Sports fans and, for that matter, anyone with even a passing interest in the human condition, are in for a treat if, waiting under the tree for them on Wednesday morning, they find a copy of ‘Heroes’, the newly-published collection of 25 years of work by Ireland’s Inpho Sports Photography Agency.
Herein, courtesy of the agency’s team of ace snappers, are stunning portrait and action shots of many of the greats of the sporting world, from Diego Maradona to Brian O’Driscoll and from Sonia O’ Sullivan to Katie Taylor, as well as some of the defining moments in sports history, freeze-framed for all time.
But the unsung heroes are acknowledged too, not least the casts of thousands without whose passionate backdrop the legends would not seem to walk so tall. And, appropriately, perhaps, it’s those fans who get the cover all to themselves in Donall Farmer’s spectacular shot of Cork and Limerick supporters stoically enduring a monsoon-like deluge in Thurles in 2006.
Inpho was established in Dublin by Billy Stickland and James Meehan in 1988, some seven years after the former took his first serious steps as a professional sports photographer when Vincent Browne, then editor of ‘Magill’ magazine, commissioned him to cover the 1981 Munster hurling final between Limerick and Clare. The World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Israel at Windsor Park – the game which sent Billy Bingham’s team on to their fabled appearance in Spain in 1982 — came next, and after that it was onwards and upwards for Stickland: the Tour de France, the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the Rugby World Cup in 1987, Euro ’88, Italia ’90, and beyond.
There are some memorable pictures from those assignments scattered throughout ‘Heroes’, a lavish colour and black and white compilation whose publication has been made possible by the sponsorship of Canon.
Absent, however, are the ones that got away, like Ray Houghton’s goal against England in Stuttgart in Euro ’88.
“You’d miss a lot in those days,” Stickland concedes. “Nowadays if someone blows their nose in a match there’s about 20 different angles on it. Everyone has brilliant cameras.
“If someone scores a goal there’s hundreds of pictures of it whereas there wouldn’t have been when I was starting out.
“What happens – and it happened a lot in those days – is that cameras would run out of film. So, 36 frames and then it runs out, you take the film out and load the camera again – and that’s exactly what I was doing when Ray Houghton scored. I did get him when he finally came over to the corner. But by then all the emotion had gone. So that was disappointing. But, like I said, in those days it didn’t matter so much. Nowadays, if you missed that, you’d be shot. Because everyone else would have it and the television would have 120 angles of it.”
Two years after Stuttgart , Billy was at Italia ’90 – and, as he remembers it, firmly in the zone.
“People think sports photography is lucky,” he reflects, “as in, if you take so many photographs, why wouldn’t you get the shot you want?
But I actually think that there’s a huge mental element in what we do. And if you’re in the right frame of mind, despite the fact that you can’t control events, things do actually seem to happen.
“I remember at the 1990 World Cup, I was absolutely buzzing at the whole thing, went into every match with incredible enthusiasm, and the photographs flowed.”
Including a famous picture of Paul Gascoigne in floods of tears. The shot was taken after England had been knocked out by Germany , when the players were still on the pitch saying their goodbyes to the fans. By that point, most of the photographers were already packing up their gear but Billy still had his camera to hand and when Gazza, jersey held up to his nose, turned his red-eyed gaze directly into the lens, what resulted was one of the defining images of Italia ’90.
“Well, it was from the English point of view certainly,” Billy agrees. “And every time England qualify for anything now it reappears. Like before Brazil next summer, I’ll have at least four or five phone calls asking for that. People think I must have made an absolute fortune out if it. In fact, I didn’t, but I did okay. The photo is nothing special technically but it’s just that it’s Gazza and it says something about what happened to him at that World Cup but also in terms of what a tragic figure he’s become.”
Reporting from the sports frontline in those days was, at least in retrospect, a pretty rudimentary affair, Billy recalling that when away for a long period at a major tournament it was quite normal for him to send his work back through the post to the ‘Sunday Tribune’. Alternatively, photographers on assignment would do something which, even if the technology had never moved on, would be frankly unimaginable in our post-9/11 world.
“Something we’d often do,” he recalls with a grin, “is go to the local airport, look for the flight to Dublin and then go up to a passenger and ask ‘could you take this package back for me?’ Then we’d have someone at the other end to pick it up from them. The other thing was that, anytime we went anywhere, it was like we were emigrating. You’d have the wire machine, the modem, the processing gear and even the little white sachets of developer which obviously looked just like drugs (laughs). But that’s the way it was. I went on the Lions tour in 1997 and I had about five or six big cases of stuff. And it was no problem. There was no weight restriction, security was more relaxed.”
Has the digital revolution been a help or a hindrance?
“It’s much better in the sense that it’s easier to take photographs but in terms of the demands on photographers it’s made it much more difficult,” he observes. “You know how newspaper deadlines have changed. Like, when I started out working for the Tribune, there was a late edition that would go about 12.30 (on a Saturday night). So if I was doing a match in Paris (in the afternoon), I would leave five minutes from the end, fly from Paris to London, then London to Dublin, go into the dark room and have a photograph for them by ten or ten thirty that night. And they’d be delighted. But, nowadays, say down at the Aviva Stadium, within five minutes of the match starting, we’d have 20 or 30 photographs already on people’s desks.
“Papers that would once have got five or six pictures in a day are now getting, literally, a thousand in. It’s a completely different dynamic. And it’s become more competitive because anybody can have a computer or camera now. So the quality and ease of taking the photographs has improved but the downside for me is that it has become much more of a service industry. Starting out now in the way that I did would be very difficult.”
Away from the pitch, the track, the ring and the racecourse, seeing a conceptual photographic idea move from drawing board to fruition is something which still gives Billy Stickland enormous satisfaction.
And, from Kevin Heffernan to Rory McIlroy, there are plenty of striking examples of the form in ‘Heroes’.
“You don’t have the same control in action photography as you do in feature photography,” Billy points out. “And, if you approach it in the proper way, you will be amazed by what sports people will do. The proper way is to make them feel that they’re making the decision and also that they’re comfortable with it and that they know you’re not trying to stitch them up. What we would do a lot of times is take a mock-up of something and then show it to them. And, to be honest, we haven’t had many refusals.”
Back in the white heat of the arena, and as a sports fan himself, has he ever become emotionally involved to the detriment of the work?
“No, that’s never ever happened to me,” he says. “Although there have been matches, with Ireland playing, where I’ve been financially involved (laughs). By that I mean, if Ireland qualified for the World Cup we’d do really well as an agency. And so I’ve been sort of nervous about the result. But the thing that every photographer will tell you is that if the occasion was brilliant but you only got shite photographs, the whole country would be celebrating except you.”
Happily, looking back over more than a quarter of a century behind the lens, Billy Stickland finds far more reason for celebration than regret.
“My life as a sports photographer has just been amazing,” he says. “If you’d told me back in 1985 about some of the things I’d get to do, I just wouldn’t have believed you. There’s been loads of ups and downs and pressures but, actually, it has been brilliant, just outstanding – the travel, the people you meet, the creative part of it.
“A lot of the real highs were the first time I did something – like the first day I covered the Tour de France. And all it was, that first morning, was the peloton going by, but I was going, ‘Wow – this is amazing’. Then there was the World Cup in ’86, and Brazil were playing Spain in Guadalajara – and, again, I’m thinking, ‘I’m photographing Brazil here, in a stadium in Mexico ’.
“I remember those moments as real highs and if you could bottle that feeling and inhale it before every match, it would be fantastic.”
Fortunately for the rest of us, ‘Heroes’ comes close enough to doing just that.
*‘Heroes – The Best Of Inpho Sports Photography’, published in association with Canon, is in the shops now.
“This photo of Alex Higgins was taken during a break in a game at the Irish Open in Goffs. He’d had a guy running to him every 15 minutes with vodka and orange. You could drink then, you could smoke then, it was extraordinary. And he was trollied by this stage. And you can see the sweat under his arms. Emily O’ Reilly (then a ‘Sunday Tribune’ journalist, now European Ombudsman) was with me. She’s a very good-looking woman and he was showing off to her. He just came out the door, saw her and went like this. And I was right beside her so I just took the picture. It was all very amusing and I was just going with flow.”
“This was for a series on the Irish squad before Italia ’90. Paul is just one of the most generous people, a very kind man. He knew exactly what I was doing with this photograph. This was near his house, up in Manchester . I had seen this ‘Private Access’ sign and when (journalist) David Walsh finished talking to him, I said to Paul that this is what I wanted to do. And he was just completely okay with it. I tend to ask people not to smile. I think the serious expression is better. And you can see that here. I think I would have said something like, ‘Paul, can you look down this way, yeah, yeah, a bit more serious, that’s good’.”
“It was the first penalty shoot-out of the 1990 World Cup and they hadn’t really made serious contingency plans for where the photographers should be. So when that game went to penalties, the Italian stewards didn’t know what to do. At either end behind the goal-line there would have been a whole line of photographers so all of us just poured over the hoardings and up the sideline because that’s where you’d get the angle on the goal. There was mayhem and all the stewards came rushing and pushed everybody back. But for some reason they just left me and one other photographer there. I have no idea why. But it was the perfect position. I had the whole goal covered but the fact that he dived towards my side obviously helped. The shot brings back happy memories for me. The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing and it was just fantastic to be there and to be Irish. It was just a fairytale.”
“The idea with Rob Henderson is that we were doing a book with the Irish rugby team, spending a year with them. So we needed to get a balance between the training, the matches and off the field stuff. I thought Rob, who I knew well, would be brilliant for that shot. He’d love it. And when I suggested it to him, he said, ‘sure, no problem’. So we went down to his house, he pranced around naked for two or three hours, we took the photograph and I was really happy with it. But when we submitted it for the book, it didn’t get in. Because the IRFU thought it was a little bit too risqué. I tried to convince them. It was just after the Sydney Olympics and the entire Australian Olympic team had posed naked for a fantastic book. Also, the thing about athletes is they have great bodies and they love their bodies – so why wouldn’t you? (Laughs). So, yeah, the first time this picture has been seen is in ‘Heroes’.”