30 years of ‘our football’

Photographer Stuart Roy Clarke portrays nothing less than the national spirit, glimpsed through the lens of Britain’s national game. For 30 years he has been making a portrait of who we are in relation to the game of all games, our Football. Clubs big and small sit shoulder to shoulder. Stadiums rise up and others are more humble. Clarke is fascinated in them all. And in us: the people who make the football experience what it is.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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I set out to inspire the nation. And to unite the game. All I had was a box Bronica camera. And Kodak film.

I like to think of the coming of football as like a great meteorite hitting the earth. We couldn’t really avoid it. Boom! Like it happened one day. But in actual ‘fact’ the game was almost waiting to be played on this planet since the day the planet started spinning.

There is something metaphysical about why we all play the game, surely. Look at the ball’s organic, natural shape. Circular forms like this have been worshipped, cared for, and kicked around since before records began, since before the coming of photographic evidence. Fate handed us the ball.

Football was always going to happen: it was just a question of when and where… and how then it would be played. Southern Scotland and Northern England, where I have lived for so long, claim it as theirs. Jedburgh has its Ba Game and my county of Cumbria has Uppies and Downies (played regularly around Easter for hundreds of years).

These earthy sporting battles – some people may even think of as absolutely barbaric – are SO simple: you either play for the team going UP, or their counterparts going DOWN. There are no clear sides – anyone can play for anyone (even though in Workington – the land of the marras – it’s traditionally Colliers kicking uphill-wards, versus Sailors kicking down-wards).

In a world of branding and tourist this-and-that, there is something refreshing surely in this. Or perhaps something a bit left behind.

In the 1800s, parallel to, if not in step with industrialisation, football became more organised and rule-bound, accelerating quickly towards the game we have inherited today. Eleven-a-side has endured all the other changes and tinkerings made to the game.

How convenient it would be if we could just say that after the shambolic sprawling rabble-rousing street matches, working-class people militantly, yet lovingly, set up factory clubs and organised their own teams.

This is what I thought was the universal truth when I was growing up, because our local youth football leagues around Hemel Hempstead / Watford / Hertfordshire, were dominated by canny Scots who had come south from Lanarkshire particularly, to find work in modern factories such as Atlas Copco, Lucas Aerospace, Brocks, Kodak, etc… and in my mind they saw the fitba’ as an area in their lives where they could take control, boss it, do something meaningful outside of work and – being good organisers – create a legacy for their bairns and the bairns of others like them.

Some historians argue that 100 years before, the English public schools produced written rules for the handling and kicking games and it was they who seeded the game among working class people.

In any case, in the regions of East Lancashire, South Yorkshire and the Midlands, clubs recruited and paid working class Scottish ‘professors’, maestros of the feet, natural team players, to advance the game and their standings.

The great Bill Shankly, originally from Ayrshire, who rose to the very top at Liverpool, used to say about football: All you need is the sky, a ball and the grass.

Once the English FA had agreed to allow professional players in 1885, the logical next step in England was for a union of clubs, the establishing of a Football League – The FA Cup was already underway.

Regular Saturday afternoon kick-offs meant that working men could go home from work, eat and get washed, and then walk or cycle to the match. The railways meant you could even get to some away matches.

Football quickly became part of the national psyche, north and south of the border. It’s been seriously interrupted only twice, both times by war.

We talk today about the influx of footballers from abroad, but the Scots led the way in the early 1900s as they sent player after player into England. Preston North End and Sunderland, two early leading lights, invariably had more Scottish players ‘than their own’.

Back then, home-grown successful British managers were tough cookies who could bring all the necessary ingredients together to forge a winning team. Scotland, whilst a mine for players, appeared a blast furnace for producing managers. Some – like Jock Stein – actually died on the job.

Today, aside the pitch, the top Scottish League clubs have relatively more ‘local’ owners and directors than their counterparts in England. Without the huge television riches spilling out of the Premier League, the Scottish scene could be viewed as a bit behind in the march towards modernity: football a bit more akin to how it used to be.

So, we come to the photographs.
After Hillsborough and the Justice Taylor Report (enquiry) into football throughout England and Scotland, I felt myself to be perfectly placed to make an enduring, long-term, self-commissioned portrait of THE game of games. Indeed, now living in Cumbria, I could make alternate weekly trips north and south. I followed this up by organising exhibitions of my work in public art galleries, of free admission. A tour which lasted an unbroken 15 years and in Scotland included venues in Dumfries, Coatbridge, Stranraer, Kilmarnock, Paisley, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, Forfar, Arbroath. Alas, not every football town.

The photographic portrait I embarked on, likewise remains unfinished. Surely.

THE Game exhibition shows at The National Football Museum, Manchester, March 23, 2018 to March 17, 2019. The book of the same name will be published in August 2018.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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