Mark Leech, founder of sports photography agency, Offside, is a man of a million stories. Whether you’re listening to them or experiencing them through his pictures, he has a natural gift for making you forget where you are. His pictures have been on the walls of thousands of sports fans through his work with L’equipe and Shoot!, but most recently he’s become the fingers behind @welloffside, the agency’s Instagram account, which is beloved by over 22,000 sports nostalgia fans and tells the story of decades of The Beautiful Game.
He found himself in sports photography before he even owned a camera, joining his first agency as a teenage trainee and “stirring hazardous chemicals with my bare hands for twelve quid a week”. In the decades since, he’s been pitch side at World Cup finals and seen his pictures on sitcoms (“Ronnie Barker was laying on his bunk in Porridge, holding a newspaper and talking to Godber – and it was my picture on the back. I thought ‘I’ve arrived!’”). ‘Leechy’, as he is known to his friends and colleagues, has something of the classic British raconteur about him. You can imagine him with a rapt audience, listening to his brilliant anecdotes – and there are many – from a life that’s revolved around Saturdays, with mishaps, classic moments and a turn of phrase that can only come from decades spent on the road and pitchside. “I did have a couple of Saturdays off and thought ‘I’ve got to behave like a normal human being. I don’t really know how to do that.’” It’s a fair point. After all, there’s no getting away from the fact that photography is not a job for someone who likes a predictable life – and in sports photography, everyone else’s weekends are when you really start working. But the unrepeatable moments that he’s captured on these ‘sacred Saturdays’ are precisely the reason why Mark has garnered a huge following, who eagerly await his daily ‘on this day’ updates.
“Some youngsters showed me what Instagram was. I thought it was taking pictures of my breakfast and filtering them, that kind of stuff, but now I go through the archive and spend half an hour on it early in the morning – with the wife behind me saying ‘what’re you doing? Are you messing around with social media?’ I didn’t think I was getting anywhere with it, but a guy I know said ‘persevere, you never know who’s watching.’”
The account is an absolute treasure trove of historic footballing moments, both on and off the pitch. In fact, some of the most fascinating shots are not of famous players at the goal mouth, but the terraces, the turnstiles and further afield – like a terrific shot of a Sunday league game being played in a muddy park , the backdrop a concrete tower block of London flats. Or the brilliantly funny photo of football legend Sir Bobby Robson on the back of a camel. But, of course, not everyone saw the value in this kind of approach to telling a story, and as a result pictures with the kind of details that Mark cherishes are scarce. “In the beginning I’d see people taking pictures of fans at the turnstiles and generic pictures around the ground and thought ‘what’re you doing?’ I probably didn’t realise until I was in my thirties, when all the football grounds started changing, these old crumbling terraces, that this was something.”
The history that Mark and his fellow photographers captured is niche (if you can call appealing to millions of football fans niche) but these are images rich in evidence of a different age that contain details of fashion, design, architecture, even socioeconomics, that might otherwise be lost to the world. And where context isn’t readily available, Mark turns investigator. “Every picture had a reason. Why was the photographer outside Milwall v Fulham taking pictures of the fans going in that day? There must have been a reason. Have a look – it was the first match ever played on a Sunday in England.” Suddenly a simple image of fans heading into a match becomes an important moment when a way of life changed for a whole country. He cites the work of legendary sports photographer Gerry Cranham as the perfect example of this. “He would photograph team rosettes and people would ask ‘what’re you photographing those for? They’ll be there forever.’ He knew that this is history.”
Shooting on film, Mark had to “count in thirty sixes” for most of his photography life. Because of this, he has stories from a world that is nothing like the way sports photographers work today. “With my Canon I could get something top to bottom in the frame, sharp, well exposed, in colour and come away with eight or nine pictures like that from a game – and they’re your ‘Shoot!’ front covers,” he reminisces. “Back in the 1980s, that would make you more than some people would earn in a month. They [the shots] were hard to get and we got rewarded.”
“I still think about the moment Paul Gascoigne was having a blub [crying] in Turin in 1990 and I thought ‘players never came over to the fans, he’s going to walk off’. He came up, got his shirt up and I had one frame left. The big 36 was staring at me. The guy next to me had a new roll of film and just went ‘brrrrrrr’ [makes shutter sound]. The one that got away.” Today, news agencies like Getty and Reuters dominate sports photography and have set-ups that can see a goalside shot published online in minutes, but a photographer as fiercely independent as Mark could never see himself in a position of being under contract to deliver in news. “You have to go where they tell you, for a start. I wouldn’t fancy that,” he laughs. “I’ve put my head in a few times when it’s been kicking off at football matches, but I don’t think I’d be up for going off to [photograph] a civil war. I went to Rangers v Celtic once. That was enough.”
He’s a photographer, businessman, archivist and license holder for many thousands of incredible images from Gerry Cranham, the Tour de France and FIFA World Cup. He is also without a doubt the keeper of some of the most unpublishable tales in football photography history, but decades on from his teenaged years in the darkroom he has no plans to slow down. “What am I going to do?” he throws his hands up. “Buy a racehorse? I’m not going to start playing golf.” Instead, in the truest tradition of any indie business, he works with the next generation of exciting photography talent, giving them the benefit of his knack for a great story.
“I was at Wembley the other week with Charlotte [Wilson] and where we used to see a lovely line that swept up from the car park and there was the arch on top, now it’s just cranes, concrete blocks, bit of the arch there, bit of the arch there. I said ‘Charlotte, do a shot of that’ She said ‘what?’ That is the worst possible view of Wembley Stadium!’‘Yeah, so no one else will take it.’”