My Top 40: Stuart Roy Clarke
Stuart Roy Clarke has spent the last 25 years photographing football in its many guises. He began his (ongoing) magnum opus, The Homes of Football, in 1989, and post-Hillsborough has created a portrait of Britain’s relationship with its most popular sport that is truly without equal. By his own estimate, he has travelled in excess of one million miles on his journey around the country, visiting every football league ground – and countless non-league and amateur ones – several times over.
So if anyone is in a position to provide a definitive rundown of the Top 40 football clubs, it is surely the man nicknamed ‘Mr Homes of Football’. Today, he completes the definitive list by running us through his top 20.
I bunked off school to fall in love with this lot; now I’m scarred for life. The thing with a ground is that it becomes a second home. Ashphalt, Shrodells, Rookery, Vicarage Road End all hosted my family in turn – we relocated for seasons at a time, but always within Watford’s old spoil. The club’s rags to riches story has been fantastic, yet I would probably have loved them anyway, had they remained dire, for that is how I first loved them.
My dad’s last ever game (via television – he was terminally ill) was the 1999 Play-Off Final at Wembley. Now, in 2015, knocking on the door of the Premiership once more, do I really want Watford promoted to become so…‘promoted’? While they’re less successful they at least seem ‘mine’.
So, like a lover in fear of being spurned, I am being preemptive, casting Watford out, relegating the club of my youth to number 20.
Which is above (in terms of how it looks on the page, at least)…
19. Luton Town
The club I (thought I) hated as a boy, the antithesis of hero Watford. Growing up I was encouraged to think of Lootown as the lowest, their dishevelled Kenilworth Ground nothing more than “a chicken run”.
Hold on a mo – smell the coffee. The people at Luton Town FC are now exemplary: the friendliest, most sporting and welcoming. “PL-EE-AA-SE take a seat”. (No, not as Millwall did).
18. Charlton Athletic
A club executively managed by a capable barely 30-something woman from Belgium who is invariably on the pitch with a microphone, on the train with the travelling fans, joining in sponsored walks, fronting meeting after meeting, valiantly getting stuck into the community. Reminiscent, in a way, of how the community rallied themselves in 1990, contesting local elections as ‘The Valley Party’ and winning 11 per cent of the electoral vote.
Lo and behold, they also brought about a return for the club to their home ground in 1992, after years in the wilderness spent getting into bed with strangers and adversaries. The Valley a quarter restored, a capacity crowd of 8,337 headed down for their first match back just before Christmas. Home at last – and to stay.
17. Norwich City
My impression is that all of the 213,000 inhabitants of Norwich, plus those from the fields, would attend Carrow Road if the ground was big enough.
16. Plymouth Argyle
Their inclusion threatens to turn this Top 40 of mine into a farce. How can a club I have only visited once possibly feature?
It’s probably because they play at Home Park. The name kind of does it for me. It’s possibly because the club has never really done anything on a big stage (save for lose to my Watford in an FA Cup semi-final in Birmingham in 1984). An Argyle unfulfilled gives them a curiously appealing quality.
15. Hull City
The sleeping giant of never-won-anything infamy finally awoke in the most beautiful of all the new grounds, with a fairytale park all around.
14. Manchester City
City are showing that big can be beautiful. This club, which seemed to base its character on breaking its neck at the vital moment (the gallows humour for which it is famed ), has seemingly not allowed success to go to its head and has kept in touch with – remained true to – its fans of old.
Now they’re procuring a whole new set from across the world, many of whom never knew a Kippax or a Maine Road and have come to love City through watching them on television.
13. Sheffield United
I am in the bogs in the Bramall Lane Kop moments before kick-off, and the place is rocking to the tune of Annie’s Song (Blades Version). “Fill up my senses / Like a gallon of magnet / Like a packet of woodbines / Like a good pinch of snuff / Like a night out in Sheffield / Like a greasy chip butty…”
And, like Paul McGann in Withnail and I, I am remonstrating with myself as to why I should even want to go out there and somehow be implicated in this version of ‘a good time’ – for are these all things I really do not like?
“Na na Na na Na / Na na Na na Na / Na na Na na Na” (repeat til referee’s whistle).
12. Hallam FC
To take a trip up the hill to the home of the Countrymen and look out over the Pennine spine of England, across the rolling moors out of Sheffield, across the sloping pitch at Sandygate – which, for history’s sake, no one should level – is to experience the instant karma of the football-lover. One is in the presence of greatness, gazing on the oldest football ground in the entire world.
The even-older pub across the road, where meetings were held and teams got changed and fans gathered, could do with a bit of loving, mind.
11. Queen of The South
The telling of the fairy tale could start with something like: “Long, long ago, children, there was a club with a fantastic name…”
For, if football is to last a thousand more years, then in the grand scheme of things the 150 years we have already witnessed could be considered its infancy.
And when one thinks of it like that, one can’t help but feel that fab clubs like Queen of The South, The DoonHamers, could somehow go the way of Third Lanark – consigned to legend. They just sound – and look – too good to be true. Get there while you can.
Set the sat nav to ‘most authentic’ and prepare for cobbles. This is Oakwell, home of Barnsley FC since 1888. And they are the Tykes (wiki: rugged, hardworking with great pride in their roots), who until recently had stadium cats (get them back), who until recently had a local greengrocer as chairman.
‘Doing up the ground’ is, in Tyke-speak, to chuck fresh red paint over everything (except the white cats) or to put shiny new shards of glass on top of perimeter walls to keep the wolves out. Or the Tykes in.
9. Eyam. Stoney Middleton.
Eyam’s new ground is built on the site of a former quarry. It is most splendid, and a model grassroots ground going forward. The village is forever dragged back to its past, for once upon a time it alone hosted the plague and was quarantined. Let it be better-known now for football, for life and for escape.
Indeed, there’s time during the game to leg it down the hill to Stoney Middleton (which provided the stone for the dams on Derwent and Ladybower reservoirs) and see what the Stoney rivals are up to. Their pitch falls away so steeply in one corner that the kicker has to get his compass out or ask the centre-forward send up a flare.
8. Ambleside United. Coniston.
Two distinct clubs with Lake District picture-postcard grounds. I can’t decide which of the two I like more. Ambleside…Coniston. Coniston…Ambleside. Ambleside…Coniston. It’s the derby played out most often in my mind.
7. Newcastle United
I went to the training ground on a photographic commission, representing Sky, to ‘do Newcastle’. Bobby Robson (plain old Bobby, back then) comes and barges into me, elbow to my ribs: “So, you think you own the game now, eh? NOBBY – LOW AND HARD! DUNCAN – GET IN THE BOX!…Think its yours, eh, eh, eh?”
His arm around my shoulder came later. Him opening my exhibition at Wakefield Museum and being lost for words (“What do I say, this is about art?”, “No, Bobby it’s about your game!”) – all that came later.
The pride that you can never remove from someone with The Toon in his or her blood is that St James Park stands right in the middle of the city on a ridge, triumphant, humbling – a veritable cathedral, for as long as it is there.
6. FC United
A newish club, reinventing the wheel. All the time gathering traction. A growing band of fans singing and singing and singing their broken hearts out. They are about to get their own ground, and with it brand new hearts.
5. Bradford City
The Brontës were split. Emily would peel away to Turf Moor, whilst Charlotte and Anne Valley-Paraded it. Anne didn’t mind the occasional invite from an executive box ticket holder to eat cream cheese and see the game through glass. Otherwise, she had a thing for City’s Kop. Charlotte loved being just behind the manager, Mr. Parkinson, out in front of the main stand, strutting his elegant stuff.
Patrick Branwell Brontë, meanwhile, never made it to the game from the pub.
Everyday, at some point, I think, dream, fantasise about this club. Of a freckled gal with auburn hair. Of townsfolk of all ages attending the match. Of players walking their various routes from home to the ground, all emerging at the players’ entrance at 1.30, truly a team. They’re receiving words of kindness after a defeat from a tea lady. Or from a steward who might go unheard elsewhere.
I can taste the corner shop selling claret & blue liquorice. I can picture the big derby when it comes round again, advertised only as Burnley versus (blank, blank) because they can’t bear to see or say those two words.
And in between showers, a rainbow arc straddles in marriage the dark Pennine hills in the distance and the gleaming steaming slate rooftops of terraced streets near Turf Moor. Always near.
3. Swansea City
I don’t know what it is about South Wales that so attracts me. Had I lived there I would have probably got beaten up. I am drawn to Under Milk Wood (more violence), the Gower Peninsula, to Richard Burton’s voice, to the boredom of Blackwood (the birthplace of the Manic Street Preachers) – and to Swansea City, even more than the other FCs in this rugby land.
I watched them go up the leagues, play Liverpool at Anfield, go down again. All the way to the bottom, and almost out the door, effectively banished to Australia, changing hands here and there for £1.
That they have clambered all the way back up again from complete brokenness, to play Liverpool again, regularly, is remarkable. That one-fifth of the club is ‘owned’ (as much as anyone can ‘own’ a club) by supporters makes it the most high-profile fan involvement.
Goodison is the most awesome, most intimidating of any ground. Their ’84 team humiliated little Watford (featuring John Barnes) at Wembley in our one FA Cup final appearance. But I forgive them wholeheartedly.
I will leave that unannounced – for now…