Mark Leech: Behind 50 years of sports photography

One of Mark Leech’s first assignments as a sports photographer was when the agency he worked for sent him to Ipswich Town’s training ground to take photos of the team for the club calendar. When he arrived, he explained to the woman behind the desk who he was and that he had been told everything was taken care of.

“Then I heard this voice behind me,” he remembers. “’Arranged by whom?’ It was Bobby Robson. And he wasn’t happy. I said: ‘arranged by my editor’. And he said, ‘I’m in charge here, I’m the goddamn manager and nobody set it up with me.’ Then he took me to his office and tore off a slip of paper. “You know nothing,” he shouted at me. And he pointed to a picture on the wall behind his desk. ‘You’re not even a real photographer. That’s a damn picture.’ It was a shot of some match action from a match a few weeks earlier. “Don’t come back here,” he shouted at me, “until you can take a picture like that.” I was only 18. I was so petrified that I didn’t dare tell him that I had actually taken it. It was my photo.”

Considering Bobby Robson was manager at Ipswich from 1969 to 1982, it’s clear that Leech has been shooting for a while. Last October he celebrated fifty years ago that he first had a photo published in a national newspaper. But the thing is, fifty years later, he’s still hard at work on the sidelines, training his lenses on the action every weekend. In fact, he still loves his job.

“I recently played Luton against Burnley,” he says, sitting in the cafe of the north London office building where he has his studio. “And when I got home afterwards, my wife said to me, ‘have you been drinking?’ I said no. She said, “Then why do you have that big smile on your face?” The fact was that I just loved being at the game. And she said, ‘I wish I made you as happy as taking pictures of Luton against Burnley’.”

Coincidentally, his half-century of joy began in less than auspicious circumstances. Actually it started with a failure. He had applied for a job at the sports agency Hayters as a football reporter in training. But he needed five O-levels and only got two. Someone said a job opened up at a photo agency, so he went along and impressed them during the interview by knowing all the players’ names in a big pile of photos with no captions. He was taken on as a general apprentice and worked in the darkroom during the week, elbows deep in developing fluid, and on match days he stood on the sidelines of London’s stadiums waiting to transport the photographers’ rolls of film back into the dark. room.

“I loved football, had the best view in the house and the first time I went, a photographer handed me a film after about 20 minutes. I stood there for a minute and then he said, ‘what are you waiting for?’ The game barely got going. And there I had to leave to go to the darkroom. I’m telling you, some of the strange creatures that hang around outside during games have to be seen to be believed.

As soon as he had developed the film, he rushed to Fleet Street and walked the newspaper sports counters selling the best pictures. It was a tough internship, working six days a week for the princely weekly return of £12. But then, less than three months after starting, he decided to buy a camera, a Zenith that cost him almost two weeks’ wages.

“I remember my father saying to me, ‘Why did you buy that? You’ll never be able to take a decent photo,” he says. “I was really motivated to show him.”

And partly to prove his father wrong, he took the camera to a match at Highbury in the spring of 1974. He was behind the goal when Brian Kidd scored. But instead of taking a shot on target, he followed Kidd as he went to celebrate with fans on the North Bank. There was a police officer sitting there, with his helmet next to him, and Kidd put it on, to great applause from the crowd. Leech took the photo and, not forgetting to grab the official photographer’s film, immediately went to the darkroom.

“I flipped it through the newspapers and got four back pages. No one believed I had taken it. It gave me a bit of confidence.”

And recently, when Manchester City came to play in the Emirates with Kidd on City’s coaching staff, Leech introduced himself to the subject of his shot.

‘He was delighted when I told him I had taken it. He said he had it hanging on the wall of his house, between a picture of him meeting the Pope and another of him meeting the Queen.”

Mark Leech: Behind 50 years of sports photographyMark Leech: Behind 50 years of sports photography

Mark Leech remains a familiar face on the sidelines, more than fifty years after he took his first professional photo: Offside

It was a photo that introduced Leech to the world of snappery. Within a month he was sent to the European Cup final in Paris. And so began a career that included seven World Cups and dozens of cup finals, glory matches and ignominious defeats. He was an eyewitness, right there on the sidelines, to the game’s biggest, most historic events. He was the only British photographer when Diego Maradona won the award Scudetto in Naples he stood next to Gazza as he celebrated his dental chair celebration at Euro 96 and he was there at the 1998 World Cup in Marseille when England lined up to take penalties against Argentina.

“Glenn Hoddle had said before the game that he had a plan for penalties, and then I could see him through my long lens in the group before the shoot-out and said, ‘I need another one,’ and David Batty said : ‘Okay then.’ ‘.”

Because of all this, he was always looking for a different angle, an unusual approach.

“People often ask me what the best football photo ever is, and might expect me to say that Maradona was facing the Belgian defense at the 82 World Cup,” he says. “But actually it was one that my hero Gerry Cranham scored in the 1966 World Cup final. It’s just after Geoff Hurst had scored his third and instead of getting a shot on goal, Gerry turned and took a ​​from the English banks to celebrate. Alf Ramsey sits motionless on the couch among all his limbs. And it perfectly captures the look on Jimmy Greave’s face that says ‘it should have been me’.”

Today, while running his own hugely successful photography agency, Leech is still looking for the perfect picture.

“The game is so much faster and more skillful,” he says. “But the principles of a decent photo are still exactly the same. Once you press the button, you still know if you have one.” While the principles remain, not much is different. Take the photo he recently took outside the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, ahead of the game against Wolves.

“I saw this South Korean guy in a Son [Heung-min] shirt taking a selfie and holding up a portion of fish and chips. So I took a picture of him and as I was taking it I couldn’t help but think to myself, imagine thinking this would happen when you first started 50 years ago.

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