IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BEAUTY, BUT THE PASSION by Roland Reng
I drove to Barnsley once to watch a football match and on this occasion I
got to know Vladmir, the hamster. I was still young enough to think of discos
as an exciting place. So on a vibrant Barnsley night before the game, I
found myself on the edge of the dancefloor in a club called Hedonism.
My world was already spinning like the disco ball above me when two girls
started talking to me, telling me that I had to be student. Irritated, I said
no and told them that I was 27 and a football correspondent for German
newspapers in England. Why would they think I was a student? Because I
looked so different, they said. It seemed as if during the mid-nineties, a
student was the strangest thing they were able to think off in Barnsley,
South Yorkshire, where the coal mines long since had been replaced by
placid, green hills. If I wanted to go home with them, they asked, to take a
look at their hamster Vladimir. It sounded like the most beautiful declaration
of love and I decided, that I would let the girls decide, which of the
two I would fall in love with.
Vladimir, in a running wheel, was racing at breakneck speed through the
living room. Every time he crashed into a wall, one of the girls would turn
the running wheel around and Vladimir would start running again until he
hit the wall on the other side. Back and forth, back and forth. Meanwhile
the girls were talking to me about Lars Leese, the German goalie playing
for Barnsley FC. And if I knew, that Barnsley’s substitute goalie David Watson
managed to get a black eye at Hedonism? He had lain down on the
dancefloor to take a look at the world and the girl’s skirt from the worm’s
eye-view. One lady, probably not completely unintentionally, had stepped
onto his face with her high heels, close to the eye.
Vladimir was running and we were vividly chatting. At least I thought so.
But some time later the girls told me that it was time to go, so, completely
confused, I stumbled out into the night. They really only had wanted
to show me Vladimir, the hamster.
The next day, Barnsley played 2:2 against Newcastle United in the Premier
League. Later that night I met up with goalie Lars in the bar of the
Queen’s Hotel and Lars at some point smiled knowingly. That I obviously
had had an exciting night. “How the hell do you …”, I started, but he just
kept on smiling, and then my penny dropped: In English football during the
nineties, the players were a natural part of small town life. In the afternoon
they would play in front of 18.000 fans and during the afternoon
and especially at night they would mingle with the people, the girls, the
hamsters – no wonder a German goalkeeper in Barnsley would hear about
the mishaps of a German journalist immediately.
This familiarity and vicinity between players and spectators, this natural integration
of professional football into every-day-life, it slowly disappeared
in England in the mid-nineties. Basically, Lars and me on a night out were
first messengers of things to come in Barnsley, where until then many
people had thought of every stranger as a student. In a minimum of time
English football turned into a global game with Russian club-owners,
French coaches and a couple of teams without a single English player. Inevitably,
British football gradually lost its British etiquette.
Ten hours of drinking beers in a pub from Sunday noon to Sunday evening –
like the English Arsenal players in the beginning of the nineties – was not
the fun thing to do in your spare time for the African, French and Dutch
Arsenal pros only five years later.
The unity of players and fans, this core principle of the English game,
weakened, because players switched teams faster and faster, came from
further and further away and quite often just stayed in their self-created
bubble, where football is a serious occupation without any connection to
the place they are summoned to work in. Barnsley, Vicenza or Cottbus are
more or less the same place for these global players. This place – it consists
of a green square with white chalk lines on each side.
Stuart Roy Clarke took the pictures of British football for this book in the early
nineties, a time of major change. Yet these images are not covered with
the nostalgia of a sunken era. On the contrary, these photos deceive us,
that the flair, which makes English football unique for fans around the
globe, might have been reduced, but will survive forever. The game in
Great Britain is famous for its quirks and rituals more than anywhere else:
the handshake with the opponent after the final whistle, no matter how
hard-fought the game might have been; supporting your team to the very
last second, no matter how badly they might play, press area’s tea and
sloppy sandwiches during half time.
Many of these rituals have outlasted until today. Deliberately we ignore
the fact that they are only shells nowadays. Fans still might boo a player
of their own team for trying to get a penalty with a theatrical dive. But
strikers dive as often in England as they do in Spain or Germany. They
only do it in such a skilled way, that the spectators have a hard time recognizing
But still we all go to the stadium, because here we can dream up a world
away from reality. This dream – the unique milieu of English football lives
on – stays alive in Stuart Roy Clarkes’ photos. We see his pictures and feel: This
is England. The home of football. Back then. Now. Forever.
Especially his photos in which the camera turns away from the pitch take
you back to Great Britain: the white picket fences separating fans on the
stands of York City or these rows of identical brown brick houses leading
the way to the stadium of Wigan Athletic. Instantly I was taken by the
picture of fans, waiting in the pouring rain – of course without an umbrella,
most of them even without a hood – at a bus stop for their transport
to the stadium of Greenock Morton. You downright see the pain these
cold raindrops cause on their skin in their faces trying to hide from the rain.
This suffering for football and for your club, as well as defying and withstanding
are still the most important values of the English game, on the
stands and on the pitch. It’s all about passion, not beauty.
The most significant photo in this book though is a completely trivial one
at first glance. It shows a digger on the demolished old stands of Old Trafford.
This picture shows how English football was rebuilt with the stadiums.
On April 15th 1989, police in front of Hillsborough Stadium saw themselves
confronted with a large crowd of fans that wanted to get in even
after the FA-Cup semi-final between FC Liverpool and Nottingham Forest
had already started. To reduce the pressure on the gates and the policemen,
one gate to a single fan-block was opened. But this one was already
over-crowded. 96 Liverpool fans were crushed against the fences or trampled
to death under the pressure of the entering crowd. „It sounds cynical,
but there is a truth to it“, Liverpool’s decade-long club-decision-maker,
chief executive Peter Robinson, confessed to me years later. „The catastrophe
of Hillsborough was the catalyst for the big change to the better of
English football.” As a consequence of Hillsborough the stadiums were rebuilt
into more comfortable, all-seater arenas, the security fences disappeared.
Almost at the sme time, media-mogul Rupert Murdoch and his private TVchannel
BskyB declared football the “battering ram”, with which he wanted
to crash the doors to people’s living-rooms. Henceforth, directors and
camera-men orchestrated the working-class-game as a history of human
triumph and tragedy – an event for the whole society. Football became interesting
even for people, who were not interested in football at all.
The unexpected billions TV paid for the broadcasting rights turned the
English Premier League into the richest and therefore global league of
the world. Players now came from Senegal or Peru, kids in Saarbrücken or
Singapur now were more likely to buy Manchester United or even FC Everton
jerseys rather than the ones from 1. FC Saarbrücken or Tanjong Pagar
FC. The foundation of the Champions League in 1992 and the holding of
the 1996 European Cup were additional factors why the English game became
a world-wide entertainment-sector within the few years of 1990 to
This transformation was also found in the book-shelves at home: In 1991,
Bill Buford’s masterpiece Among the thugs, in which the reporter for the
New Yorker describes his years of travels with English hooligans, was published.
Only a year later Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby pushed Buford’s hooligan-
case-study aside as the most outstanding book on football. In a passionately
literary manner, Hornby described the love of a middle-class boy
for his club. The tenor for Fever Pitch success: the love for football had become
socially acceptable. At breath-taking speed, Buford’s hooligans, the
ugly scars of English football for so long, were pushed to the verge of the
If it’s society, politics or just sports, years of change are always the most
fascinating. English football of the nineties witnessed the arrival of French
coach Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, a bastion of Britishness, where lads like
defender Tony Adams wore two sets of track suits on warm Mondays.
They thought they would be able to sweat out the ten pints from the day
before. The press panted what this French guy with glasses wanted at Arsenal
anyway. A French! With glasses! Because of all their panting the
press only realized, that these hard-drinking lads were suddenly practicing
gymnastics with Wenger, when Arsenal won the Premiership.
The old British codes of conducts and the new professionalism of the global
game lived side by side in a beautiful ambivalence in the English football
of the nineties. These two movements crashed head-on, argued, intertwined.
Frequently, foreign football pros were slandering the British unprofessionalism,
as local colleagues showed up at the bus for an away game
carrying a paper bag filled with fast food. But before long many guest
players loved all these eccentric moments, all these antiquated rituals,
which make English football stick out. In Barnsley, local poet Ian McMillan
dedicated a poem to the German goalkeeper Lars Leese as a welcome:
“Oh Lars Leese, tall as trees, that grow in Barnsley Wood. Lars Leese, listen
please, we think you are very good.”
In Birmingham, Thomas Hitzlsperger joined FC Chesterfield on a loan basis
and was told to wait at a highway-gas-station the next day. Chesterfield’s
team-bus pulled up, Hitzlsperger got in, not knowing a single person …
and two hours later he was playing for the team. During a FC Fulham
practice in London half of the team pulled down their pants. The other
half, including German Moritz Volz, was trying to hit the naked butts with
footballs from 15 metres. Coach Chris Coleman had offered this exercise as
a reward for the winning team of a training match.
Even today, as most of us are living in Germany again, I regularly meet
with Germans who used to play in Great Britain at that time. There is this
binding feeling of 40-year-old veterans, who experienced an exciting and
by far not conflict-free border-line experience. And almost all of us share
the impression that it was the time of our life: English football. The lunatic
tempo of the game, the joy for the physical game and Paul Gascoigne,
who saw me and said: “Not another German! Do I have to talk about
damn World War again?”
In Stuart Roy Clarke’s photos you will hardly find this dawning era, this clash
of the Old and the New. His photos show what shall outlast, the timeless
peculiarities of English football. The narrow and low entrance doors
of watery painted brick-stadium-walls in St. Mirren, tea sold from a
sheet-metal-container in Clydebank. And in between a shot of Barnsley’s
small winger Martin Bullock: without shoes, wearing red socks in a heartfelt
hug with a chubby fan, two men alone in their joy of Barnsley’s promotion
in the middle of thousands of cheering people; football player
and fan united one more time in the old English bond of professional
player and spectator.
Nowadays German fans on a pilgrimage to Anfield Road or Old Trafford in
search of this traditional England are often disappointed. Irritated they
will realize that German stadiums seem to be much louder, much more
passionate. In the course of modernization a clientele of tourists has
partly occupied the English stadiums. Many take a seat as bystanders in
their expensive chairs. They want to be entertained instead of going nuts.
But if you listen closely, you will still hear the sound of the old English
football at Anfield Road or in Old Trafford: a murmured “Ah!” or a respectfully
whispered “Oh!”. While fans in Germany just reel off their atmospheric
sing-alongs completely regardless of the action on the pitch,
the English crowd is first and foremost interested in the game itself. The
silence is often devout, because the spectators are really watching to
then honour a skillful feint with the ball or a risky, but successful cross
pass with collective outburst.
It’s these moments in which I convince myself with the illusion, that football
in England still is what it’s supposed to be: a game.