An Lanntair’s latest exhibition – Great Stadiums of the North – brings grassroots football to the fore, comprising of photographs of rural football grounds in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Scotland – from John O’Groats to a selection of pitches to be found in the Outer Hebrides.
Twenty-five years in the making by photographer Brian Sweeney, Great Stadiums of the North features studies of pitches in South Uist, Benbecula, and Eriskay, as well as Tolsta, Ness, Carloway and Tarbert, alongside local stadiums from across the north and highlands of Scotland, the Faroes, and Iceland.
An Lanntair Head of Visual Arts, Roddy Murray, said: “Here is a reminder of why football is by far the biggest sport in the world. Why the game we see on TV – whether the SPL, Premier League or World Cup – is but the tip of a huge ecosystem. Because for every Hampden, Wembley, Ibrox, Parkhead, there are thousands of these ‘small’ pitches everywhere. Worldwide.
“Only they’re not small. In these northern latitudes they might be exposed, muddy, snowbound, uneven, on a slope, in a Hebridean village or a post-industrial town,” he continued.
“But they are the same dimensions as the immaculate green rectangles, framed by vast stadiums, where elite players ply their trade in front of millions. The rules are the same, the game is the same. A penalty is 12 yards from the goal-line. It’s 90 minutes.
“And every player who takes to the field, where it be in Iceland or Eriskay, is – in their own head – on the same stage. It’s the best kind of reminder that football was always and – despite everything – continues to be a grassroots game, played on grass. Not on paper, far less a balance sheet.”
Born and raised in Cumbernauld – a town twice awarded ‘Plook on a Plinth’ for terrible architecture – Brian Sweeny’s formative years were spent surrounded by 1950’s brutalism and constant debate over its crushing beauty or overwhelmingly dystopian suppression.
Whichever side you take, it would appear to have afforded Brian an eye to finding enchantment in scenes others can’t conceptualise, let alone capture.
Graduating in Print, Design & Technology from the College of Building and Printing in 1990, Brian realised that photography was the medium which allowed him to achieve his desired ends. Simultaneously, 1990’s Glasgow was witnessing the emergence of some notable scenes in parallel to the enigmatic ‘Sweeney’ – clubs were full of monsters and madness, pioneering musicians and DJs, and Brian in the corner capturing it all.
Realising there might be more to the camera game, he completed an HND at John Wheatly College and was quickly plucked to assist James Fry, cutting his teeth and making connections through a fast-paced London music scene; completing a Post Grad, with distinction, from the London Institute of Arts, and building a life working from the likes of Loaded, Melody Maker, and i-D, shooting Hip Hop, Rock and movie stars alike.
In 1995, with his growing reputation as a music and lifestyle photographer, Brian went to shoot a festival in Iceland and, near Reykjavik, passed a football pitch with a wooden stand. Not a junior club, but the stadium of the top football team in Iceland.
Three years later he moved to Reykjavik to raise a young family whilst working as a photographer and teaching at the Iceland School of Art – and here The Stadiums Tour was inadvertently born, beginning as a personal project that was soon to launch its own trajectory.
After spending a few years as a visiting lecturer at Oslo School of Art, Brian made his way back to Glasgow to settle back into the city he knew, but amongst pressing commercial work he would always find the time to visit these odd, uneven grounds; searching through his lens, finding compositions amongst the withered stands, documenting the occasional Brutalist oddity, local wildlife roaming the pitch and billows of smoke: the remnants of a recently deceased groundskeepers’ career.
In 2002, Stadiums Tour was picked up and commissioned by Adidas, and Brian’s work was suddenly synonymous with an innate feeling of private poignancy – the 2002 football World Cup, hosted by Japan, had the world engrossed in technology and flippant wealth. A display of grandeur and excess, sixteen new and purpose-built stadiums announced a domineering display of financial prowess.
In stark contrast to this was something Brian had deep reverence of, the local teams. Full time jobs, squeezing in sessions, orange segments at half-time, the team you da played in and your big brother cheered on. A game that builds community rather than prices you out of their stadium.
His images within the Great Stadiums of the North exhibition have taken on a more powerful resonance post COVID-19 and the European Super League debacle: they demand that we cast our gaze through the frame – of the goalposts and the camera – meditatively back to a simpler time, the importance that these stadiums hold to the wee teams who play there; the loyal fans cheering them on, unabated by any sense of inadequacy, a proud tradition, and unending dedication.
With quiet reverence, Brian discovered something innocently deafening – ignore the nonsense, this is what matters.
Great Stadiums of the North / Sàr Lannan-Cluiche an Àrd a Tuath exhibition shows in An Lanntair’s Main Gallery until April 15th. FREE to visit, with FREE Gallery Packs full of activities available for younger gallery-goers. All welcome!