Loon pants and bar scarves, feather cuts and Oxford bags, Doc Martens and butcher’s coats – and badges. Lots of badges. A hitherto undiscovered set of images of football fans in Manchester in 1977 by photographer Iain S. P. Reid evokes a bygone age and provides a glimpse of the game’s hold on popular culture.
The photographs show fans of Manchester clubs City and United in 1976 and 1977 and what shines through even from the austere urban backdrop and tough-guy posing is the joy and humour of being at the match. This is football culture, undiluted and unpackaged, observed for no other reason than to document the extraordinary quality of ordinary lives.
Reid was born in Edinburgh in 1948 and brought up in Trinidad, before returning to Sheffield in 1963. He gained a Fine Art degree in 1973, and moved to Manchester to study for an MA. Armed with a set of Leica cameras he started work on a series of portraits of football fans in 1976. He got a grant from the Arts Council to help him, something which sparked controversy in the local press – “I was infamous for a while” Reid wrote. An exhibition of the photographs was staged at the Frontline Bookshop in Manchester’s Newton Street in 1978.
Reid said: “The chief interest in the whole body of work was the way in which the football supporters of Manchester United and Manchester City used to dress and treat the whole match as if it were a carnival. Despite all press reports, there was very little violence, and the fans I found most helpful in assisting with the project. They were always aware of the angle I was taking with the work. I carried around copies of the photos I was going to be using to show them I was not exploiting them by misrepresenting them in any way.”
The culture shown in these pictures is entirely self-created, not handed down by self-appointed scene-setters or part of a conscious effort to package. Remember, football supporters were regarded with fear and suspicion by many in the establishment media at the time, and there was little acknowledgement in written or visual media that supporter culture even existed. Hunter Davies’s chapter The Skinhead Special in his 1972 classic The Glory Game was one of the first pieces of ‘serious’ writing about fans, and Reid’s emphasis that “there was very little violence” emphasises the proviso that had to accompany any mention of football fans in the days before anyone worked out how to sell the culture fans had created back to them.
What’s striking is the number of black and female faces in the pictures. We’re still often told that football “used to be” terribly undiverse, and yet these pictures – including a number of shots of women-only groups – show a different reality. Note, too, the youth of many of the subjects – football in those days was accessible in a way that is almost unimaginable now, something which helped it take such a hold with so many people and the loss of which still has not been fully absorbed.
One of my favourite images is the kids running down the terrace steps on a sunny day (below), inside early presumably for a big game and already enjoying the buildup.
Like the image at the top of this feature, the portrait of this group (below) against a graffitied brick wall is very much of its time, evoking the feel of a punk band’s album cover. There are a swagger and confidence that bounces out of it that probably put a few noses out of joint at the time and prompted some of the controversies in the local press.
Another favourite is the detail of the man in the checked jacket with his transistor radio pressed to his ear, listening for the latest scores. It’s an image that has all but disappeared in the age of smartphones and digital scoreboards.
And there’s a story or two to be told about this picture, I’m sure.
Reid’s pictures are a product of a time when the cultural upheaval of the 1960s was really starting to filter through to the grassroots, that Arts Council grant indicative of the progressive thinking that realised a genuine folk history had to not only be about the people but by them. Paul Wombell’s Tottenham Boys We Are Here, a college photography project carried out at roughly the same time showing ordinary Spurs fans, is from the same tradition. Photocopied versions of Wombell’s project change hands for inflated sums on eBay, and friends of Reid’s are about to launch a Kickstarter project to publish a book showcasing his work.
Reid moved to Aberdeen in the late 1970s, working on the rigs before becoming a social worker and helping homeless men and women overcome problems caused by drug and alcohol abuse. He continued to take photographs of the people around him until his death from cancer in 2000. His photographs lay undiscovered in boxes until Iain’s brother Doug posted some to a Facebook page and Paul Sorene, publisher of the Flashbak.com site, picked up on them and began working with Reid’s friends and family to share the work of a man who believed photography could improve lives.
“When we started sharing Iain’s photos on social media, the response was instant and huge,” says Sorene. “The work really seemed to strike a chord. And people wrote in. They recognised themselves, friends and loved ones in the crowd. They thought of the fashions they used to wear and what going to the match was like before TV took over. They wanted to buy the photographs and know more about Iain.”
Sorene is keen to hear from anyone who recognises themselves or others from Reid’s photos so that their stories can also be included in the planned book. You can contact the project through Reid’s Facebook page and fine art prints of Reid’s photos are available from the Flashbak shop.