There can't be too many people better qualified to talk football than photographer Stuart Roy Clarke.
For nearly 30 years, Clarke has been capturing the British football experience in all its tragicomic glory, creating a body of work that spans the cultural breadth of the game in the UK. Everything from Man United wonder goals, to a dog in the stands at Buxton, to the burger van girls at Tranmere and elegiac twilight vistas of Wigan's Springfield Park find a place within his epic "Homes Of Football" project.
With 55 of Clarke's favourite pictures currently showing at Manchester's Museum Of Football, I caught up with him to talk bad taste, tribalism, dodgy chairmen and the photogenic qualities of Sunderland fans.
VICE: Hi Stuart, tell me about the early days of the project – how did it come about?
Stuart Roy Clarke: I was surrounded by football from an early age – my family were involved in putting on the game at a junior level, and were big fans of Watford, which was the town nearest to where I grew up. I had an artistic sensibility, which later became photography.
At the end of the 1980s there was a bit of a coming together; I was out of university, a very serious person looking for a big subject. I thought "sport" was a bit too lightweight. It was interesting, but it wasn't for a political mind or someone who loved people-watching; it was all to do with the track or the stadium. But with all the attention that was being focused on football, with disasters, hooliganism and social behaviour, I realised my subject was staring at me.’
It was something I’d always loved and had a feel for, so it became my "serious" subject. I knew there was going to be a lot of attention on the game in the coming years, a lot of money invested in supposedly putting it right after Hillsborough, Bradford and Heisel.
Do you remember your first subjects?
I went along to Clydebank to do a story on the pop group Wet Wet Wet – who are all massive Rangers fans – for a magazine called 20/20, but I was actually viewing it as the starting point of this great thing I was going to do. I started off doing black-and-white, because I thought that’s what serious street photographers did. But after two months I realised It had to be in colour, because everyone was talking about colour: the reds, the blues, the yellows, the hoops, whatever. Colour is so important in football. So a bit like in The Wizard of Oz, I suddenly turned it into colour. I knew that I had a subject that I wouldn't walk away from. I said I'd dedicate ten years to it, and it’s been 30.
How do you choose the games you’re going to photograph? Do you try to find matches with some extra sense of occasion, such as a derby or a grudge match, or is it less particular than that?
For a long time I built up a routine of going to matches that had something to do with where I was exhibiting my pictures. So if I was doing a show in Mansfield or Birmingham, or wherever, I would spend three months or so going to local matches, so on top of what I already had I would also have that locality. I was also trying to cover the whole geography; I was trying to do rivalries, end of season matches, first and last games, and sometimes I wanted to go to games where there was no real reason to be there, something almost mundane. That would really force me to push myself…finding out what really makes that club tick. To capture what it's really like at 3PM, or on a wet Tuesday evening. That’s the stuff that a lot of people really like – the everyday-ness of it all.
Do you ever rue being at the wrong match – for example, missing some great football moment, like the Cantona kung-fu kick – while you were at Huddersfield or Plymouth?
No, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that. Not even once. What I do feel is the urge to be at every single match. I look at the tele-printer, I look at the BBC Sport feed, all the matches and results, the scores, the league positions, and I wish I could be at every single game. I never think I’ve picked the wrong match, because there’s always something interesting. The truth is I really love them all. In the exhibition there’s such a range – I’ve got Man United next to Conniston, a crowd of 14. That’s what I like doing.
Do you have favourite grounds or fans to shoot? Looking through the book I’ve noticed Newcastle appear a lot.
I think there are some that are more photogenic. For example, I wouldn’t say I was photogenic – I wouldn’t say I was ugly, but I don’t photograph well. It’s the same with football clubs and certain grounds. There’s some where I reckon I could be blindfolded, spun around, click and get a good picture: Newcastle, Sunderland, Burnley, Blackburn. There are some where I really want to get good pictures, but I struggle sometimes. Carlisle United became my club after Watford, when I moved up to Cumbria, and I spent more time there than any other ground. But I haven’t got as many great pictures there as clubs where I’ve only been a few times. Maybe sometimes an emotional attachment means you try too hard or you can’t get across what’s in your heart. But I’d say Sunderland, actually, even more so than Newcastle, has been the most photogenic ground. But that was Roker Park… the Stadium of Light, less so.
So much of the discourse around football fandom in this country revolves around hooligans, but they’re largely absent in your work. Was it a conscious decision to show a different side to the game?
Well, I feel like I’ve got the right balance and everyone else has got it wrong. It sounds a bit arrogant, but I really do. I really get annoyed about the sensationalism in newspapers. I understand that these are the things that stand out, but I try to keep them in perspective. I felt quite threatened in the 70s and 80s at grounds, before I started the project. But in the period when I was doing it I found it was actually quite rare to see a fight, or somebody beaten up at a football match. I saw a lot of swearing, a lot of black, bad taste humour – and I wanted to get some of that across, because that’s what we’re like. But I don’t see people cracking bricks over each other’s heads that much. So if one in 100 minutes of the football experience feels threatening, then one in 100 of my pictures would have that element of threat in it.
What is a typical match day like for you?
I have access on practically all occasions; I’m allowed to be the photographer in a bib down by the pitch. I have that privilege, I can’t deny it, but I try to take on the fan perspective, sometimes even the person who’s locked outside. Sometimes I go out and see who's left out of the ground, looking in through the cracks. I don’t want to be cliquey, showing the insider’s view because I can. I don’t go in the dressing room… that’s not my bit; that’s the preserve of the players. It’s everything outside of that that I do. I always get there first, apart from the groundsman. I always want to be there before the crowd, so it feels like my party, my stage. It gives me a slight authority. I walk round and round the neighbourhood. I do my homework on foot.
One of my favourite pictures in the collection is of Carlisle United chairman Michael Knighton getting stuck into an elaborate cake – how did that come about?
It’s the same sort of decision process I have with hooliganism; it's about how I treat people. Am I going to say, 'Look at this owner, what a wanker'? Am I going to do that? I’m a bit soft, so the way I see it is that we’re all a big family, but some of these people are my less favourite cousins. But they are still my cousins, so before I become too judgmental I have to remind myself to put up with them a bit and understand them.
Because of my involvement with Carlisle United, he liked me and made a beeline for me. We got on really well, so I had good access to him and the club. But he knew he wasn’t a saint, and I knew he wasn’t a saint. It happened at the Carlisle Christmas do – he said, "Come sit with me," and in between us were all these cakes… and he just got it. I didn’t stitch him up, but he started to pretend to eat all these cakes. There’s a bit of a "you greedy bastard" feel about the picture, but it's not a hateful one. I actually asked him if I could put it in the exhibition, and he said it was fine.
There’s a lot of humour in the pictures, but also some real heart-in-mouth moments. In particular I’m thinking about the image of a young Gary Speed.
I set out with a fairly hard head, an enquiring, journalistic sort of mind. But I also have a romantic, nostalgic side to me. I came to realise that the passing of time is the most important part of photography. I knew I was photographing something that was changing; that there would be a massive wave of nostalgia for the Holte End stand at Aston Villa when it was gone, maybe even for Michael Knighton when he'd left football. And more poignant than any of those is Gary Speed. Some people almost cry when they see that picture.
I couldn’t have known. I knew that someday he would grow old and his boyish good looks would fade. That’s what I wanted – how handsome he was at Leeds in 1991. His nature was like that as well; he struck me as a great person, so I kind of elevated him in that picture. And with what happened a few years ago, an already good picture becomes a shiver down the spine picture.
The current exhibition is based on your personal favourites. Is there a picture that really nails the ideal of what you’re trying to do, more so than any other?
A constant favourite of mine since I took it in 1995 is the picture "A Cry From Home". I took it at a club called Greenock Morton on the edge of Glasgow – they get crowds of 2,000 at best. The day started out as a sunny, great occasion, but turned into a grey, rainy one. Then the bus didn’t turn up. The poor lad at the head of the queue is waiting in the cold without his coat, soaked, crying, waiting for a bus that wasn’t going to show.It’s the "bump back to Earth" my dad used to tell me about. It had been a great day for him until then – they’d beat the league leaders, Dunfermline – but once the 90 minutes is over, what is the reality for a lot of people? Waiting for buses, fighting against the cold, looking for money, all the realities of life. That’s the country I recall from my youth – green fields some of the time, but a lot of grey and concrete and things that grind you down. It’s not the jolliest of pictures, but not a sad one either.
What is it about the UK that makes it such a fertile ground for a project like this?
In Britain more than anywhere else, the crowd and regional differences play a massive part. The Sheffield Wednesday fans sing very different songs to the Sheffield United ones just a few miles away. Some of the humour and wit is lost to other people in other cities. All the clubs in this country are bumping into each other – we think of 20 miles as a big distance; we have a very intense landscape of clubs – and none of them go under. Fifty of the 92 clubs have been under threat, but somebody always comes along to save them. That wouldn’t happen even in Italy or Germany or Spain. We're blessed with such a canvas.
Finally, having been to so many games, you’re probably in a pretty good position to answer one of the big questions: what is it about football... why does it endure? What does it bring to people’s lives?
It’s laid on a plate for you. You’d be crazy not to embrace this wonderful thing that’s better than shopping, better than going to the theatre. Charge what you like for the theatre, more people are going to the football, because they value it more. It has a Shakespearian simplicity and lyricism on top of that. There’s all the sub-plots, but the actual game is very easy to understand, so anyone – judges, the common man, half-wits like me – can all just plug into it. It's popular because it's popular, because it's good.
See more photos from "Homes of Football" below: