I was looking for something pure in the football world.

Stuart Roy Clarke

Author of books on mass gatherings: football and pop music festivals, serial exhibitionist (in museums and galleries mostly), commissioned and supported by all the football bodies at one time or another. Road-tripper extraordinaire. Look out for me. Mostly in England.



July 14, 2014

Stoke City football club had recently got me to photograph their goliath matchday versus Arsenal to help sell tickets for next season (good call – they won handsomely and my photographs were fab); Scottish government had commissioned me – this Englishman – to photograph their entire clutch of professional clubs that they could paint a togetherness picture of Scottishness in 2014; the English FA had me as artist-in-residence for a year at their shiny new palace of football excellence and home of the national teams, St.George’s Park.

Glorious respectable shackles all. Yet I wanted something MORE. Or even less.

I’d not so long before had month-long drives through Brazil, Africa, and continental Europe – all in search of football. But now I could settle to something quintessentially English whilst looking for football’s belly-button.

Given the hysteria surrounding World Cup and Euro’16 campaigns, Qatar and Fifa, I was promising myself a journey to the centre of the football world… somewhere only I would reach, via road trip.

I find it with a finger poke into the map. I can get to The Hope Valley Amateur Football League from all sorts of directions, taking in the Peak District as I go; that will do me nicely. Landscape plus people. Undiluted, hype-less football accessed by horsepower.

 A peopled landscape of knitting-needle factories, mineral extraction, cement works, hypothermal spring water bottled at Buxton…

Handbrake away! A whole scroll of destinations. Dry stone walls and flocks of sheep interspersed by green pitch enclosures crisscrossed with white lines plus a bit of a clubhouse thrown in. Grassroots football. Essential England.

Seen from above (a plane flying into Manchester or Leeds) this peaky place appears a modest-sized understudy to the Lake District (where I’m from) – lighter brown in colour, less terrifying – a walnut shaped blob rather than the huge spoked bicycle wheel of Lake District Wordsworth eulogy.

There’s literature here also, mind. I’ve seen glimpses of this place already, slouched in a chair: in films like Pride And Prejudice, in books like Jane Eyre. A peopled landscape of knitting-needle factories, mineral extraction, cement works, hypothermal spring water bottled at Buxton, ‘the gateway to the Peaks’ in the west.

Another way to Hope is via Matlock Bath, relative to the famous Roman one, but quicker to the kiss and to the stick of rock and to “No Vacancy “Vacancies”; shades of Blackpool. From the north you can come at this Hope Valley via gritty old Glossop and grittier Barnsley, passing reservoir upon reservoir – dam good day trip territory for us 21st century tourists – even if originally designed to feed the masses toiling in hardcore mills and mines of neighbourly Lancashire and Yorkshire.

You don’t need much petrol in your tank. To an American this would be pocket-England – no four wheel drive necessary – roads are good and taverns a-plenty.

Enough of all that sort of industry…why I feel so sure that I am in the absolute eye of the football arousal is that The Hope Valley League is one of the oldest in the world. Indeed Derbyshire as a whole I could investiture as the home to the home of football (just look at his face!), the place of football revolution, for it is surely here that ‘the derby’ match began way back in modern history. Two teams from close proximity contesting the ball, rather than a mass of everyone chasing the knave Cromwell’s head up the road.

Here I shall find myself, roaming Derbyshire, in hope – just turning up and seeing what I can see. And if it’s not photogenic, I just move on – there is always another amateur game to go to a few miles further up the road. One Saturday afternoon I get to photograph bits of fully five matches, coming to rest in the pub-club of destination number 5, at Calver, who ONLY field players from Calver. Quite some ask -what an honourable attempt at organic rather than shipping in random players from people-rich conurbations of Sheffield, Derby and even Manchester.

Here then before me are the Calver-ites, post match, post inadequate showering – their muddied faces and finger-nails offering me a round of pizza. I’ve done five games whilst they have run themselves silly for 90 minutes plus extra-time, even playing through a lightning storm (the referee on a death wish refusing to stop the match).

I love this level of football. The mudroots.

At the ‘Stretfield’ home of Bradwell, defending League Champions 2012 & 2013, I cut through the mud at kick-off to get, unannounced, right up close to the captains tossing the coin in the centre circle… they even pose for me. I become a player, part of the play. I savor the role.

To look to the left and then to the right I take in all 22 players who will decide this outcome. One has his hands stuffed down his shorts, another is picking his nose, several are faking warm-ups, the keenest ones eyeing their counterparts.

Let the contest begin!

I leave the pitch for the touchline: I can go behind the goals, walk cheek by jowl with the manager going through his paces and vocabulary, plonk myself on the naughty step before the undressing-rooms, beside a grassroots wag fingering her text messaging. If I want I can even leave the immediate scene – go up the hill for an overview – and see how this ‘football match’ looks to the Gods.

I can jump in the car and point the sat nav in the directions of “Dove Holes” or “Railway FC”, “Blazing Rag” or “Chinley”, each gaining legendary status in my imagination. Yes I love this. I can obsess.

I do a stint of telephoning managers and club secretaries before and after matches to get their take on proceedings. Mr RailwayFC tells me that defeat is expected, but that through it all – demotions, name changes, ground moves, scandals of whatever kind – he will continue doing everything for the club: he will be at any one time Manager, Secretary, Chairman, Groundsman, Fund-raiser, Transport. He prefers it this way – on his own, overseeing his club, his boys.

Attending a game in the small market town of Bakewell, my mind had wandered to thoughts of the history of the area. Then an uurgh and an aargh from the fields of play refocusses me.

Bakewell’s two football teams United and Manners often play their fixtures on adjoining pitches, simultaneously. Like now. A ball goes up into the big tree and then descends, bagatelle-like, rattling through the branches before dropping onto the other’s pitch mid-action. Spectators swivel on the park benches to get double their value for money action (actually there is no admission charged, no programme offered, no refreshments and rarely a bod circulating to flog you half-time golden goal fund-raising raffle tickets). A player, substituted, sulking, storms past me declaring “**** this! never ******* coming back”. “Young man that would be foolish” I say (for this much I instinctively know: this is valuable, the time of your life).

On the nearby bridge are hundreds of padlocks locked to the rail, symbolizing commitments…shackles. Lovers putting them there. Bereaved having put them there. I go and buy one from Boots chemists and inscribe it “To the Hope Valley Football League ever my love, Stu x”. Lock it to the rail.

Then lob the key into the water rushing underneath.

And check I still have my car keys.