Mark Leech: Behind 50 years of sports photography

Brian Kidd and Liam Brady - Mark Leech: Behind 50 years of sports photography

One of the first assignments Mark Leech had as a sports photographer was when the agency he was working for sent him up to Ipswich Town’s training ground to take pictures of the team for the club calendar. When he arrived he was explaining to the woman behind reception who he was and that he’d been told everything had been arranged.

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

Given that Bobby Robson was manager at Ipswich from 1969 to 1982, it is clear that Leech has been photographing for some time. Indeed, last October, he celebrated 50 years since he first had a picture published in a national newspaper. But here’s the thing: five decades on he is still hard at work on the touchline, there every weekend training his lenses on the action. More to the point, he still loves his job.

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

As it happens, his half century of joy began in less than auspicious circumstances. In fact, it started in failure. He had applied for a job with the Hayters sports agency as a trainee football reporter. But he required 5 O-levels, and had only managed to pass two. Someone mentioned there was a position going at a photographic agency so he went along and impressed them in the interview by knowing all the names of the players in a big pile of pictures with no captions. He was taken on as a general apprentice, working in the dark room during the week, elbow deep in developing fluid, then on matchdays he would stand on the touchlines of London stadiums waiting to transport the rolls of film from the photographers back to the dark room.

“I was mad on football, had the best view in the house and the first time I went along, after about 20 minutes a photographer handed me a film. I stood there for a minute, then he said: ‘what are you waiting for?’ The game had hardly got going. And there I was having to leave to get to the dark room. I tell you, some of the oddballs that hang around outside grounds when matches are going on have to be seen to be believed.”

Once he had developed the film, he would then speed to Fleet Street, going around the newspaper sports desks trying to sell the best shots. It was a tough apprenticeship, working six days a week for the princely weekly return of £12. But then, no more than three months after he had started, he decided to buy a camera, a Zenith that cost him nearly two weeks wages.

“I remember my Dad said to me: ‘why have you bought that? You’ll never be able to take a decent picture’,” he says. “I was really motivated to show him.”

And, in part to prove his father wrong, he took the camera along 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 of the goal, he followed Kidd as he went to celebrate with the fans on the North Bank. There was a policeman sitting there, with his helmet by his side, and Kidd put it on to huge acclaim from the crowd. Leech took the picture and, not forgetting to grab the film from the official photographer, headed immediately to the dark room.

“I ran it round the papers and got four back pages. Nobody believed I took it. It gave me a bit of belief.”

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

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

Mark Leech: Behind 50 years of sports photography
Mark Leech remains a familiar face on touchlines, more than five decades after taking his first professional photograph - Offside

It was a picture that propelled Leech into the world of snappery. Within a month, he had been sent to the European Cup final in Paris. And so began a career that took in seven World Cups and dozens of cup finals, glory games and ignominious defeats. He was an eye witness, right there on the touchline, to the grandest, most historic occasions in the game. He was the only British photographer when Diego Maradona won the Scudetto in Naples, he was right alongside Gazza when he did his dentist’s chair celebration at Euro 96 and he was there at the World Cup in Marseilles in 1998 when England lined up to take penalties against Argentina.

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

Through it all he was always looking for a different angle, an unusual approach.

“People often ask me what was the best football picture ever taken, maybe expecting me to say that one of Maradona at the 82 World Cup facing the Belgian defence,” he says. “But actually, it was one my hero Gerry Cranham took at the 1966 World Cup final. It’s just after Geoff Hurst had scored his third and instead of getting a shot of the goal, Gerry turned and took one of the England bench celebrating. In amongst all the limbs, Alf Ramsey is sat on the bench, motionless. And it just perfectly captures that look on Jimmy Greaves face that says: ‘it should have been me’.”

These days, as he runs his own hugely successful photographic agency, Leech is still in search of the perfect picture.

“The game is so much faster, more skilful,” he says. “But the principles of a decent picture are still exactly the same. You still know when you’ve got one the moment you push the button.” Though while the principles remain, not much else has. Take the picture he recently fashioned outside the Tottenham Hotspur stadium ahead of the match against Wolves.

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