I’m the only car on the road. And I’m going as slow as possible. Because I can. It’s the Lake District. And it’s 4am in the morning. Shadows dart across the tarmac, the light bounces across a huge silvery plate that is the lake. Ullswater. It’s the day before my life’s work is unveiled at the new National Football Museum. I’ve gone back – come to here – to look for what I believe is the source of The Homes of Football – something I started so completely, so earnestly a lifetime ago. It has consumed me. Somewhere here the stream became the river and one day it will become the sea…my life’s work analyzed in 3 stages. I guess now I am in the middle bit, with equal amounts of looking back as looking forward.
I am not completely alone here, at this hour. There are 2 younger men, relaxed by a fire they have made. They have doubtless been up all night, talking about this and that and, it being The Lake District, with all its beauty, they have possibly said nothing, just sat there taking it all in. It hardly got dark last night. No sooner had the shards and strips of a really late sunset over there begin to fade, then a more complete glow took hold and it started getting light. Darkness into light again, as it has been doing here and everywhere for millions of years.
This is such a big deal for me: to have my work at the newly-opening National Football Museum; I have waited years for this. I had tried as early as 1993 to propose a national football museum for No.1 Wigan Pier – Orwell surely would have approved. Then in 1995 it looked like I was working up a British Football Museum on the English-Scottish border, in Carlisle. Then finally in 1997 I took my toys to Ambleside, and created a permanent home for The Homes of Football there – in a sense a ‘national football museum’. A few years later and Preston got it together and THE official Museum opened there. Then it closed. And is about to restart up again, in Manchester, with, according to the sales manual, renewed vigour.
These two men by the all-night fire tell me that if they could they would live off the land. They caught fish in the dusk and feasted on them all night.
I’m twice their age. Mine is that lovely age, a bit scary age if one’s health is failing – and mine is not – an age when you can not only look forward and back in equal amounts but you have the advantage of now knowing what best to do. Youth is wasted on the young, it’s been said.
With a splish and a splash and that ritualistic shaking it all about getting warmed up, I am IN the Lake, swimming for that island, there. Looks so small. But the Lake is big. What drives me on is what lurks beneath. All sort of fantastical things appear to my imagination and, looking up, the towering cascading mountain rock formations take on faces: some knowing, some anguished, some judging, some quite noble, some attractive, some almost feminine – the whispy trees become elongated eyelashes to my eyes. Some of these rock faces are reclining, as if they are quite relaxed – as if they have been here for a while and will be here for a lot longer yet. We are talking millions of years. I’m a nubile.
I’ve never taken drugs in my life, nor drunk, but I imagine the feeling in swimming across such a lake with such surrounds is equivalent to what some people experience when taking drugs. Thought processes become quite hallucinatory – quite fantastic cold water swimming. Excuse this blog and all things I do if they are, indeed a bit fantastical. I swim in open water as much as I can.
So I am looking around the Lakes for clues as to what gave birth to The Homes of Football in 1989, 4 years after I first arrived here. I came much like a spaceman – not quite knowing – landed at a place called Ambleside and then on to Hawkshead for a job in a hotel, all in the darkness of a March night. I AWOKE, was handed wellies, instructed to plod to the top of the ridge oh and the next one above that and one more until FINALLY, I had arrived, something that I had never seen before, the most spectacular of views.
I fell, I fell…in love. Right there. Right then.
From that day forth there would be times when I would roll around on the ground like some demented person, hugging the grass, the roots of trees because I loved the place. It would be less conspicuous to do this IN the lake where frolicking in water appears dolphin-esque. So began my love (and fear) of lake and river swimming.
I only got as far as May 1985 working in Tarn Hows Lake Hotel however before I started to pull away from working in a hotel. Not just for the 25 girls sacked by the ruthless manager (had driven his daughter out and now thought he’s do the decent thing and drive out anyone who was not his daughter), nor for the endless temptation to go for a walk one day and just keep going, right into the heartland of this mysterious place. As a boy I had wanted to be an explorer.
Anyway, I did return to take up my duties in the hotel. And I had a radio in my room, my direct contact with the world beyond.
May 11th 1985 I listened to a horror unfolding as I prepared for the evening waiter shift. Bradford City’s Valley Parade was on fire. Killing people. Lots of people. At a football match. The commentator’s box was going up in smoke, flames all around, a vision of hell, and he was still commentating.
Only a few days later – 29th May – I was attending to the fireplace in the lounge, hoping to catch the second half of The European football Final, when, looking up at the tv, I learnt graphically of the new disaster, this time at “Heysel”. Loads of people injured, dying. At a football match. The hotel manager, the man who sacked all the girls, drawing on his cigarette, cruelly flicked from chanel to chanel interrupting the reporting. He a Scouser as well.
The years rolled on and my Lakes immersion continued – my falling in love not only with the landscape. One winter was so long and determined it provided a freeze-up of everything damp from Boxing Day until March 8th – more than 2 complete months! I saw the possibilities not just to ice-skate. The frozen tarn provided a canvas on which to write…something writ large: a message to the Gods. Someone looking down from on high – and the someone could be the brown eyed girl coming over the mountain ridge – might know it was for them. Good plan! So, before it was light, I went on the ice with the largest broom I could find.
And created a message I viewed not only as a message, but an artwork. Why else would one do something so distinct. That others could see. Wow, people were craning their necks.
Perhaps this was another marker in the road to doing The Homes of Football, for this too was something personal – comparable to my love of the football game – but on a big public scale which could be shared by others.
The following spring I took myself to Corfu. Whilst it was cricket I looked upon in Corfu Town – English cricket as opposed English football – I was impressed how my little country could give something to another part of the World which would stick. Indeed it would be held aloft…and played out day after day, for weeks on end and indeed centuries. Our mad bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron from Nottinghamshire in trying to save the Greeks from the Turks had given the country not only an army (of Albanians) but the very English game of cricket. This is how I perceived the legend (of cricket in Corfu) and this is what I wanted to believe: that we had something in my country so distilled and unique and which could not be bought elsewhere – that it was surely a gift to the World.
Football not cricket was my game. Football was moreover the game of our people in not only in England but throughout the United Kingdom. And particularly in Scotland. I was sent there to Scotland, via Liverpool and via another photographic job, by Time Out 20-20 magazine: mission – to get a few pictures evoking what it had been like for the pop group Wet Wet Wet growing up in Glasgow. Wet indeed! the piece was titled Glasgow Reign. What had fired the lives of the four young lads growing up on the Clydebank was not only the Shipbuilding cranes and the Singer factory but the glorious release to football on a daily if not continuous basis. Theye were drip fed football culture. Football ran through the very blood that boiled up in these passionate people. I learnt that Wet Wet Wet trips to Kilbowie Park (to see Clydebank FC) were intertwined with trips to Celtic Park and above all Ibrox, home of The Rangers. I photographed the Ibrox gates…heavenly-looking. In fact I had got some grease on my lens from my hurried brow and this had added to the photo – light patches of the picture just flew away. Heavenward. I had something that evoked the feeling of being a football supporter stood before the cathedral home of whatever club.
Whether Scotland had given England the game or vice-versa, I soon realised that what bound ALL our towns together was this pursuance of and love of football – these together and apart were our homes of football. I would bring them together.
The game that extended from my youth, from the back-garden goal my Dad built of wood, through being part of a club training and playing in leafy Hertfordshire, and up through the professional ranks to the gates of the big stadium experience, all of this was my territory, as it was or could be yours.
And so it began…
When I chose a route to discover Brazilian football/BRAZIL, one place stood out above all (a mons venus). No, not Rio De Janeiro, not Sao Paulo, not even Belo Horizontal but rather VARGINHA, a place within driving distance of them all. Yet a World away. Another planet.
In January 1996 (summertime in Brazil) an alien e.t. ufo was spotted and stoned by some boys (the girls who first saw it were a little kinder and just claimed that it stunk.)
The American military were said to have taken over the case, even disposing of the ‘crashed spacecraft’ in exchange for a favour (free coffee?) or was the favour all Brazil’s? …it is not clear. Indeed, some say the poor unfortunate who was stoned was a sober but particularly shoddily-clad “Little Luiz”, a well-known simpleton from Varginha City, soaked to the skin after some summer rain, wobbly and in a crouching position on his haunches.
On this day of my visit to Varginha the town is excited and invaded anew, this time with football fans from Belo Horizonte and Rio De Janeiro: Esporte Clube Cruzeiro (‘home’ team) and Vasco Da Gama (‘away’, the Belo team having forced to relocate their next 6 games to locations more than 100kms from base, after their fans threw missiles, their players fought and their directors invaded the pitch.
The mayor of Varginha is said to be coming to this very hotel where me and accomplice are staying, to see the Vasco players who are also staying here, at the Sleep Inn. There are not many hotels in Varginha. The mayor maintains he is also coming to see us…hearing of our mission.
The Varginha mayor shakes our hands many times and pats us on the shoulders. He is quite keen on the E.T. legend : a spaceship monument adorns the top end of Varginha High Street and can be seen from a long distance away. Not quite from outer space mind. He implies it was much of his doing to get the next six Serie A matches of Belo’s Cruzeiro switched to his Serie B city. If he could shake hands with himself and pat himself on the back , he would. It’s a vote-catcher. I suppose it could be an own goal if the missiles chucked about at Belo are sneaked into the Varginha stadium as well. But they won’t be. There are possibly more police here than fans.
(PHOTO of 200 military police coming down the hill towards the stadium, passing the Cruzeiro-supporting family pick-nicking in the back of their little car)
(picture some of the 200-strong horse-back riders with big rodeo hats on top of their political-canvassing t-shirts parading around the streets Sunday morning and not going to church)
Here in Brazil in a few weeks it is election time – posters are everywhere. You get fined if you don’t vote. The mayor likes us for having chosen to come to Varginha at all – during his reign – which he hopes to renew with another 4 years in office.
On Monday, after the Cruzeiro match, I hope to see him in his City Hall office and ask him what he has planned for the term ahead. Another UFO sighting…and Museum? How about a Clarke-Grange BIG picture show-on-stilts like the one we just did outside at Manchester City’s Stadium ahead of coming to Brazil?… we could present the pictures in circles and make this a World Cup hotspot for 2014? We could invite someone from outer space to open it.
With some coincidence – and there’s a few happening at the moment (like when I predicted to the second each fork of lighting the other stormy night heading south) I awoke this morning to find a special programme showing on the tv in the hotel dining-room on the Manchester City Vs United rivalry. In fact some of the Vasco players (from Rio) are watching it, over breakfast. The host presenter is Andy Mitten with his unmistakeable Mancunian twine. Even if he now lives in Barcelona. Andy has been a friend and admirer for some years.
Manchester on the small screen looks fantastic : the fans fan-tastic. I feel a little homesick… and contemplate phoning-home to hear about Manchester up norf and the Goodwood Revival down south and whether other events are passing off in the wind or the rain or the sun or all three.
An English-trait : we phone home to talk about the ”weather” back home.
Some Vasco players, comfort-eating, slip an extra sausage on their saucer-shaped fried egg, and a banana in their pocket. Get up to leave the table…
…past the receptionist : pretty, cute, curvaceous, slim, with a big head and big eyes
…doesn’t speak a word of English. I try telling her with sign language that my accomplice Lucinda is NOT my wife and can’t come to the reception desk because she is simply HAVING to have a good wash and that if possible can we have an extra room for one night more even if we HAVE to have two separate rooms.
Next I know the receptionist with the slender body, big engaging head and large eyes is on the phone arranging that the accomplice stays in ANOTHER hotel because she is smelly.
Lost in translation perhaps? (picture E.T. in UFO football shirt)
Varginha is the sort of place for rumours. And for misunderstandings. And for wild-fire. It is said that a fire-engine crew met with the alien in that 1996 incident and even doused the crashed spacecraft. And that all sorts of stories came out of the woodwork about previous sightings. And future sightings no doubt…
Mexican waves are likely here too, like at the match on Saturday night involving local Varginha team Boa… people in the crowd when thinking you are possibly photographing them, adjust their dress and breathe in and no doubt think “this could be my night”. They don’t exactly pose, but some adjust their silicon. Discreetly.
(picture a Mexican wave)
My host Bruno and I were driving around the nearby city of Curitiba (a World Cup venue in 2014) trying to establish the Brazilian character. And found ourselves searching for words and notions. We came up with: “They kiss, a lot”…”
Corrected to: “they SNOG a lot” (the French and Italians play at kissing)…”they like football!”…”they are surprisingly polite for a people supposedly Brazil-nuts”… “They LAUGH a lot”.
That day we approached Varginha – rather like the Emerald City of Oz when seen across the termite interrupted green fields from dusty red roads, we happened on a lovely little football pitch in the middle of nowhere…only to find a bar parked next to it and a horse parked next to that. Looking at us, over its shoulder, politely…
(picture Stuart on horse) no sooner had we blinked and we were transported – the owner of the horse giving us in turn a leg up, and parading us along the side of the pitch, his chest sweaty, buttons undone, beer or beers inside. He even tried take a picture but missed.
Back on four wheels, bumping along towards Oz, we mused on this kindness and saw an acknowledgement in the eye of every brightly coloured bird watching us from gates mostly. TOUCANS!! I drew them in my youth on the carpet before the tv, copying them from a nature encyclopedia.
And now, all these years later, here they were – on the road to Varginha, with some kilometres to go…
And there in the darkness, lit by the headlights, a 25 foot high statue of Pele, near the place where he was borne…
Did I ever imagine where the World’s-Greatest-Football-Player-EVER had grown up?
When I was growing up it was impressed upon us boy-footballers in England that Pele, as with Jairzinho and Tostao and others “came from Brazil” – as if that explained everything. The smiling shiny diminutive black man shaking hands so warmly with our own Bobby Moore (and about to swop shirts) at the end of the Mexico 1970 World Cup encounter immortliased in photograph and on tv …CAME FROM BRAZIL. And he was surely “the greatest”.
We believed that.
Returning from the world’s extra-terrestial-epicentre in nearby Varginha, to where we had seen in the darkness the night before the huge statue of Pele carved in wood and surrounded by love hearts in the middle of the motorway that would take most people past and away from the Pele hometown – my accomplice in framing her camera view, falls backwards down a manhole and, just as I am coming to terms with that, my eyes zoom in on a long metal spike cleanly impaled into her exposed calf muscle. It’s in deep.
Unbelievably she withdraws it, an inch at a time, withdraws too from the mantrap to take her picture, score her goal.
In the centre of the Pele town (Tres Coracoes) we ask the first person who we think might speak a word of English (and who turns out to be a doctor) of the whereabouts of the Pele home. His look of interest turns to wonderment and then to a broad smile; he knows why we have come. And, slowly lifting his hand and clearing his throat and placing the one hand tenderly on my shoulder, peers over his spectacles and points a long finger to just across the way. It’s behind me : “The Pele house is just there”.
THIS was Pele’s pavement beneath his bare feet, these were his mother’s shops, his family’s town, his father’s light and his darkness. We, now, years on, are not being sent away, redirected to a distant edge-of-town, to a shanty district not now as it was, but rather to a townhouse, bang-smack in the centre of town…where Pele grew up.
His house is slightly raised on a slope above the town’s market-cross. It has a view. And as I look down that view : it is to a football ground beyond the fruit shop and the other huddle of shops. A clear terrain, fenced off. The Pele house has its own walled-garden, almost flat. It has 3 trees, two of which could have taken a hammock – but I think mostly of footballs or things football-shaped, flying in from all angles, mostly from the head, chest, feet of a mere boy who has already perfected “the bicycle kick”, “the volley” and who had made an art of jumping way above others, straining his neck muscles, heading the ball almost back to where it came from, with power.
A beautiful light seeps in and out of every window and doorway of the small townhouse, now being prepared by a team of decorators and electricians as the PELE MUSEUM.
He grew up…HERE.
I’m thinking : “Where DOES that smile and that laugh come from? …does it come from Brazil’s past? …or does it come from the future?” It would be easiest to explain it coming from the present : it is sunny here, people feel attractive and they have their football-beautiful.
Brazil’s future is bright whereas all but 3 other countries in the World are on the backheel, recalling better times…in the past. Even in the U.S.A. which since its goldrush inception has been adding to its wealth of wealths and confidence and sense of history, is now thinking better times and best of times are ALL behind them.
Brazil is bigger than the USA if you take out Alaska. Much of that idea of America! as the land of opportunity could soon be switched from North America to South America, with warring Mexico inbetween.
Brazil has huge natural resources, as well as endless road-horizons. It has oil /sugarcane-as-oil for generations to come. It has water, the new oil. It can feed its people essentials. Berries and every fruit plus remedial herbs-in-the-jungle-not-even-discovered-yet can be added to the host of woods, wheats, cocoa already on offer. It has human resources and little cause for unemployment.
But Brazil does not think of itself at-the-centre-of-everything, but rather a little bit out on a limb, surrounded by its South American colleagues. And it seemingly likes it that way.
For years I confounded myself as to why I wasn’t more drawn to the women’s game, when I could see their optimism, their skills. More recently it suddenly dawned on me. It’s because the game has no culture. No history. No grandfather and father and generational thing. It performs as an athletic pursuit – like many Olympic events – it could be played anywhere. The ground on which whatever womens team plays is not that important. Arsenal could easily trade Borehamwood for Barnet and back again and no one would care much.
I photograph my football because it smacks of ‘the struggle’, through all weathers, including winter. A season-long when the outcome in Spring is that most teams don’t win a thing. They don’t grow any silverware. The winning isn’t really what was being tested anyway. The women’s game has now even been moved to the summer, to try and attract a new audience that is not necessarily the mens audience.
So it is today Arsenal Ladies trot out (at Borehamwood, next to a bowls club and a recreation field) to a crowd of less than a thousand to win the SUPER (not even Premier) League for the umpteenth time in a row. They are clearly very good. But few come to watch them. The Doncaster Belles bring a few – the supporters ring their bells under cover of an old wooden Borehamwood FC stand – and that starts to smack of culture to this photographer. But it could take years and seasons to get the shivery feeling going. Not just on account of it being cold. Years to invoke ‘culture’. Right now it is a merely athletic pursuit. Arsenal Ladies Athletic Football Club might be their true title.
What a game nonetheless. Belles, the original womens football force (post Dick Kerr Ladies of Everton) scare the stunning and safe hands that is Arsenal’s Emma Burns (a Pat Jennings of her ilk) only for a wayward Belle to blast the ball past her own goalie. Then ‘the goal of the season’ from the half-way line to level it up. Then a second own-goal to hand Arsenal a title which was already theirs prior to kick-off, slightly spoiling the drama for ESPN relaying it live to… thousands, if not not the desired millions.
Yes, the crowd do play their part. But each womens football club needs to get their own ground with their own graffiti.
My brother asked me ‘who would win if they played each other?’.
On the Sunday I went down to Broadwater,Berkhamsted to see my local team Watford Ladies play Colchester United Ladies in the Premiership. On the Tuesday, watching from exactly the same position in the mainstand, propped between the dugouts, I saw my other senior local team Berkhamsted FC (mens). Both matches left me enraptured. For different reasons. In the sunshine the women received their instruction from the coaches and set about outpassing United. The men in the evening gloom swore at each other to get the adrenalin going and then laid into the opposition, to let them know they were there. The Watford women got stronger but not dirtier as the match wore on playing with more and more understanding, showing no dissent to ref nor coach, listening at half-time, exhausting their opposition in the 2nd 45. The Berkhamsted men… admittedly, had an agenda (in the first match but 2 days before they had finished with 9 men with the scores at 4-4 having been pegged back three times,demanding a replay); their tactics from start to finish were “batter”, “incursion”,”prevail”. And they did 2-0.
So in answer to my brother, Berkhamsted Mens(who play at 7 or more levels below their own Premiership) would beat the Watford Ladies of the Womens Premiership by about 43 goals to 0 if they mercilessly put their mind and shoulder to it …the women would be left with at most 3 players still standing. And yet, the women play such lovely football and will again and again. They are coached right.
But for all that it is the mens game we ‘all’ find …thrilling.
No Man’s Land
Some 50 years into the organised game – about a third of the way through the short history to now – a remarkable thing happened, involving football. It defined the ultimate fan experience. Battle-lines, in the snow of a Belgium-France frontier were confused by a game of football. Figures dashing this way and a-that, slip-sliding in the snow and the sunshine, kicking a ball about. But the crowd in watching, creating a perimeter, outnumbered the players assembled into two teams of soldiers from warring Germany, France and the UK. For one day in no-mans land, football replaced war. And it was a sort of peace, albeit with crunching tackles and vociferous support. With some bag-pipe playing. This is probably the ultimate fan experience – the singing, the banter, the drinking in of a remarkable spectacle, in a rarified atmosphere, experienced by a relative few – something for the moment and something to write home about and be talked about forever more. For it happened in the midst of a World War. Of course could it have been anticipated, advertised even, the crowds would have been massive on that Belgium border. Perhaps ALL the soldiers would have turned up, some to play, most to watch. The war would have been prosecuted, stopped in snowy tracks. But, had it been known it was going to happen…it would not have happened – the generals would have stopped it.
The World Cup and particularly its Final is played knowingly or unknowingly in the spirit of and in respect of this, its peer. The ultimate of the football experience is the shared experience. That’s why we go, that’s why we play. That’s why we watch Match of The Day.
Not far below this ultimate is the private moment, the singular experience. Which might not even happen anywhere near a football match or camera. It is grandad’s scarf hanging on a peg at the foot of the stairs, within access of the front door. Perhaps Grandad is not even with us anymore. It is about all the details, of football, that mean something significant to each of us. Sometimes, those details join up.
In the UK – and maybe, hopefully, elsewhere – where your team comes from and where it plays is of an almost spiritual significance. The spirit is in the sod the earth, the touchstone that makes us human and nor heavenly beings. Hence we accept a game that is rumbustious, irreverent… crude, engaging, sexy. But being British we won’t say sexy, we would rather make a joke out of it. The team’s name, nick-name, colours, history, ground imply rootedness. To know where you come from should allow a respect for where this other, the opponent, comes from. Being a game it should not become so Serbian as to allow intolerance to the minstrel, the wanderer, the player or manager or even fan who “swops sides”. Expect derision. But keep the fences to a minimum.
Followers. Across boundaries. This term may once have infered which team you support but today it is more obviously linked to Twitter. I went through my entire 2,500 list of Followers and analyzed foremost where in the World the ‘Follower’ said they were from in their profile section. It seemed inmportant to me that in following my Twitter site called @HomesofFootball the followers would be looking for a site which helped define who they were. Over half of the followers had a clear place where they were from. Very few messed around putting Planet Earth or Zog and very few put nothing at all. In fact the order was 1.’Manchester’ 2.’London’ 3.’Nottingham’ 4.’Bradford’ 5.’UK’ 6.’Newcastle’ 7.’Sunderland’ 8.’Leeds’ 9.’Sheffield’ 10.’Glasgow’ …some put the town plus the county and even the UK or country. I then compared this chart with who these same Followers actually supported as a football team. 1.Nottingham Forest 2.Sunderland 3.Newcastle 4.Liverpool 5.Manchester United 6.Sheffield Wednesday 7.Bradford City 8.Manchester City 9.Leeds United 10.Huddersfield Town. Not so very different but it begs an understanding (and what we already knew before) that people have moved about – Huddersfield fans are living in London and less the other way around. Indeed, many are suppporting teams that have nothing to do on a UK scale with the place where they are from or even live. Now I say ‘UK scale’ because the UK is unique in this way. If you take Brazil, which is 40 times the size of the UK, it does not have 40 times as many football clubs of comparitive size. In fact it has a lot times less, and a lot less fans attending matches. They would however run the UK closer in the amount of fans who purport to support Brazilian team clubs. Not everyone goes to the match. Also, as we all know, Brazil, if not Barcelona, are the most supported or rather popular team in the World. Everyone likes them. They may be your 2nd or 3rd choice but you like them & would go out of your way to watch them, if only on tv.
Back in the UK, this debate of whether our Premier League is ever more a Global League and less an English League will hopefully run and run. For the debate to be over it would be that the PL lost its global appeal or had nothing now of the country that made it. My belief is that by the sheer weight of clubs in our country and the intensity of the clubs various support, the Premiership remains anchored to England’s sail. However, If one looks at the fledgling Englands Womens game, with its SuperLeague (a step higher than a ‘Premiership’) it has every chance of being entirely a global phenomenen because it doesn’t rely on crowds, nor grounds, nor the business that surrounds both to give it a dynamic. It could set sail at anytime, with a push from television and just a couple of big sponsors or even just one such as Continental.
Queen of The South are unbeaten in the League.
Dumfries, home to unbeaten Queen of The South ‘the pride of the south’ to whose muddy stream all are said to at sometime return (it’s your Auld Lang Syne hometown to boot, as Robert Burns is buried here) has at least 35 pubs and quite a few more hotels and Howffs. Say around 30 of these hostelries show live football on the tv, and calculating an average 40 people watch each live match then that audience is about 1,200 who leave home to go and watch football. Add to that a third of the 31,000 population having their own ‘Sky’ dishes then potentially 10,000 have their feet up in slippers with an Irn Bru watching Man United or Celtic in the comfort of their own home. Make that 5,000 as half are surely busy reciting Burns. Or making Burns. In total I calculate more than 6,000 regularly watching a match on a Dumfries tv.
Palmerston Park ground holds 6,000 and regularly gets but 1,500 for their table-topping team. In their heyday QOS regularly got 13,000 and they once got 25,000. So, where are you, let’s be having you. Or however Burns would have eloquently put it.
What’s stopping you? Is it the price??
Happy Football-Mas War Is Over (Africa…Mali)
Let’s pretend it is (over). And that widespread famine is not just around the Sahara corner. Google Earth Africa West Mali Bamako or any village in the whole darned area and you will SEE football pitches beautifully marked out as if sent down from the Gods above to ensure beautiful pasture. Last night, nudging curfew, on the bank of the River Niger, I saw the greatest game imaginable. Shades of those afternoon-into-evening games of one’s youth, mother calling you ‘in for tea’- shades of Walt Disney – shades of something peculiarly ecstatically African or even MALI-an. And that is why we came here, I guess.
Badala in Bamako is on the bend of the river. The usual scene : people washing their clothes, washing themselves, collecting water to irrigate their crops. Beauty and scruffy and natural and artificial and water-carried and human-discarded are all along this river bank. There, here, where I am fortunate, there are two goals, with crossbars, bound together by twine.
At 5pm EVERY night (there is no abandonment or postponement conceivable) (and the weather is much the same: hot or hotter or really hot or hot with thunderclaps as God says THATS QUITE ENOUGH HEAT) the young men of the area filter out from alleys and work places – some are gardeners – on mopeds, scooters, bikes and on foot to greet each other and then argue the team selection and the toss. A man, an elder nowadays, in a turquoise cape, wags his finger and utters lavish much-loved nonsense, mostly to the smaller boys who actually try and listen to him. Another man, with a club foot, who casts himself out of team selection, bangs the ground with a spare goalpost. Perhaps the Gods are being summoned …if you see what I am about to see, you would surely agree that they must be here.
Iman Mohammed will miss the game. Because of the conflict our humble hotel’s faithful gardener and occasional security guard is having to work overtime. He is unhappy at this, only. (He NEVER misses a match).
The Game is Underway
The stage is set. The daily washing removed. The pitch is 50 metres of bumps, big humps, hollows and pools of River Niger overspill flanked on the near side by prickly bushes and a few spectators. No dogs. One team are made to go bare-chested and one player is still untangling his vest wrapped over his head when a player nutmegs him. The game is underway and it’s a passing game…with some dribbling, then an uncalled for bicycle-kick, then a clutch of players jumping for …a shoe, the ball is elsewhere.
The powerful skins team are 2-0 up with barely a blink of the eye. Arguments-cum-discussions abound just as, as per always, a smallest boy is summoned to get in the water, in this case the lilac pond, to recover the ball. He is lectured about keeping his head up. And to get on with it, by a ring of Skins eager to get a third goal. A family arrives and Papa on learning that the team his end are 2-0 down urges his wife and toddlers ‘to go look at the River’. He rolls up his sleeves and starts reorganising HIS team from the goalmouth going forward.
The second smallest boy, perhaps fearing that go-get-the-ball-out-of-the-water service will soon be upon him, commits a series of fantastically badly-timed tackles sending the stars and giants of the game crashing, looking up at him. Even his own captain. Had there been a referee this small boy would have walked.
Another incident – a high-speed slip on donkey dung sends the player of the most fanciful footwork and the best-dressed, clean, airborne into a murky pool. His illuminous vest is not so eye-catching now. The fightback however is on. The scores are level. Another small boy, in goals, saves a thunderous shot in his ‘midrift’ and with tears in his eyes completes a second reflex save. But not a third. Random t-shirts abound and when the crumpled boy eventually stands up his reveals “Tell Santa not to speak to my teacher”.
Meanwhile “One Love” sets off on a dazzling run, sidestepping and skipping over all challenges, donkey dung, pieces of hose, plastic bottles, fishing nets, lost shoes, crocs (Bamako means crocodile)…to pass twice and score. 3-3. High fives. The tooth-less witch-doctor in the turquoise cape is beside himself, storming on to the pitch finger-pointing. There is so much laughter all around about everything, he won’t be heard.
Now the ball is in the bramble-bushes and five players with cuts and bleeding are hacking it out mercilessly. One turns to remonstrating the idea of ‘a throw-in’. Taken quickly. Leaving behind the four fighting the bush. This turns into an exquisite move – the throw to foot, a chip, a passing header and a cannonball of a volley with complete follow-through takes the net clean off (had there been one).
The light is fading, the teeth and eyes are smiling and, somewhere, mothers are silently willing their boys home not-too-long-into curfew, in joy and peace, their life-forces intact.
Footnote: Stuart Roy Clarke and his accomplice Lucinda Helen Grange travelled to Mali to photograph football and suddenly, unexpectedly, found themselves in the midst of a military coup. Unable to leave the country. The Mali Premier League was suspended. Local people whose lives were already on the edge were even more on the edge.
The two photographers eventually got out safely, allowed ‘to go home’.
To an extent, the import of ‘foreign players’ is there throughout the English game, not just the Premier League. The historic Northern League, 2nd oldest in the World, fiercely proud and well-run, features 45 clubs from the region …but few players can walk to the ground to play. Most of the village pit teams are fielding ‘imported’ players from the metropolises of Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough. Bobby Robson’s Langley Park can’t raise a team whether by foot, bicycle, car or jet…and are now defunct.
These proud village teams would rather have good or even reasonable import players from the city than have their pit-village name lost to the League.
I am grateful for the Premier League for co-sponsoring my photo study of The Northern League. WE not THEM are our own worst enemy. It is WE who want the best that’s out there and WE who not want nearly so much something grown organically.