LAST KNOCKINGS

A photo es­say cap­tur­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary pe­riod in foot­ball’s his­tory

The New European - - Agenda - BY STU­ART ROY CLARKE AND JOHN WIL­LIAMS

Ifirst met Stu­art Clarke – the ‘Roy’ was added much later – in Le­ices­ter early in the 1990s. Foot­ball had been slowly emerg­ing from the shadow of the ter­ri­ble loss of life at the Brad­ford City fire and the shame of fa­tal English hooli­gan­ism at Hey­sel in 1985. But it was now in re­cov­ery mode again, this time from the ex­tra­or­di­nary trauma of the spring of 1989.

I had been at Hills­bor­ough on April 15, in the Liver­pool seats. I was work­ing at the time on a fans’ pro­ject for the Foot­ball Trust, so I had the role – not, I can tell you, a very pleas­ant one – of tak­ing some of­fi­cials around the ground im­me­di­ately af­ter the sta­dium was cleared to try to piece to­gether ex­actly what had hap­pened to cause such loss of life that af­ter­noon. There was still de­bris on the ter­races, scarves and scat­tered per­sonal ob­jects; the Lep­pings Lane fences were left gap­ing, hor­ri­bly twisted.

The South York­shire po­lice were soon show­ing us exit gates – the in­fa­mous Gate C – where drunken and tick­et­less Liver­pool fans had sup­pos­edly bro­ken into the sta­dium and con­trived the killing of their fel­low sup­port­ers.

Al­ready, dazed young Liver­pudlians, try­ing to make sense of what had hap­pened, were con­tra­dict­ing the

‘of­fi­cial’ ac­count, telling us that the gates had been opened by the po­lice and that no­body had di­rected fans into the less crowded parts of the sta­dium. They showed us their unchecked tick­ets. Crazily, it seems now, it would take an­other 23 years for the in­no­cence of fans and the full ex­tent of the po­lice mis­man­age­ment and cover up to fi­nally be ac­cepted by the au­thor­i­ties – and by much of the non-foot­balling pub­lic.

So, with the game slowly re­cov­er­ing from Hills­bor­ough, Eng­land show­ing signs of imag­i­na­tive life at Italia 90, and fash­ion­able mu­si­cians start­ing to get into pro­mot­ing the Bri­tish game, this guy called Stu­art Clarke con­tacted me and he came to meet in my cramped lit­tle univer­sity of­fice in Le­ices­ter, strewn as it was at the time with fold­ers, books and pa­pers. It still is.

He knew that I had been do­ing some re­search with the Foot­ball Trust on fans, and that the Trust was now charged with help­ing to dis­trib­ute funds for the na­tional trans­for­ma­tion of Bri­tish foot­ball sta­dia de­manded af­ter the 1989 dis­as­ter. The English game at that time had been in a state of dy­namic flux, with var­i­ous bod­ies – the FA, the Foot­ball League and the PFA – all busily vy­ing for ad­van­tage and con­trol of the elite clubs and the na­tional team for a new dawn.

The Tay­lor Re­port on events at Hills­bor­ough had sur­prised the Thatcher govern­ment by ac­tu­ally demon­strat­ing a wider in­ter­est in the game and the peo­ple who watched it, a com­plete mys­tery to Con­ser­va­tives at the time. Lord Jus­tice Tay­lor sug­gested that foot­ball de­served bet­ter and more co­her­ent lead­er­ship.

He was right. It was ru­moured that Tay­lor’s key rec­om­men­da­tion – re­plac­ing stand­ing ter­races with seats – had been pressed on him by the main foot­ball bod­ies, who wanted a com­pletely new di­rec­tion for a sport long plagued by fan man­age­ment is­sues. So now the money

had to be found to fund a na­tional sta­dium moderni­sa­tion scheme likely to cost more than £500mil­lion in the first year. Coin­ci­den­tally, satel­lite tele­vi­sion, it­self in fi­nan­cial trou­ble, was wait­ing to in­vest in top level English foot­ball, ef­fec­tively to save its own skin. We all know now how that par­tic­u­lar mar­riage of con­ve­nience worked out.

In fact, around this time I had been in­vited by Charles Hughes, se­nior foot­ball coach and guru the­o­rist, to aid the FA, by con­tribut­ing a chap­ter on fans and the role I saw for them in the sport, postHills­bor­ough. It was meant for a mys­te­ri­ous, hush-hush FA doc­u­ment de­signed to map out a new fu­ture for the game in Eng­land.

I saw no other chap­ters and thought this was some mi­nor in­ter­nal re­port aimed for the FA Coun­cil to con­sider. But the Foot­ball Trust thought I should do it, so, I wrote my piece and moved on. To my sur­prise, it be­came a lit­tle-dis­cussed sec­tion of the pub­lished FA Blue­print for Foot­ball, the 1991 plan for the his­toric dis­mem­ber­ment of the Foot­ball League and the launch of the FA Premier League it­self. Funded, of course, by satel­lite TV.

In our first meet­ing, Clarke told me that he had been to art col­lege, had got into photo-jour­nal­ism in lo­cal pa­pers in Wat­ford, but was now do­ing his own thing, tak­ing pho­to­graphs of foot­ball sup­port­ers and sta­di­ums.

He was al­ready on his Homes of Foot­ball jour­ney. He also loved the way mu­sic and foot­ball were syn­er­gis­ing. I liked him from the start. Those pic­tures he brought for me to see at that first en­counter were like no pho­to­graphs of the game, its peo­ple and its build­ings, that I had ever seen. They were all in colour, large-scale, and noth­ing was staged.

They were in­vari­ably poignant and of­ten funny, but never in­tru­sive, al­ways re­spect­ful of his sub­jects; or­di­nary men and women mak­ing some­thing of the sport they loved. Or else, he was pho­tograph­ing sta­dium sheds, walls and stair­wells, the spa­ces that oth­ers could only see as func­tional eye­sores, some of them await­ing likely (and de­served) de­mo­li­tion. Clarke made them look like listed na­tional mon­u­ments.

He cer­tainly knew the game and its peo­ple – all that fam­ily time spent in­volved in lo­cal foot­ball in Hert­ford­shire and those Satur­day after­noons down at a de­cay­ing Vicarage Road – but it was the artist’s eye he brought to a cul­ture and its spa­ces that had been largely run down, abused and rub­bished for decades that was so im­pres­sive in his work. His pho­to­graphs cap­tured the dig­nity and wild beauty of a sport and its peo­ple on the cusp of ma­jor changes.

In a way, his work in pic­tures com­pli­mented the early 1990s writ­ings of the emerg­ing new foot­ball literati, peo­ple such as Nick Hornby, who had brought an ed­u­cated mid­dle-class sen­si­bil­ity to in­ter­ro­gat­ing the at­trac­tions of foot­ball for young men search­ing for ways of fill­ing the su­per­mar­ket mas­culin­ity trol­ley.

Like Hornby, Clarke was also a kind of class ‘out­sider’, a man who had the knowl­edge, but also the kind of so­cial dis­tance needed to un­pack and re­veal the deeper mean­ing and aes­thetic ap­peal of these weekly sport­ing rit­u­als. He has done a won­der­ful job and has in­spired many oth­ers since, to try to em­u­late his ap­proach.

Nei­ther of us knew, of course, quite where the English game was headed at that pre­cise mo­ment, ex­actly how sub­stan­tial its so­cial and ma­te­rial trans­for­ma­tion might turn out to be. Clarke prob­a­bly re­alised he was record­ing some­thing im­por­tant, some­thing time­less, but also some­thing strangely ephemeral. Nat­u­rally, I ar­ranged a meet­ing for him with the Foot­ball Trust. Who was bet­ter placed to pho­to­graph for pos­ter­ity how our his­toric foot­ball venues were now be­ing gut­ted and mod­ernised to meet the de­mands of a new era? Who bet­ter to show us how all this new money was be­ing spent? He got the gig – I knew he would.

Clarke did some bril­liant work for the Trust: grand por­traits of once loved old ter­races be­ing mer­ci­lessly crushed by dig­gers; the steel struts of new stands sprout­ing up proudly into the sky; en­tire mod­ern grounds evolv­ing from nowhere. He nat­u­rally fused these stud­ies into his wider pro­ject of cap­tur­ing all pos­si­ble man­i­fes­ta­tions of Bri­tish fan­dom and the trans­for­ma­tion of the sport in all its guises.

He also in­cluded here the work­ing lives of peo­ple who were oth­er­wise hid­den be­hind the scenes of the pro­fes­sional game. Clarke has spent very lit­tle time on the glam­our side of the mon­eyed Premier League; the top play­ers and man­agers and their life­styles is of lit­tle con­cern.

He much pre­ferred trac­ing, be­fore clo­sure, the Ac­cring­ton brick works which pro­vided the ma­te­ri­als for build­ing north­ern Vic­to­rian foot­ball venues. In­stead, he fo­cused his lens on the tea-ladies and the boot-room vol­un­teers; on the young women work­ing on the cof­fee and food out­lets in­side and around grounds; and oc­ca­sion­ally on the mainly honourable (if of­ten mis­guided) Bri­tish foot­ball club own­ers, be­fore the oli­garchs, the oil sheikhs and the in­ter­na­tional ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists took over. He al­ways wanted to ex­am­ine the en­trails, the guts of the sport more than its pam­pered and pow­dered sur­faces.

His foot­ball work to­day spans cap­tur­ing the early roots of the game – those cranky and vi­o­lent forms of folk foot­ball which are still played by lo­cal men on the land and on feast days up and down the Bri­tish Isles – and the en­dur­ing tale of lo­cal Sun­day morn­ing foot­ball, played on dog-shit­ted, un­cut parks pitches with few de­cent fa­cil­i­ties.

He wants to try to con­nect, at least in our heads, the low­est lev­els of play with the elite few who earn mil­lions and have global pro­files. It’s a tough ask, but he has cer­tainly en­cap­su­lated the lo­cal game in all its ca­ma­raderie, im­por­tance and ab­sur­dity, as beer-bel­lied lo­cal men and de­ter­mined young women try to defy space, time and the el­e­ments to bring home the points.

Re­cently, he has been care­fully pro­fil­ing the grow­ing women’s game in

Eng­land, un­sur­pris­ingly se­duced by the en­ergy, skill and lack of ego of top fe­male play­ers. These are ris­ing sports stars who still ply their world-class tal­ents mainly off our tele­vi­sion screens, on muddied fields in front of au­di­ences of­ten num­bered in hun­dreds rather than the tens of thou­sands that even medi­ocre male play­ers man­age to drag in.

Eng­land’s women may yet win the World Cup in France in 2019. I wouldn’t bet against it. I would bet that Clarke will be there if they do.

A se­lec­tion of Clarke’s work is cur­rently be­ing ex­hib­ited at the Na­tional Foot­ball Mu­seum in Manch­ester. You re­ally need to see it. His new book The Game, in­cludes ex­tended con­ver­sa­tions I re­cently had with him in my Le­ices­ter home about the role of pho­tog­ra­phy in map­ping the his­tory of the game, and how his own work has cov­ered the last 30 years of con­vul­sive change in Bri­tish foot­ball. He is a good mixer and col­lab­o­ra­tor, and a great talker.

And, re­mark­ably, Clarke’s al­most childlike en­thu­si­asm for the game and its peo­ple never seems to wane. He still trav­els most week­ends, all over Bri­tain to foot­ball at all lev­els, con­vinced he has not yet seen it all. He re­mains com­pletely con­fi­dent that he will find some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing new that he can play back to us foot­ball junkies, about how we im­bibe and play and live our lives through the world’s great­est game. He al­ways man­ages to per­suade me that he can find that image, that shot, which can tell the whole story bet­ter than a mere scribe can. I’m a be­liever, you see.

To my mind, if any­one can, Stu­art Roy Clarke can. John Wil­liams is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Le­ices­ter

The Game: 30 Years Through the Lens of Stu­art Roy Clarke con­tin­ues at the Na­tional Foot­ball Mu­seum in Manch­ester, un­til March 17; The Game is pub­lished by Blue­coat Press

Photo: Stu­art Roy Clarke

ETER­NAL AP­PEAL: Sun­der­land fans

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Pho­tos: Stu­art Clarke

PEO­PLE’S GAME: 1 Eng­land fans

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1 CON­NEC­TION: 1 Queens Park Rangers2 Liver­pool

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