ in 1984, the original story generated fantastic feedback from the readers with over 1,000 letters a week arriving at DC Thomson from boys wanting to appear in the story as club mascot for the day.

This popularity transferred over to FPSM with 43 United FPSM stories in total.

Martin made the switch to Syndication from FPSM in 1988 which opened up whole new worlds with bi-weekly trips to London and attending book fairs across the globe.

He said: “Both Champ and FPSM were syndicated to comic publishers across Europe and I can remember taking a phone call one Monday morning from my contact at Stabenfeldt in Norway saying his printers were desperate to find out what happened in the next instalment of the United story as we had ended the last one on a cup final cliffhanger!”

Original artwork from the sixth edition of the popular comic which was called Death Match.

Fellow writer Bill said the process from synopsis to finished article took around 12 weeks so there was a production line to accommodate the two titles a month.

Bill said: “The process was relatively simple in that we chucked around ideas and moulded them into a synopsis which was then sent to an author.

“Once scripted the story was edited and sent to an artist who drew the story, usually in 16 page segments.

“The work was subbed and ballooned by hand before being sent to press.

Artwork from issue 47 which was called Stark and the Shadow.

“We tried to keep the stories current and vary authors and artists which is why I think it has stood the test of time and remains iconic.”

Bill said one the most iconic characters in the series was the nomadic mercenary Jon Stark who was a no win, no fee footballer.

Stark featured in the first edition of FPSM where he joins up with the England squad for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

The price was 26p.

Jon Stark remains a comic book legend for generations of football fans.

“Stark was an ideal character because as football changed there were more and more ‘mercenaries’ and with Stark you could be a bit over the top,” he said.

“We all played football so we were conscious of how the game was changing at our level and even more aware of how football was changing at professional level.

“One of my favourite stories was about a talented, but lazy player who ended up at university doing a sports course because he thought he would walk it.

“But didn’t, before seeing the light and buckling down.

The self-styled ‘Matchwinner for Hire’, Jon Stark first emerged in the 70s and his terms of service were set out on his business card.

“Another was basically the story of Bobby Robson.

“Good, good player from Newcastle who never played for Newcastle, but managed them latterly.

“There are a few other great stories – near the end we had a tale about a cup final ball and another about a football ground.

“They were great tales.”

Artwork which would make the front cover of issue 55 which was called Glory in Europe.

Bill said the time he worked on FPSM was full of happy moments and some of the best were getting a mate’s name into a story!

“There were a lot of brilliant writers and artists,” he said.

“Barrie Mitchell was a great artist to work with as was Bruno Marrafa.

“Ian Kennedy’s covers…Roy Preston was a fine author who could write dialogue.

The Goal King for issue 73 was another famous front cover which jumped off the shelf.

“Get an author who can write dialogue and you have a winner.”

Garry Fraser started off in comics at DC Thomson and moved on to the boys’ papers before getting the job as editor of FPSM when Martin moved to Syndication.

“The three main writers were Ian Clark, Ayr, Derrick Markham, Sheffield, and Fred Baker, who lived in the west country,” he said.

“I used to travel to meet these guys for one-to-one story sessions.

Stark and the Destroyer was issue number 22 of the popular Football Picture Story Monthly series
Stark and the Destroyer was issue number 22 of the popular series.

“The artists were, mainly, foreign, some working through Barry Coker’s Bardon Art or Luis Llorente’s Creationes Editoriales.

“Neville Wilson was freelance from Whitby and Peter Foster sent artwork from Australia.

“One freelance Spanish artist was Jorge Giralt whose pidgin English notes were fantastic to read!

“My favourite was Barrie Mitchell.

World Cup Wonder was issue number 97 and was set at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

“His full-colour football artwork was world-class.”

Garry said FPSM “was the typical boy’s escapism”.

“Every laddie wants to score the winning goal in a cup final or save his team from relegation,” he said.

“We brought reality that bit closer, I think.

Art work from issue 65 which was The Glory Game and another story to feature Jon Stark.

“We never used current affairs as a basis for story lines, avoiding any possible controversy.

“We concentrated on football stories kids and adults would want to read.

“As I said a piece of escapism, perhaps reflecting a real-life football event/player/scenario.

“It was great fun as we were given plenty chances for self-indulgence!

Art work from the front cover of issue 58 which was called Ghost Striker.

“You could make your brother, best pal, the winning striker, superstar centre-half or top-class goalie by using their real name.

“We also used to mock-up the names of football grounds.

“I think we had a Tannadens Park and a manager called Jocky English!

“Over the heads of the readers of course but we liked it!

“Stark and United were the tops, yes, but all the characters were originals and had never appeared in any previous publication.”

The opening scene from the United story Hijack in a Football Picture Story Monthly
The opening scene from the United story Hijack.

Garry said working with top writers and artists on a sport he loved was special.

“When I was editor I had carte blanche, with Bill adding his expertise and advice when called upon,” he said.

“I remember one day sitting in my office when a wee lad came in as part of a tour of the building.

“He saw the “Football Library” and “Topical Times” labels on the door and when he was told I was editor of both he said that must be the best job in the world!

“I agreed!

“It was part of my career at DCT’s that I look back particularly fondly on.”

The final edition of Football Picture Story Monthly
The final edition which marked the end of an era for the much-loved series.

FPSM extended boys’ comic stories long before the demise of others but poor sales not helped by a lack of space on the shelves was the beginning of the end.

The final issue was in 2003 which featured a strip drawn by Tony O’Donnell which was titled ‘A Century of Football’.

The front cover featured an image of Dundee FC legend Billy Steel.

All 418 editions are now collectors’ items.

Some individual copies sell for up to £15.

Garry said: “Whether this is people completing a collection or starting afresh after they saw someone else’s, I don’t know, but it proves their ‘immortality’, so to speak.”