A look back at 2016, some of the faces and places I’ve encountered in a momentous year of choice, change and contradiction, through the lens of my camera.
One of the unexpected spin-offs of my recent exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh has been the opportunity to look more closely at the subject of emotional responses not only to the photography on show, but to those associated with the game of football itself.
During my recent ‘In Conversation With…’ event at the gallery, myself and writer Kevin Williamson contemplated the different emotions that football engenders, both from the perspective of the fan and, in this case, the gallery visitor. I described the intense feeling of melancholy which comes over me around 4.30pm on a Saturday, irrespective of whether I am watching a game, covering a match with my camera, or merely listening to the scores and commentary on the radio (or more likely following it all on social media these days). That intense, but temporary, low comes not as a consequence of how a particular match is going (is my team winning, losing or drawing?) but rather from the realisation that a weekly ritual is almost at an end. Building towards a Saturday afternoon involves a series of internal triggers and mechanisms, few of which I recognise nor understand. Until recently, I had been blind – or better to describe it as unaware – that this melancholy was a part of a routine, an internal clock which winds round and tightens in expectation. As stated, the release comes not from the result of a game, but from a realisation that the growing anticipation begins, in fact, shortly after the final whistle one Saturday and reaches its next crescendo around 3pm seven days later.
So much for all that. I have always been very sceptical about people who show their emotions as a result of the score in a particular match. Not for me grown men crying at some minor infraction such as a relegation or a cup final defeat. These are mere synthetic reactions, controllable, indeed preventable. When faced with the obvious truism that football is not a matter of life or death (and we’ll excuse Bill Shankly his assertion that it is more important than that), how do we arrange and prioritise our emotions in relation to what we would term ‘real’ tragedies which have engulfed football? Thinking specifically of the reactions to the Hillsborough disaster verdicts recently, these emotions are completely genuine and understandable. We can comprehend where they come from and empathise with the grief and heartache of the victims’ families, denied justice and truth for so long. It took me a long time living on Merseyside to ‘get’ the depth and scale of Hillsborough. The sense of grievance and loss was often camouflaged by other emotions around that particular football club and its supporters. The question now becomes what is a ‘good’ emotion, and conversely what is a ‘bad’ emotion when laid bare by football? Maybe it is less a question of categorising our emotions, but rather understanding that each-and-every-one of us has a trigger and that at some point we will show our feelings, whether it is anger, joy, relief or celebration? Our history, investment (in the emotional rather than the financial sense) and the footballing community in which we involve ourselves with are the building blocks of our emotions.
And so it came to pass last Saturday. Having spent over 40 years watching and photographing football, being involved intensely as a supporter but more so as a detached observer of other peoples’ emotions, I was overwhelmed by what was happening as my team, Edinburgh City, won a match and achieved promotion. Big deal, you might say. But part of the premise behind the When Saturday Comes exhibition was that followers of smaller and lesser clubs invest just as much emotion into their teams as the fans of soccer’s giants. If a club has 10,000 more fans than mine, it doesn’t mean that their experiences and emotions are some many thousand times more important than mine. The size of the club doesn’t matter. The scale of the emotion is equally weighted. On Saturday, for the first time, I momentarily crossed an emotional Rubicon between being a working photographer and a fan. Would I have done the same at Hillsborough in 1989? Would I have put my camera down as a response to what was happening in the surrounding chaos? I can’t answer that, and I don’t wish to trivialise it by speculation.
What I do know is that in one, glorious, spontaneous moment on Saturday 14th May at around 4.50pm, I lost control of my emotions and celebrated as wildly and freely as any fan or any club anywhere in the world. And once I had wiped away my tears, I continued shooting.
A small gallery of emotions…
With just a handful games left to play at their historic old Boleyn Ground, West Ham United fans gather for a London derby against Crystal Palace. Fine spring sunshine brings the crowds on to the streets early and the pubs and cafes are doing a brisk trade a good couple of hours before kick-off.
I catch the mood as I arrive at Upton Park station. There’s optimism in the air. The Iron, as they style themselves, are on the up, chasing a European place next season and contemplating the much-talked about move to their new stadium at nearby Stratford. Whilst it may be a wrench to leave their present surroundings, the demands on football clubs to become global brands is driving the project and most supporters seem content with the prospect, especially as season ticket prices on offer are low and the present scramble for tickets will be ended by the increased capacity at the new ground.
Sweeping down towards the stadium, past the famous Ken’s Cafe, stuffed with memorabilia and full English breakfasts as well as full English people, I arrive at the Boleyn Ground: its ersatz towers either side of the main entrance lending an air of a kitsch amusement park. The stadium is ringed by burger vans, indeed the quantity of mechanically-recovered meat being greedily consumed really puts the iron in irony: the modern-day football fan is the antithesis of an Olympian athlete, yet West Ham will soon reside in the Olympic Stadium. I surmise the only green shoots I’ll see on Green Street today will be the pitch. I’m not wrong.
Momentum builds inexorably towards kick-off time, with fans jostling around the clogged up narrow streets which act like arteries funnelling fans in the direction of the Bobby Moore stand, the Chicken Run and the less-traditional sounding Betway Stand. I look for sharp-suited East End geezers, skinheads with braces or maybe smartly-attired casuals, but all I encounter are people of all ages, sizes and genders in replica kits, the scourge of modern football. There’s a business-like air with fans going about their fortnightly routine behind smiling, contented faces. They pour out of the Boleyn Tavern, arriving in their seats just in time for the trademark cascade of bubbles and the singing of the accompanying theme tune as the players walk solemnly onto the pitch.
The game is feisty, short of real quality and with the odd surprise. Palace take the lead, the delayed reaction amongst the away fans suggesting this hadn’t been expected of a team yet to register a league win in 2016. Still, the Hammers find their poise and are winning by half-time. I don’t see either goal, preferring to study the stands for signs of life. I find plenty.
Half-time brings a parade of supporters from West Ham United overseas fan clubs, marching to rapturous applause and song. Americans, Israelis, Iraqis all in step together. Remarkable.
The second half is disjointed and increasingly bitter. West Ham are reduced to 10 men and then to hanging on as Palace sniff an unlikely win. They fall just short and it ends 2-2. No-one goes home happy. “It’s just like back to the old days,” complains one fan as he exists the stadium for what could, conceivably, be his last visit as sunshine gives way to a miserable drizzle. After 112 years at the Boleyn Ground, there are plenty of old days to remember. And much to look forward to. But it won’t be the same, even if at present the grass does appear greener on the other side.
To view a fuller selection of images from the day, please visit the WSC Photos website.
With the football season in full flow and gathering pace, I am delighted to announce the launch of a new creative venture in partnership with one of north west England’s finest and most historic non-League clubs.
With the help and cooperation of Marine FC, I have created a special souvenir postcard, depicting the club and its supporters during a match this season against Ilkeston at the Marine Travel Arena in Crosby. The first in a series called Football Landscapes of England, the postcard reflects what I love most about non-League football: intimacy and informality mixed with passion and commitment.
Chairman of the Marine Supporters Association, Dickie Felton, was instrumental in supporting the venture and getting it off the ground. He told me: “We are thrilled to work with such an acclaimed photographer as Colin on this project which captures the unique atmosphere of our club. The images on the postcard are wonderful and they will be a big hit with not just our fans but anyone who loves the beautiful game.”
From my base in the North West, I have covered matches at home and abroad for the monthly magazine When Saturday Comes for the last decade. And although there’s little that beats the thrill and excitement of internationals or Premier League football, non-League football is the game’s beating heart and the environment I am happiest photographing.
A first edition limited run of just 250 postcards costing £2 each will go on sale at Marine’s FA Trophy match against Kidsgrove Athletic this coming Saturday, 14th November, kick-off 3pm. It will be available exclusively at the club shop and social club and the aim of this partnership is to promote Marine FC and my own football photography.
With almost comic timing, just as a mini-retrospective of my Scottish football photography is about to open, When Saturday Comes magazine commissioned me to cover a match back where it all began for me.
In less than a fortnight, my contribution to Document Scotland’s The Ties That Bind exhibition will launch at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. My project is entitled When Saturday Comes after the publication which has allowed me to cover matches from internationals to non-League over the past decade.
With all the photographs selected, printed, framed and ready to go on to the wall at the prestigious Edinburgh venue, last Saturday was back to business: a Scottish Championship match between Hibernian and visitors Alloa Athletic at the city’s Easter Road Stadium. I have been there many times before: as a photographer, as an away fan (I jumped ship for neighbouring Meadowbank Thistle in 1979) and, as a young lad, an ardent supporter of the Hibees.
Set against the backdrop of the forthcoming exhibition, walking down Easter Road seemed poignant and timely. I tried to recall as much as I could about what it was like back in November 1974, when, at my dad’s side, we made our way to see my favourites take on Morton in a top tier Scottish League match. So much has changed, but so much remains the same. The boyish enthusiasm of other young lads is the same as it ever was. Swaddled in green scarves, hurrying over the Crawford Bridge, the raw pre-match excitement is tangible. A whole week’s waiting is over. Seven days’ anticipation since that last game nearly at an end. Conversations snatched, the quickening pace towards the ground, then the shuddering halt and the seemingly endless queueing to get in.
Easter Road, the main artery which brings columns of fans to the game is eerily familiar. The difference is the colour and light spilling on to the pavement from assorted shops and stores. Back then, everything save the pubs would have closed down Saturday lunchtime. The smell of ale from Middleton’s reminds me that football was much more a man’s game in the 1970s. Denim flares, swearing and a hard-but-silent aggression permeated the air. Trouble lurked, not in fixtures against Morton, Clyde or Arbroath, but games against Hearts, Rangers and Celtic which would be off-limits to me for the time being.
I am reminded of how Edinburgh and Scotland continues to change. Mobile phones, kebabs, penthouse flats. If we could even imagine what these were in 1974, it was because they inhabited the realms of science fiction, Tomorrow’s World or the sort of exotic holidays few people ever ventured on. There’s a mix of peoples too. The Polish deli is busy, black and Asian faces punctuate the crowds, as supporters mix with locals at the corner of Edina Place. The past unfurls in front of me in a whiff of tobacco smoke, another habit changing with the times.
The stadium gleams, bathed in autumnal light, a temple of modernity and functional design. Gone is the corrugated, dark green main stand, a menacing hulk stalking the touchline. And swept away too is the vast open terracing, so large it once helped accommodate 65,000 people at a 1950s derby match. Today the crowd is a much more modest 7,774, including 79 boisterous away fans from Clackmannanshire, housed in splendid isolation at the old ‘Dunbar’ end. This is second tier football, a recognition that this club which eternally promises much and should deliver more, has but a couple of League Cup successes to its name since those heady days of my youth and Turnbull’s Tornadoes.
As with some many clubs I visit, the past is repackaged in a constant reminder of sweeter times. There’s a Famous Five stand, populated by unregulated and unruly kids, who spend most of the match running up and down and imploring the Hibs substitutes to sign autographs. Nostalgia is in plentiful supply, but fans of Hibernian FC still demand that things are done in a certain way: winning is not enough, it never was. Hibbies demand victory with panache and style.
Today they get the former spiced with a little of the latter. At times it’s like a training match as Hibs cocoon their opponents in their own half, and but for some profligacy, the winning three-goal margin would have matched the five-star performance of Pat Stanton and co. that day in ’74.
Proceedings complete, we shuffle along Albion Road into blinding sunlight. Happy Hibbies heading home. I reach the corner of Easter Road and remember the sweet shop which once stood opposite. Much to my bemusement as a 10-year-old, it sold its wares by the ounce, not in packets. It was charming, old fashioned and slightly eccentric. Not that different from the football team it shares Easter Road with, really.
The match will feature in the November issue of When Saturday Comes magazine, which will hit the newsstands around 10th October 2015.
You’ve listened to the song. You’ve read the magazine. Now, see the exhibition.
When Saturday Comes, a collection of my photographs from around the grounds of Scottish football, opens later this month at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
The selection to be shown was chosen by the gallery’s Curator of International Photography Anne Lyden and helps form an exhibition entitled The Ties That Bind which presents the work of the four members of Document Scotland, the collective I helped form in 2012.
The title of my collection comes from the name of the football magazine which commissioned me to take the photographs. Over the last decade, I have been fortunate to work as one of the main contributing photographers for When Saturday Comes. My involvement with the monthly publication actually started in the 1980s, long before I took up a camera in anger, when I wrote occasional features for them. As co-editor of a notorious football fanzine, my views on Scottish football found a wider audience with the magazine’s UK-wide circulation. Ten years ago, I covered fans’ team FC United of Manchester’s first-ever match for the Observer and the photos came to the attention of When Saturday Comes. Since then, I have been to matches on their behalf at home and abroad, covering everything from Champions’ League and internationals to the lowest rungs of organised competitive football. My heart is always in the lower and non-League game, and this is reflected in the content of When Saturday Comes, the exhibition.
One of the most interesting aspects of the curatorial process of putting together the When Saturday Comes series, was that Anne Lyden is not a football fan, therefore she approached the subject from a different perspective to me. Her choices were fascinating to see but very much reflected my main interest in the sport: the smaller clubs in Scotland, often sustained by a hardcore of dedicated administrators, volunteers and supporters, whose commitment to their teams is something I am familiar through involvement with my own club, Edinburgh City.
I hope you can find time to visit the exhibition: the contributions of my Document Scotland colleagues Jeremy Sutton Hibbert (Unsullied and Untarnished), Sophie Gerrard (Drawn to the Land) and Stephen McLaren (A Sweet Forgetting) form part of a unique and diverse view of life in Scotland today, and look at our nation and its identity through the common riding festivals in the Borders, the life and work of women farmers and the links between Scotland, Jamaica and slavery.
The show opens on Saturday 26th September, 2015 and there are artists’ talks that day by all four Document Scotland photographers. The show runs right through until 24th April next year and takes place in the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery at the SNPG. Admission is free.
Document Scotland: The Ties That Bind is part of the IPS (Institute for Photography in Scotland) 2015 Season of Photography, a series of exhibitions and events taking place across Scotland from April to September 2015.
Colin McPherson and Document Scotland would like to acknowledge and thank Creative Scotland and the University of St. Andrews Library’s Special Collection for supporting the making of the work for The Ties That Bind.