Billy Stickland is the man behind the picture of the man behind the mask, the award-winning photographer who — with a little help from Denis Irwin — persuaded Roy Keane to pose for one of the most striking portraits of his career.
Four years previously, Stickland, the founder of the celebrated Inpho Sports Photography agency, had put together a ground-breaking portfolio of the Irish squad ahead of Italia ’90, which had been published as a supplement to the Sunday Tribune. Now, with US ’94 on the horizon, he was embarking on a sequel for the same newspaper.
“It was my idea to have him hiding behind a mask,” Stickland explains. “In my head it was about the person behind the public image. There was this stern face of Roy Keane but behind it, as you see in the photo, there’s a slight smile on his face. A hint of mischief. The human side.”
It helped that Keane had been shown a copy of the Italia ’90 portfolio, with its striking images of Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Packie Bonner, Tony Cascarino and the rest of Jack Charlton’s most famous team. But the key to getting him onside for the project was provided by his fellow Corkman and Irish international at Manchester United.
“It definitely wouldn’t have happened without Denis Irwin,” says Billy. “He was like his minder really at Manchester United, who kind of looked after him in terms of this sort of thing. So we spoke to Denis about it, he spoke to Roy and Roy agreed to do it.
“We did it in a hotel room near Manchester. He turned up, I told him what we wanted to do and he took his shirt off and went behind the mask. It was a short and sharp session. He’s an intelligent man and it’s not like he thought he was being set up. And he was fine doing it, very good.”
But Billy does admit to minor reservations about the finished product.
“I don’t think it worked 100% the way I wanted it to,” he says. “You look back and think maybe I should have chosen a bit more of an aggressive image for the mask, which we’d cut out from a team line-up. But that always happens when you’re taking a photo and you’re a bit nervous about it — afterwards you can’t help thinking maybe I should have done this or done that. But, actually, it did work.”
Billy’s favourite photograph of all these portraits is the haunting image of Paul McGrath taken before Italia ‘90.
“I never knew Paul at all but I always had the impression that there was a kind of naivety or innocence about him,” he reflects. “When we went to see him he had absolutely no problem in taking whatever photo I wanted. Some people when you’re dealing with them would say ‘I’m not doing this that’ or ‘that’s a silly idea’. But he was just so helpful and friendly, really nice.
“So I brought him up the road from where he lived and said I’d really like to shoot this beside a field with the sign that said ‘Private Access’ because of the connotations about his life and his privacy.
“I actually talked him through it, I didn’t try and put him in front of the tree knowing the sign was behind him and hoping he wouldn’t spot it. We talked about, I said I thought it was a really nice composition, and he said, ‘yeah, that’s fine’.
“So that one I really liked because, yeah, there was a certain innocence about it and everybody knew that under the surface there were the demons and stuff like that. So that was satisfying.”
Reissuing a package of these photographs to media outlets now would have been timely enough given that we’re approaching the 30th and 26th anniversaries of, respectively, the 1990 and ’94 World Cups. But, as we all grapple with the trials and traumas of the coronavirus pandemic, Billy Stickland cites an even more compelling reason for their re-release.
“It’s literally just to add a little bit of happiness,” he says. “There isn’t much going on in sport at the moment as we know so we thought it would be nice to help spark people’s memories of the good times.”