Football Nation Map ©StuartRoyClarke
Stuart Roy Clarke took his first football photograph at Vicarage Road, Watford, in the mid-1970s. That day, he played truant from Saturday lessons at his grammar-school, caught the train, walked to the Watford ground and snuck his Instamatic camera through the turnstile. He had all day Sunday to think up an excuse for missing school.
As a young boy, watching Watford alongside his father and brother, Clarke spent half the time studying the people. He was fascinated by the crowd. At home he drew pictures of stadiums and spectators. Out and about, he took photogaphs with classic cameras. When he began hitch-hiking, he found that the fate of football teams was a guaranteed starting point for conversation.
After the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster, Clarke realised that something of national importance was decaying or dying. During the early 1990s, professional clubs were undoubtedly in a sad financial state, but Clarke saw beauty in the squalor of the grounds he visited. He decided to capture some of football’s former glories before they became the ruins of Rome. He started work on a photographic collection called The Homes of Football.
After sipping through a crack in the gate and bypassing the ticket office at the new Wycombe Wanderers ground (‘a bit like an industrial unit’), he took a famous picture of BBC commentator John Motson talking live to camera in a blizzard. At Blackburn, his shot of a man waving a crutch to celebrate a Manchester City goal (and the club’s second successive promotion) portrayed football’s healing powers. And “Sunset over Springfield Park”, taken at Wigan Athletic’s unfashionable ground, preserved a stereotypical sunset scene with blurred figures that seemed to represent ghostly generations of dreamy fans. The image was made all the more poignant by Wigan’s later departure from Springfield Park (in 1999) and their propolusion towards the FA Premier League.
Realising that he was on to something, Clarke travelled around the homes of football, from one fascinating football place to another, capturing images of character and substance. He understood that fans found real meaning in the detail of football grounds: the first sight of the floodlight pylon or a grandstand roof; the fanzine-sellers on the approach to the stadium; a ‘Players and Officials Only’ sign; a coach with the visiting team’s name on the side; a rickety tea-hut; the half-time scoreboard; a coracle outside Shrewsbury Town’s Gay Meadow ground (to collect the ball when it went in the river); a Bradford City staircase painted yellow to symbolise safety; a rolled-up match-day programme in a clenched fist; a distant view of hospitality boxes; and even football graffiti. He discovered that each ground had something distinctive. He loved the slightly scary walk to Burnley’s Turf Moor, with the occasional view of the Pennines, the sun low on the Towneley-side streets as queues formed in the chip shop. He was particularly pleased when he took his Looking Up picture of fans at Sunderland. It captured generations together, a thousand mouths ajar, heroic and wondrous people in red–and–white–striped shirts, somehow affirming football’s post–Hillsborough meaning. Stuart Roy Clarke built up a rich body of photographic art that portrayed the English national spirit through England’s national sport.
Geographers use the concept of topophilia – the love of place. Football fans, as much as anybody, have strong emotional ties to the material environment. Regular visitors to a football ground grow to appreciate the quirks of familiar surroundings. They accept defects and discomforts, rather like the stereotypical old man who sits in his favourite chair (despite its faulty springs) with pipe, slippers and newspaper at hand, perfectly content even though he knows that the house needs decorating and the roof leaks. By the early 1990s, the average English top-division stadium was the old man of Europe, eighty–eight years old, far older than the average stadium in Germany (forty–eight) and Italy (thirty–seven).
Like an old man’s home, a football ground can represent a castle, a theatre, a fortress, a refuge, a shrine, a cathedral, a site for a political rally or a tourist resort. A stadium is literally our home ground. It is a sacred place where feelings can be shown and you can be yourself. It is a therapy centre. It is a place for intimacy.
“You are close to the public,” Frenchman Eric Cantona said in the early 1990s, comparing English grounds with those in other European countries. “It is warmer. There is room for love.”
Very different to topophilia is topophobia – the fear of a place. Some rival grounds scare fans. At times, during the hooliganism era, their home ground did too. Some grounds felt like prisons. Fences and walls were built, dangerous objects were confiscated, CCTV footage recorded your every move, and police supervision matched that of prison warders. But the rump of fans still thought of their stadium as home. It still gave them an uplifting feeling on arrival. They enjoyed the smells of the grilled food, the sounds of the crowd and the Tannoy system, and the visual pleasures of a green canvas dotted with colours.
Some fans have visited their football ground more times than they have visited a close relative (or even a workplace). They understand the impact of the weather on the pitch, the angle of the sun in different seasons, the wind direction, and they can guess the attendance by a mere glance at a few telling areas of the ground.
Stuart Roy Clarke intuitively understood this culture. Football grounds were Dickensian and dilapidated but they were also soaked in meaningful history. Southend United’s Roots Hall had subsiding terraces built over a rubbish tip, three stands clad in asbestos and crush barriers that could be shaken loose, but it was still home, and some fans had been visiting there since it opened in 1955. Teams, managers, directors and players come and go, the kit changes from time to time, but a club’s football ground remained a constant … until the early 1990s, that is, when the homes of football began to change radically.
In his report on the Hillsborough Disaster, Lord Justice Taylor stipulated that all Football League grounds should be all-seated for safety reasons. In 1990, John Major reduced the pools’ companies’ spot-the-ball duty from 42½% to 40% (despite resistance from Treasury staff who thought that football was awash with money) with the proviso that the difference went to the Football Trust for grant aids to help upgrade the major stadiums. The Taylor proposal was soon limited to the top two English divisions (and the Scottish Premier League). By the end of August 1996, the Football Trust, having received £127m via the betting companies, had committed £144m to the clubs (with £114m already paid), and the total cost to the football clubs was estimated at £455m. But the launch of a National Lottery, in November 1994, dramatically reduced theTrust’s spot-the-ball income.
Stadium modernisation was a great opportunity for the building industry (and profiteers inside and outside football). In the early 1990s, football was as much about Alfred McAlpine, Taylor Woodrow and Norwest Holst as it was about Gary McAllister, Chris Woods and Nigel Clough. Football was regularly featured on the business and property pages of national newspapers, as well as in magazines such as The Economist and Construction News. Newspapers ran lots of speculative stories that simply petered out, including Arsenal’s supposed takeover of Wembley Stadium, Wimbledon’s emigration to Ireland, and Coventry City’s move 15 miles east for a possible ground-share with Leicester City.
Between 1988 and 2007, 24 of 102 League clubs moved grounds, mainly as a result of the Taylor Inquiry. Key factors were the financial value of the current stadium’s land (especially if it was centrally located in an expanding town or city), the opportunities for developing a cheaper site elsewhere, and the chances of getting planning permission for that alternative site. Some clubs decided to stay, raising development money by selling adjoining land for housing (e.g. Brentford) or a supermarket (e.g. Crystal Palace). Blackburn Rovers planned a £12 million redevelopment of three sides of their existing ground but it meant buying several terrace-houses on Nuttall Street and mills at either end of the ground. Other successful clubs wanted to move in order to raise their capacity. In 1997, Sunderland moved from the long-neglected Roker Park (capacity 22,700) to a new stadium (capacity 41,600). Stuart Roy Clarke photographed them all in flux and even held a show at the Royal Institue of British Architects.
Moving grounds was a great opportunity to rethink the whole strategy of stadium design. It raised the question of business partnerships and more effective ways of using outdoor and indoor space. Clubs looked to share new stadiums with other sports clubs, and multi-purpose ideas included golf driving ranges, five-a-side pitches, bowling alleys, conference centres, health spas, squash courts, offices, hotels and multiplex cinemas. It was also a chance to think about facilities for disabled spectators.
The symbolic meaning of football grounds is never more poignant than just before a club moves to a different stadium. After the last match at the old stadium fans hang around, sifting through their memory banks as if it were a card–index file, feeling the tears well up, perhaps even remembering a friend whose ashes have been scattered on the pitch. When Brasenose College evicted Oxford City from the White House Ground in 1988, former City goalkeeper Alf Jefferies made a special journey to the ground, stood in both goal–mouths and thought of all the wonderful times he had had there over forty years earlier.
A stadium closure usually heralded a memorabilia sale. At Leicester City, fans could buy giant polystyrene figures of ex–manager, Martin O’Neill, and former players. At Millwall the ground was thrown open to the public and bids were taken for eleven sets of gates, thirty–seven turnstiles, fifty–three stadium signs, pieces of carpet, a selection of club crests and a few wooden programme-selling booths. Patches of turf and plastic seats were available, but most of the Millwall seating was sold to Peterborough United. On the day of the sale, many fans just stood and stared at the site. A lot took photographs.
Millwall’s new stadium, the New Den, took only fifty–seven weeks to build. It cost over £15m, and the money came from the Football Trust (£2.6m), Lewisham Council (£2.6m), the sale of the old ground for housing (£5m), the stadium’s new management company (£1m), the FA (£250,000) and an underwritten rights issue (£4m). The arena was also designed as a concert venue. At Huddersfield Town’s new home, the McAlpine Stadium, two REM concerts brought money into the whole town.
Most new stadiums met with complaints about parking and traffic snarl-ups until they established new match-day routine. A national organisation, the Federation of Stadium Communities (FSC), lobbied on issues of planning applications, parking for residents and general disruption. For instance, higher stands could block the sun from houses or gardens.
Another issue was a new stadium’s name. The choices were sententious words from the English language (Pride Park in Derby), a traditional name off the map (Glanford Park in Scunthorpe), or a sponsor (The Britannia Stadium in Stoke). One trend was to commemorate club stalwarts in some parts of the new ground (e.g. the Tom Finney Stand at Preston). The Madejski Stadium at Reading and the Kassam Stadium at Oxford United were named after club chairmen. And, as Peter Corrigan wryly pointed out in The Observer, Bolton’s Reebok Stadium was named after one of the club’s trainers.
Fans were concerned about production-line stadiums which added to clone-town feelings. Some fans saw them as part of an English trend towards placelessness. The 1996-97 Premier League fans survey found that sixty percent of spectators rued the lack of atmosphere in all-seated stadiums. The League investigated further and recommended attracting more away-team fans and creating “atmosphere areas” around the ground. Bands were encouraged, and amplifiers put in the stands. There were periodic campaigns for some terracing to be restored, but football’s impetus was towards the future.
In the early 1990s, English people were faced with economic recession, negative equity, repossession of houses, war in Iraq, poll tax, unemployment and redundancy. People looked to their football club for some stability. Some people rejected the immediacy and nowness of modern popular culture and reprised what they saw as the authenticity of football’s past. Or they glorified football’s past because the late-1980s had been so awful for modern football. Also, the new generation enjoyed modern facilities and interest was at its highest for years. A new ground was a new ground for anybody who wanted it to be their ground.
Photographer Stuart Roy Clarke had captured the disappearing past at a critical time.