It’s Saturday afternoon during the coronavirus outbreak and I have the blues. Our football grounds, like the cities and towns across the country, are silent and empty. Like everyone else, I won’t be going to a game today.
There’s something particularly sad and sombre for a football fan to see our stadiums unused and redundant. No cheering crowds or chanting. The weekly routine of supporters making their way to see their favourites, criss-crossing the country in support of their heroes, has been paused. Local pitches, which would normally echo to the exhortations of amateurs are deserted. Turnstiles locked, kiosks closed, bars devoid of punters. It’s a desolate scene being played out across Scotland and beyond.
As a photographer and football fan who spends a lot of my time combining both activities, this current period or furlough (where did that word spring from?) has allowed me to look at work on the subject of our national game by a number of other photographers. It’s always interesting to see work that approaches a subject from a different angle to oneself. For me, there is no game without the fans, and the architecture of the grounds and stadiums remains soft-focused in the background. Others take a different view.
I was delighted to discover a series of photographs by Glasgow-based Brian Sweeney in the new edition of Nutmeg, the Scottish football periodical. In an oddly prescient feature, one conceived, no doubt, before any notions of a lockdown of society and a shutdown of sport, they have reproduced a selection of Sweeney’s images from his project entitled The Great Stadiums of the North. The title is somewhat ironic. It is a playful documentation of football’s far-flung outposts in Scotland, the Faroe islands and Iceland. It is a lyrical look at venues which we wouldn’t normally associate in our minds as being hotbeds of football, but serves as a reminder just how important the game is to local communities in sparsely-populated areas on the fringes of the North Atlantic. An avid football fan and proferssional photographer himself, Sweeney has been shooting the series for over 25 years and it has been shown at various locations across Europe. A planned show at Sogo Arts in Glasgow, however, has been postponed indefinitely due to the current situation.
The images resonate charm and individuality and take us on an odyssey from fog-filled Paisley to snow-covered Akranes. Some grounds are merely rectangles hewn out of the rock. Others are mini-Hampdens, with neat rows of terracing and ramshackle stands. They are all theatres of dreams. The linear collides with the wonky in grounds which look home made and fragile. On the edge, in more sense than one. What marks the photos out is the northern light: penetrating and freezing, even when the sun is shining. It has you reaching for the Bovril, toes curling with cold. As Sweeney states in Nutmeg: “There’s no frills and flourishes on these stadiums. They’re put together in the most practical way possible, matching the local environment and often using local materials. Not too much design has gone into them, yet they have such beauty.”
When this is all over, whenever that is, then we can populate the football grounds again and enjoy the Saturday afternoons we have become accustomed to down through many decades and generations. Maybe it will be a time too to discover these wonderful little grounds, tucked away, anonymous, but still a beautiful part of the beautiful game?