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Sefton Samuels shoots and scores some of the best photographs ever captured of football and its culture

An exhibition of photos by Sefton Samuels evokes memories of football, long before the monied Premier League took over.

Youngsters watch their heroes from the fenced-in Stretford End at Old Trafford. Photos: Sefton Samuels.

Football is as much about the memories as the games. The great days, the agonising defeats, the duff players and the local legends.

It’s all about moments of nostalgia and shared histories, which mean nothing to the foreign owners whose goals are measured in bank balances, but everything to the stoical supporter.

It’s this that’s captured in an exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester, When Football was Football -– the Photography of Sefton Samuels 1960-1980s.

Celebrated photographer Samuels conjures up a world of grimy stadiums buttressed by rusty stanchions with wooden seats under tin-can roofs. Most of the crowd standing tightly together, the air heavy with cigarette smoke, the whiff of mildewy meat pies, Bovril and beer. A far cry from today’s Premier League.

Now 90 years old and still living in Manchester, Samuels’s love affair with football – and Manchester City – began as a lad growing up in the 1940s when he cycled to Maine Road, and got into the ground for 6d. (That’s about 2.5p, compared with £50 for a seat at the Etihad stadium today).

The exhibition of his photos is not only marvellously evocative of a long-lost time but also given added authenticity by the black-and-white images. It captures the spirit of the north of his younger days too. It’s hardly surprising that The Guardian dubbed Samuels the photographic equivalent of Ken Loach.

The footballing images are rooted down that same memory lane: Matt Busby at his desk in a modest office, the amiable Joe Mercer. One of Brian Clough when he was at Derby.

Action shots include City’s Mike Summerbee leaping to challenge for the ball against Newcastle in 1969. A moment from Liverpool v Stoke in 1983 frames a tackle, creating a composition that could not be more perfect had it been staged.

He snapped George Best displaying all the insouciance of a young man who knows he is a genius but has yet to learn that with it comes peril.

But the most evocative image is perhaps of the Stretford End with the Manchester United goalkeeper seemingly stranded on an empty pitch with play at the other end. Toilet rolls swirl over the muddy pitch. You don’t see that today.

When Football was Football – the Photography of Sefton Samuels 1960s-1980s is at National Football Museum, Manchester, until December 31.

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