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 350,000 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 runs us through numbers 40-21.
40. Bristol Rovers
Rovers by name and by nature. A club without its home ground for the entire 26 years during which I have been doing The Homes of Football – my opus – in which having your own ground is central to the plot. A home ground is a touchstone, the one material thing passed down through the generations and which, more than anything else, defines a club’s character.
You might ask how, then, have Bristol Rovers never snuffed it as a club when every game is ‘away’? Well, it’s not a miracle. It’s down to their supporters – supporters such as Kitty, who has been to every game since 1954. Her son Peter, 70, a retired postman, says “Mum is Rovers through and through. Nothing will stop her coming to games.” Yes, Kitty’s 100 years old. Her Rovers are coming home soon – and in her lifetime. You City slickers had better up yer game.
Bring on the next generation. Fly their flag. In fact, it’s a bit of a jolly roger. The English Channel divides the club formed as recently as 2011 from every single team they play. Their home, Footes Lane, is on an island. They have to pay the travel costs for teams to come and play them from mainland England. And they are holding their own. Boasting crowds of more than 1,000, they are the best-supported team in the countless pyramid divisions, behind FC United of Manchester.
38. Aldershot FC
It’s the hot summer of 1990. Spencer Trethewy, young, suited and promising, licks open the door hanging on its one hinge, spins his revolver and puts it back in its holster. Aldershot are saved thanks to Spencer, who answered the call to SaveOurShots. However, the nation didn’t have their eye on him – everyone else was too busy watching Italia ’90. Spencer is in fact penniless. Within a year, he has failed and fled; the club (which fielded half of Britain’s internationals during the war) left to bleed to death. This army town has lost its football team.
What keeps me on their train is that the young, cherubic refugees who came to our home in the leafy Home Counties from London during the swinging sixties, battered and bruised from growing up in Battersea, all supported Chelsea FC. I still think of them when I break out into random verses of ‘Blue Is The Colour’.
36. Leeds United
Dirty Leeds. They were so easy to hate back then, dressed in their untouchable white under Don Revie. But now they are irrepressible again – their away support is fantastic, witty, often shoeless and sometimes insolent. (They will call it being ‘Yorkshire’). English football somehow needs a Leeds United.
They hold odd, popular, unrivalled bonfire day rituals in the Sussex town. And the flame has now spread to the club at the Dripping Pan, no longer the site of monastic industry. Or even cricket. Every football match here now is an event – a happening, a shining, film-like. Indeed, a cinematic blockbuster poster is made in the run-up to every home game, weaving the visiting team into the plot, the script, the acknowledgements, the respect due. English eccentricity is alive and well down here: beach huts have been installed to overlook the pitch, ridiculing corporate boxes.
That bloody bell. You want to stick it up the sailor, it’s sooo annoying. It’s more of a clanging chime of doom, given their spectacular demise. But the supporters have kept the club going. There have been casualties, of course. I miss that ticker-tape reception they seem to have disposed with, and the associated ritual of not taking down Christmas decorations until the club are out of the FA Cup. That tradition probably ended in 2008 when they won it. Christmas all year long is just too much to bear, even for Pompey.
33. Heart of Midlothian
Is there a charge for being drunk on football atmosphere? You know you shouldn’t – yet you still do. Tynecastle is a temptress, the most intoxicating ground. To go up its side streets is to get lost in its whiff. 100 per cent foreigners could fall 100 per cent in love with this club, formed from the Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club. 100 years ago, Hearts contributed their entire team to the Football Pals Battalion to fight in World War One.
On stormy days North Sea waves 200 feet high wash over the stand, soaking the five fans and a child on the beach side of the ground, depositing heaps of haddock on the pitch, which the players swerve to avoid.
Nicknamed The Red Lichties, after the lantern used to guide fishing boats back to Arbroath’s safe harbour, they are having a storming 2014-15 season, and could get promoted.
31. West Bromwich Albion
Back in 1993, I staged a football art show for Lords and MPs in The House of Commons. “Silence for the Speaker” rang out, and a hush came over the chamber… The speaker arrived and promptly belted out “BOING BOING BAGGIE BAGGIE BOING BOING BAGGIE BAGGIE BOING BOING”. Betty’s delivery that day has stayed with me: there is surely something in that West Midlands water.
30. Wolverhampton Wanderers
When I think of Molineux, I think of Robert Plant wandering around before kick-off, buying the latest scarf. And I think of another supporter, of a new generation: a 16-year-old named Ollie Floyd, raising money for the Watford fan beaten up and critically injured by a gang of Wolves after their recent three-all draw.
The most stylish-looking fans in their deep, deep blue. But fancy having to put up with those young tango-esque upstarts, United, down the road at Tannadice, their floodlights casting shadows over Dens Park, literally a stone’s throw away.
28. Dundee United
Come the derby away day the players, hair lacquered, suits in place, handkerchief peeping, prize open the dressing room door and walk the 60 metres to Dens – where they quite often win.
27. Derby County
Crowds of 30,000 every week for a team outside of the Premier League? Respect! Pride! And Gabbiadini played for them.
Do I support them? Not as such. Yet every time I point my camera anywhere near them I get good photos. How is that? Oh, and Gabbiadini played for them.
Club rules dictate that anyone who wears the shirt must come from, or live in, Calver. And given this command, the young step up to the plate. All positions get filled – save for goalie. “I will do it,” says the groundsman with greying hair.
They sing ‘You Will Never Walk Alone’ like no other club. On a par with Liverpool! Is it an attempt to steal the king’s clothes and put them on show in Germany? Or, rather, is club Kaiser paying someone – English football – a humongous curtsy?
23. Belper Town
The Christchurch Meadow ground is flanked by an Anglican church and a huge Victorian mill. The three pillars of society side by side: factory, religion, football.
22. Glossop North End
Glossop could have been as big as Arsenal. But alas, the man who went on to develop Arsenal went south to develop Arsenal! Waving goodbye to this club, nicknamed The Hillmen, at the foot of Snake Pass. You can always pick out GNE AFC, since the hugest flagpole (an industrial chimney) marks their spot, reaching to the heavens. And around this merry pole lives a club of all ages that wins just about all the community awards there are to win.
The longest unbeaten run ever by an English club side. Arsenal boom out all of England’s football history from the red half of north London. Modernity too. Knowledgeable fans in an interracial heaven. Great team after great team after great team is schooled here. Beautiful football.
To be continued…