Photographs in sport can do many things: evoke memories of sporting affiliation and solidarity – a moment of celebration shared with family and friends in support of a local club, a prism or rallying point for sporting memory; record historic social events which have a global significance way beyond the sports arena – the image of a focused or triumphant Jesse Owens in Berlin, 1936, for example; map processes of social change – the emergence of new female sports stars, or the transformation, captured over time, of a much loved stadium or venue. They can also symbolise moments of national and international tension and record emotions of great joy, despair or even redemption. However, analysing and especially interpreting photographs in sport can be a complex and surprisingly risky task. Pictures can, and do, have multiple meanings rather than constitute a single beguiling reality – the appearance of history itself. In short, knowing exactly what is going on in a football photograph and precisely what it means is, by no quarter, a straightforward matter.

A case in point is a very famous on-field picture of Diego Maradona in action, a world-class player captured in all his early pomp. Maradona is wearing the traditional pale blue and white Argentinian strip and already seems to be living in his number 10 national shirt. The opponents are Belgium in the opening game of the World Cup finals of 1982, in Spain. In the photograph Maradona is featured centre-stage, on the ball, and with no teammates in sight. He seems to have more than half the Belgium team in front of him and under his spell. Some seasoned internationals in red shirts seem to be fearing the worst. However, closer examination has since shown that something else entirely was probably going on here. I will return a little later to discuss exactly what.

Of course, Diego Maradona holds a very special position in the sporting consciousness of English football fans. A matter of days earlier in 1982 Britain and Argentina had been at war over the Falkland Islands and England fans travelling to Spain for the World Cup finals that summer adopted the moniker of a sporting ‘task force’ to mirror those who had been sent from Britain to fight the real war in the South Atlantic, where hundreds lost their lives. Fortunately, perhaps, the England and Argentina football teams did not meet in Spain. But they did meet four years later, in the quarter-final of the World Cup in Mexico. Relations between the countries were still strained and by this time Maradona had become Argentina’s mentor and captain. He was now an iconic figure in the world game, its undisputed star.

This 1986 contest is best remembered for Maradona scoring his now infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal. He argued later that, in a nod to the Malvinas battles, it was, “revenge … for all the suffering of the Argentinian people”. This working-class street kid, an urchin soccer genius, a pibe, is captured in a still photograph but this time in a more unfamiliar royal blue Argentinian shirt, eyes closed, left arm bent and punching the ball over the outstretched right hand of the England goalkeeper Peter Shilton – and into the enemy net. Maradona had casually drifted in with the ball from the England right flank and, after releasing it, had carried his run forward into the penalty area to follow a ballooned mis-kick from the England midfielder Steve Hodge. He looked offside. Maradona would have had to have taken flight with his 1.65m frame to be able to head the ball, but this was an action so fast, so deliberate and just so unexpected that it was difficult for the naked eye to fathom it – though some England defenders immediately protested its legitimacy. TV commentator Barry Davies was initially convinced the England protests were for offside, not handball. Only the later still photographs proved conclusively what had actually happened.

Maradona’s second goal in that game, an extraordinary, unassisted slalom through the entire English midfield and defence in a 2-1 victory, seemed like a rather beautiful adjunct to the ugliness of the first: “You want to see me score an outrageous legal goal – here it is.” In fact, it was voted the best ever goal scored in the World Cup finals, even by the English. But this wonderful second goal has no iconic, still image to fully capture its brilliance.

If the ‘Hand of God’ goal perhaps unfairly entrenched English views of the modern Argentinians as cynical manipulators of the laws of the game in contrast, for example, to the brilliance and assumed innocent flamboyance of the South Americans from Brazil, back home in Argentina the goal was widely celebrated as a clever piece of Creole knavery ('picardia criolla'), something to be used well against a reviled enemy. Significantly, too, in the UK the demonising of Maradona – and by extension Argentina – was mainly an English rather than a British trait. Indeed, the Scots rather liked Maradona, unsurprisingly delighting in his cunning destruction of England, the bloated ‘auld enemy’. The ‘Hand of God’ photograph, regarded as an affront in England, was widely celebrated north of the border, to the extent that when the famous pibe took his first Argentina team to Scotland as national coach in November 2008, Maradona clearly savoured telling the local newspaper, the Daily Record how “Scottish people love me because of the goals I scored against England”. It was pretty clear which goal, in particular, he was referring to.

As it turns out, many people still think that the 1982 photograph of Maradona holding court in the Argentina v Belgium match was actually taken during that same 1986 ‘Hand of God’ World Cup which the South Americans, under their bewitching captain, would go on to win.

Later that year, Maradona, or 'Pelusa' (‘ball of fluff’) as he was known by the Catalans, would make this his home stadium. He signed for Barca from Boca Juniors but, dogged by hepatitis and then injury, he would stay in Catalonia for only two seasons, nevertheless scoring a very tidy 45 goals in 73 games. But he failed to match local expectations – or his own – and he soon moved on to Italy, winning two Serie A titles with SSC Napoli, the first championships in the club’s history. Indeed, no club from the south of the peninsula had ever won an Italian league title before Maradona’s time in Naples. Bars in the city now typically carried two photographs next to their optics: one of the Pope and one of the great football magician.

When, a couple of years later, Maradona led his country in Naples in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Italy, the locals had their country/club identities lashed together in a desperate twist, a confusion their South American club captain did little to resolve. Whom to support? I was at this game when Maradona asked the people of the city simply to remember that Italians in the north were usually “very happy” to call his fellow Neapolitans the “Africans” of Italy. Argentina beat Italy on penalties that night in what was a tense and combustible atmosphere. Few locals left distraught.

Back in Spain, in the 1982 finals, the young Maradona had an early chance to impress his prospective new Spanish club and its supporters. Shot from behind the play and at a raised angle, the 1982 photograph has the Argentinian hovering on his toes, prancing almost in those Puma boots of his, and this time in that traditional and iconic light blue and white striped number 10 shirt and black shorts, white socks. He is caressing the ball on the end of his left foot. Directly in front of him is a tight cluster of six red-shirted Belgium defenders. These benighted Europeans appear as though held in a trance: three are lined up in sequence preparing, it seems, one-by-one to challenge for the ball, each looking like they are presuming the worst. The other three Belgians watch on, helpless and fearful that at any moment they may also be called on to intervene. Signs of Maradona’s teammates there are none: he is taking on Belgium single-handedly. First in line, and only a few yards away from the Argentinian master, is Frankie Vercauteren, a talented left-winger who was nicknamed 'The Little Prince'. Vercauteren would play 63 times for Belgium, scoring nine goals. He spent most of his club career with Anderlecht, winning league titles and domestic cups and five European trophies – another world, another time. He later coached Anderlecht and Sporting Lisbon, and by 2017 had ended up as manager of Krylia Sovetov Samara in Russia. He was no footballing amateur but here, like his colleagues, he looked out of his depth.

Years later, Vercauteren would challenge this view. He complained about the repeat use of the 1982 Maradona photograph and about its widely assumed message. It irked him. The Belgians had been runners-up to Germany in Euro 80 and they were a confident and assured team, he argued, not football lambs lined up for slaughter, not even by the emerging Maradona and his reigning world champions from Argentina. Vercauteren explained – it seems obvious now – that a free-kick had just been taken and that these Belgian players were so closely packed together simply because they were breaking from their carefully constructed defensive wall. Moreover, far from casting his spell in this game, the inexperienced Maradona had had a quiet match and was about to give the ball away in attempting a pass to a teammate who was just out of the shot. “So, for me,” said Vercauteren, writing in 2017, “the picture does not show six terrified defenders: it shows our players working perfectly in harmony. It shows how hard we worked that day.” He had a point. This was a little masterclass, in fact, in how a football photograph, cleverly conceived, can confirm a message already pre-formed in the viewer’s mind, no matter the reality. Vercauteren’s Belgium went on to beat Argentina, 1-0, on that day in Barcelona in the 1982 World Cup, an outcome which was the opposite of the message seemingly conveyed here.

Which brings me, if a little tangentially, to the work of Stuart Roy Clarke, originally a man of Hertfordshire and a Watford supporter but, more importantly, someone who has been using his camera, professionally and painstakingly, to record and report “from below” for the past 30 years on British football supporters and their places of communion. This, he insists, is a sporting subculture in flux and under threat; resistant weekend communities that are at perpetual risk, it seems, of falling completely into disarray. Of course, photographs are never simply taken but they are always made by the photographer, both in terms of how and what is shot and what is included and left out. But there are no obvious Maradona-like camera or memory tricks in play here. What you see is, broadly speaking, what you get in Clarke’s work – but he also has a story to tell about the British game and its people.

After studying at art college, Clarke worked in the 1980s as a freelancer for local newspapers, particularly the Hemel Hempstead Mail. He would arrive at the office at the start of each week and was then given a roster of jobs, some at short notice, which occasionally included family funerals. He got on the wrong side of his bosses by refusing to allow his most sensitive pictures to be sold to the national tabloids. He cared about the people he photographed. Clarke was already taking photographs at football, marking out stadium changes and capturing ordinary folk and supporter cultures, on location and entirely un-staged. Watford under Graham Taylor were flying and Vicarage Road had its sights. As a result, he got a break: he was hired for his “dream job” by the Football Trust to record the outcome of the millions that the organisation was then putting into the post-Hillsborough transformation of British football grounds. It was, as it turns out, an inspired piece of recruitment. A recent cover of L’Équipe featured some of Clarke’s photographs under the simple headline: ‘This is England’. He was respectfully capturing a culture and an epoch of convulsive change in British – but especially English – football.

Indeed, one could quite easily argue that Clarke is actually part of what is a well-established photo-documentary tradition involving the use of visual imagery to depict the ‘hidden’ experiences of spirited and vulnerable communities around the world, people caught up in periods of rapid social change and uncertainty. It is an approach which can be traced back at least to the USA at the beginning of the 20th century. Then, urban struggles and squalor and the immigrant experience in rapidly expanding American cities such as Chicago were charted in pictures by social researchers and campaigners, though by the 1920s photographs had largely disappeared from social science scholarship and only in recent years have they staged a limited comeback.

As a sociologist who has written extensively since the early 1980s about football fans and football culture I have long been fascinated by Clarke’s use of the camera to also do what some of those great US photographers managed in covering the lives of working people in the 1920s and the 1930s’ depression: shoot their subjects, often from below and looking to the distance, typically in humane, dignified and even heroic poses. The emotional character of experience is one of the most difficult things to reflect and communicate in written social scientific texts, but in his photographs Clarke is able to capture the absurdist and jubilant humour, as well as the spontaneity and creativity inherent in the British football crowd of the 1990s. But because photographs isolate a moment in time, one can also measure change by re-photographing the same or similar phenomena. As a result, it is quite possible that Clarke is able to say more in his archives of stadium and crowd pictures than academics could ever achieve about the people who watched football in Britain as the 20th century ended, and more especially about how football culture has changed in this country in the 30 years since I have known him.

Newcastle United fans, 1990

But why is it quite so important that we have Stuart Clarke’s work available to us right now? There is a simple answer, I think. One could reasonably argue – and I will – that while football in England has always been evolving it has experienced three truly transformative periods in its long history: the rapid growth of the professional game and its clubs and stadiums around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century; the period of the lifting of the maximum wage and the arrival of colour television and celebrity culture in the 1960s; and, latterly, the post-Hillsborough era of national transformation of stadia and the associated launch of the FA Premier League as what would become a uniquely global sporting product in the 1990s. We have some written texts and a few caricature press drawings covering these early 20th-century developments and we also have images and some film from the early 1960s. But in the early 1990s it was Stuart Clarke who would offer the most comprehensive, systematic and extraordinary visual record of the way the British game and its people were both adapting to, and resisting, change as we moved into the late-modern era of all-seated stadiums, global clubs, foreign owners and TV paymasters. At the bottom he was also there, deeply embedded in obscure football strongholds, monitoring more continuity than change. How fortunate we have been that Stuart Clarke has been around to capture aspects of a recent football past that is, even now, already rapidly fading from view.

Working almost exclusively on film and in colour, Clarke’s images of dilapidated ticket sheds and homely merchandise stalls, of guarded home spaces and vividly painted steps and blood-red walls at local football grounds, are matched only by his photographs of ordinary working people seeking excitement, solace and a sense of meaning and belonging through their continued collective involvement in a game which was in rapid transition. They are often pictured as fans at some of the more ragged of outpost football clubs, or else employed as coffee-makers, kit washers or burger flippers on the sport’s margins. Clarke is acutely aware of the importance of the lives of those who are labouring around or behind the scenes in the professional game, usually women. They are always photographed with a reverence, a deep respect. Local young women serving coffees or pies from a shabby stall or van can suddenly become like vaunted actresses or divas, central characters in an unlikely technicolour drama.

West Ham fans, FA Cup semi-final, Villa Park 1991

Always with a paternalistic eye for the quirky and humorously absurd, Stuart Clarke has also lovingly charted visions of British football’s barely hidden, gentle madness: kids peering round walls for a sight of the play; stray dogs apparently avidly watching matches; a man seemingly holding back time with a stick on a stadium clock; supporters leaning against friendly pylons, or else armed in anticipation with tiny parcels, party poppers or borrowed toilet rolls; freezing kids in replica kit caught up in a thunderstorm waiting for buses home; ranks of fans strangely and intensely becalmed or else in advanced moments of agony or ecstasy; and, also, burly working men captured like heroic Russian peasants in replica-shirted states of drunken joy; or perhaps inexplicably squeezed into agitated and transgressive versions of fancy dress. Once one sees Stuart Clarke’s remarkable panoramic survey of British football supporters of old and at full throttle, the sight of a large, be-whiskered middle-aged man, dressed as a fairy queen and carrying a sign at a Wolverhampton Wanderers match which magically grants his ailing club “three wishes”, no longer seems quite so outlandish. Or, indeed, out of place. You see, all human life really is here – it is just not obeying the usual rules. “A thing that you see in my pictures,” the great rock photographer Annie Leibovitz once said of her work, “is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.” You can see here exactly what she means. There is more than a deep affection woven into the football photographs of Stuart Clarke. Everything, and everyone, recorded and presented here is deemed of value and demands both our attention and respect.

Women at the coffee bar: Tranmere Rovers, 1992 

For three decades now, Clarke has been sailing on his mammoth Homes of Football voyage, moving from one intriguing football place to another, always capturing distinctive local vistas of charm, character and substance. He is still on that journey. He understands that committed football fans in Britain still find real meaning and pleasure in the idiosyncratic detail of local grounds and their surrounds: the first sight from a car, coach or train of the floodlight pylons; or the peculiar angle of a grandstand roof; images of bawling programme or fanzine sellers on the approach to the stadium that capture our attention; a historic PLAYERS AND OFFICIALS ONLY stadium sign; or a nailed together tea-hut, decked out in peeling club colours; the strange beauty of a stadium clock or of a Heath Robinson-style half-time scoreboard; or the bright yellow safety staircases on standing terraces. Even football graffiti, with its contrary messages about love or abuse, has its moment in the light. In some photographs fans are, almost literally, caught looking into the future, watching as a new edifice emerges while the final days at a loved, historic home are dutifully played out.

Millwall FC, 1990

The message here is very clear: stadiums that may be eyesores and irritants to the faithless are treated as cathedrals by true believers. Clarke reveals to us that each ground had something distinctive to report and he has built up a rich body of photographic work, one that portrays nothing less, one might argue, than the national spirit through the lens of the country’s national sport. The home football ground is not just about bricks and concrete, that is clear. It is much more about what the stadium and its spaces mean to local people: a painted wall, a jagged edge of brickwork, a small balcony, or some familiar and friendly girders can carry all kinds of messages and comfort missed by those of us who are not fans.

Holding back time: Clydebank, 1995

But it is also about how aspects of that meaning can make such venues oppressive and threatening places for visitors, the enemy. Being an away football fan is an immensely enjoyable experience – the travel and trip into potentially hostile territory alleviated by bouts of invasive singing and chanting – but it is also a kind of intrusion. Sometimes, one can feel like an unwelcome and unappreciated guest in the away end of a great football stadium. And each football club has its own message for visitors, encoded in its architecture: a spiked fence, a warning sign, or the display of intimidating home colours and emblems. You may be needed and tolerated, but you are not necessarily wanted here.

Stuart’s work has toured widely in the UK and abroad and is currently on show in a year-long stint at the National Football Museum in Manchester. ‘Showing’ his pictures, even in a sports museum, alters their meaning in important and subtle ways. Is this documentation or art? In his latest book The Game I am recorded in conversation with Stuart. We are an academic and a photographer working together trying to make sense of the past and of aspects of the last 30 hyperreal years in the British game, mainly through discussing his photographs. We make some progress, I think. Over time, fans’ relationships with photographers and the media has changed in complex ways, of course, while links between fans and players have, in some ways, become ever more distant. That intimacy of meeting for a beer after a game with a top player in a local pub has pretty much gone, certainly at the highest level. Elite players feel assailed, normatively at risk, in public places today. “Text me,” says someone who may be standing only a few feet away. And yet social media today can also give the impression of a new kind of democratisation and a direct connection to football stars. Twitter can offer an idea of what goes on behind the scenes, but it is a very managed picture. How can we get a more authentic look behind the curtain? In Manchester City’s exclusive new Tunnel Club, corporate fans can now watch that ‘sacred’ moment before the game when players are twitching and eyeing up the opposition in the players’ tunnel. It feels like a weirdly voyeuristic experience, and at a price few of us can afford.

Huddersfield Town, old and new, 1993

Stuart Clarke’s work has no real interest in the backstage of the key performers, the players. Instead, he asks us to believe that he has captured something different and very real in his images of the sport’s recent history for those who support and sustain it in Britain. Unlike Diego Maradona and the photographers who recorded his remarkable exploits, Clarke insists he has no agenda beyond a kind of naturalistic reportage of those on the margins. He certainly rejects, entirely, the distorted materiality of the digitalised images produced today; those which can be enhanced or manipulated. He also recognises the importance of his relationship of trust with the people he photographs. No Clarke picture holds spectators or other subjects up for our inspection and possible ridicule.

Finally, he is no simple nostalgist; he is not bemoaning the loss of a specific kind of supporter culture or brooding over the current state of the game in Britain. Instead, he says that he is largely “cheered” by the fact that in the 1990s the British people – more perhaps than their government – were shown at this moment of deep crisis to care very deeply about their clubs and their football culture. “Collectively,” he says, “we cried at Hillsborough and at the events of 1989 and collectively we responded to them with some spirit of togetherness and ingenuity.” We “rolled out the red carpet” for the game’s return to possibly – who knows? – a new golden period. We prioritised it and got the whole thing rebuilt and rebooted with some care and with some love. And, crucially, we had someone – Stuart Roy Clarke – who with skill and great dedication was able and willing to record exactly how it all happened.

The Game (2018) is published by Bluecoat Press

The Game: 30 Years Through the Lens of Stuart Roy Clarke, continues at the National Football Museum in Manchester, until 17 March 2019