Not every photographer who visited Roker Park did so on behalf of Pravda, albeit the Slovak equivalent of the official Soviet daily. Dave Hewitt*, lifelong Baggie, explains the background, tells of the day he photographed Kevin Ball holding a damaged trophy aloft and describes gathering disenchantment with Mod€rn Football …
You live in South Shields but come from Tamworth and are a lifelong supporter of West Bromwich Albion. Explain how you ended up in the North East.
I left Tamworth at 18 and went to London gaining a Masters degree in education and taught for several years in Croydon. Housing was expensive and I was newly married so I went up North to Newcastle to teach. My wife came from South Shields and we settled here. I taught in the same school for 26 years before taking early retirement. Best thing I did.
And you may be the only photographer living who has covered one match or more at Sunderland for Pravda. Hoe on earth did that happen?
In the good old days of the 1990s when the Albion were a Championship side I wrote to the club and asked if I could photograph a match as I was a keen amateur photographer. They let me in and I was hooked. I ended up having a season ticket for a photographer which enabled me to get into any ground that the Albion were playing at, subject to the home club letting me in. With the advent of the internet I set up a website which gave a slide show of every match I photographed. it was very popular and many people hit it each week. We had a player called Igor Balis who came from Slovakia and he featured heavily in the shots and one day I had an email from Pravda in Bratislava asking for a picture of him. This later led to other pictures as we had Stan Varga on loan so more pictures were sent. When the Albion got into the premiership I couldn’t get a licence as I was just a small guy, so Pravda applied for a licence and eventually got one. I used it and sent them pictures of every match I attended. Trouble was they didn’t use many of them so the licence was not renewed a couple of years later. They also sent me to Wimbledon to cover the tennis one year which was amazing. Power of the internet!!
You were once, and are still erroneously listed by the WBA site as, the North-eastern contact for Albion supporters. You still love the club you have supported from boyhood, but no longer actively. I know it is a long story but tell us about your disillusion with the Premiership.
We had a small group of supporters in the North East who used to meet in the Strawberry pub, opposite St James. Totalled around 12 on a good night and used to arrange trips to matches almost every week. Numbers dwindled as time went on and it ended up with only 3 regulars turning up so we called it a day. Several still contact me when a match in the North East is due and we often meet up at the appropriate venue. The main problem is the distance. Travelling down to the Hawthorns and back was a long trip every saturday and we don’t get any younger. I remember once going down on a Tuesday night to watch a game against Coventry, Megson was the manager, and we won 1-0 without having a shot on target. I wondered then why we were doing this. As a child I always thought a the start of the season that this was going to be our year. Given fate and luck played a part in those days we didn’t win the league but several times we came close. I always support my team to win. Now we have the Premiership that will never ever happen. I don’t think that supporting a team to avoid relegation is a good thing , long term, for football. I like the USA model, the draft so that the weaker teams get the better players the following season. It is not a level playing field in the premiership and don’t get me started on the bias of the referees.
To maintain the theme, you live close enough to the Stadium of Light to have made it easy to see Albion race into an early two-goal lead some months ago, though it ended in a draw. Did you have any regrets about not being there, or indeed when you won 3-2 at our place last season?
I went to the 3-2 game but didn’t go to the 2-2. I had the chance to photograph my home team Tamworth at Gateshead that day for the Tamworth Herald and I went there. It was extremely enjoyable, no acting on the field, genuine supporters and a good atmosphere. the crowd shouted for their team and didn’t wait for something to happen before they raised some noise.
And what is the story behind the friend from Dudley, also a lifelong WBA supporter, who moved to Durham and got sucked into being a Newcastle season ticket holder?
My mate Fred was born in Dudley and supported the Albion from birth almost. He is though a supporter of football and will go anywhere to watch a game often going to Tow Law and Durham City just to catch a match. He came to live in the North East and taught in the Durham area. Children came along and the boys caught the sporting bug that Fred had. They didn’t always enjoy traveling to the Midlands so when they suggested going to Newcastle Fred agreed. Their visits became regular and eventually season tickets were bought. At one time he had 4 but now has 2 as a couple of the boys have moved away and have families.
Is it now a lost cause or is there something anyone could do that would change things, or your view of the way they have changed, and draw you back to the Hawthorns?
I am not a dinosaur not to recognise that there has to be progress but I believe it has changed the game beyond recognition. In the 1950s players caught the same bus to the ground as the supporters, they were happy to talk to anybody and welcomed the attention. Money of course has turned many players heads and they are now very difficult to access. I believe that this has reduced the experience for fans. Many clubs now seem to regard supporters as cash machines rather that the lifeblood of the club and that for me needs to change. I would remove big screens from every ground and bring back the old fashioned scoreboard, it is all that is needed. Last time I was at the Hawthorns the screen showed adverts for alcohol during the half time break. Is that needed?
And go back to when you were a loyal supporter: how much of Albion did you used to see, home and away, and who were the players you really looked up to?
I used to go to around half the home games as a child. Very rarely to an away game as it didn’t seem to happen so much in those days. My Dad thought that I was crazy when, at the age of 15, I went to Leicester for a game. We lost 1-0 so I guess he was right. Once at college I had to go to away games as most were nearer than home games. I lived close to Stamford Bridge so that was an easy game to go and see, as was any other game in London. I once hitchhiked to Northampton for a game and was given a lift by the Northampton goalkeeper to the ground.He was the late Bill Brown of Spurs double team, and very kindly gave me a lift back to London after the game even though Northampton had lost 3-1. My biggest hero was Ray Barlow, finest player we ever had. Followed closely by Jeff Astle and Ronnie Allen. More recently Bob Taylor was a great Albion man and very friendly as well.
What do you make from afar of Albion’s managership, playing strengths and weaknesses and results this season?
Reasonably happy with Roy. he doesn’t always seem to get the substitutions right but generally we seem to be playing in the Albion style. Our weakness has always been the defence but that seems to be tighter now though we still can’t keep clean sheets. This season there have been too many long term injuries to important players, Gera, Brunt and Long. Odemwingie seems to have lost his touch, apart from wolves of course, and they don’t seem to have a clue how to win at home. Most teams come an play 4 across the back with 5 in front of them and the Albion don’t seem to know how to break that down. That is where Gera and Brunt came in, along with the speed of Long.
What have been the highs and low of your years of active support?
High has to be seeing Graham Williams lift the FA cup in 1968. I couldn’t get a ticket living in London so I waited outside Wembley until the gates were opened and saw the end of the game. First time into the Premiership was good as was winning the old third division playoff at Wembley but how sad is that? Another high was playing Burnley. Every home game in the 60s they came to the Hawthorns and nicked a win, 1-0 or 2-1. Very very frustrating. In 1968 I told my dad that I was going to see them again and he refused to go saying that he hadn’t seen the Albion beat them for years. We won 8-1.
What impressions do you have, as one living in the catchment area of Sunderland AFC, of the city, the area, the club, the supporters?
To me Sunderland supporters always seem to wear rose coloured glasses and hence some of their expectations are a little unrealistic. One said to me when O’Neill was appointed that he had gotten every thing he had ever wanted. A superb ground, the basis of a good team and the manager they had always been crying out for. I thought Ah but what happens if it all goes wrong? I do love their passion for their club.
I am not a great lover of cities, wherever they are so I have to admit that I very rarely go into Sunderland, or Newcastle either. The politics of the area do upset me. I am basically apolitical but as I travel around the country I do notice the difference between the North East and other areas where the party in charge of local government changes every so often. For one party to have a monopoly for so long cannot be good for any area, no matter who the party are.
Do you have any strong memories – good, bad, funny – of seeing Sunderland in action, whether or not against WBA?
I remember going to see the two teams in the final of the Youth Cup in the late 1960s. We won 3-0 in the first leg and lost 6-0 in the second. That wasn’t good. At Roker Park with Kevin Ball as captain last match of the season when you were promoted as champions. There was a presentation ceremony after the game and I was a photographer that day. The trophy had been placed on a table on the pitch with an Endsleigh league sign behind it. Before the presentations began a gust of wind blew down the sign which in turn knocked over the trophy. When the trophy was put into Kevin Ball’s hands and he lifted it up to the crowd, the figure that was on the top of the trophy was missing. Knocked off by the sign. Talking to Kevin years later he said he always had been blamed for the damage. I gave him a picture of the sign knocking off the trophy. I believe he has it in his office now.
You still photograph Conference games. Do you find the game more attractive at that level?
I really enjoy Conference. football is excellent and the atmosphere super. Nothing better than going to York to watch a game. Old style ground, standing everywhere and a real buzz. Last year the team was blessed at halftime by the Archbishop who came onto the pitch!
This may be a question rendered meaningless by your feelings about the Premier League, but – if you do have an opinion on it – what will be the top four, in order, this season and who will go down?
Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal
Down? Wigan, Bolton, QPR
Does cheating in football get to you as it does us? Which form – diving, feigning injury, shirt-pulling at corners, time-wasting etc – annoys you most and how would you tackle it?
Hate cheating in any form. I would have a penalty awarded for every shirt tug and arms wrapped around a player, even if it meant a scoreline of 22-21. Olsson of the Albion is dreadful for it and I hate to see him hugging a player. I even hate the shepherding of the ball out of play. Free kick for that was well.
I would also put up the argument for 4 linesmen and a referee. Almost every thing should be seen then. Look at the NFL, a flag in play and the umpire tells the crowd the decision. TV replays show that they were correct in their judgement. I don’t think that I have seen a wrong decision.
And hand on heart, will you keep tabs on WBA v Sunderland on Feb 25 and do you have any thought on the likely score?
Home form is bad though it does have to change at some time. I shall watch it, read the biased reports in the local paper before the game, probably go onto the internet to watch some of it and hope that we win 2-1. Probably be the other way though.
Dave Hewitt on Dave Hewitt: Ex teacher, living in South Shields and just come up to 65. Still taking pictures of the Conference and also of my other love steam trains. I am a helper at Tanfield railway and at Christmas don the beard and red suit to greet children in my grotto. I always ask NUFC supporters why they have come to see santa as he is obviously a Mackem! My flickr site is http://www.flickr.com/photos/djhewitt/with/6871357353/. I have been chosen by BT to be a storyteller of the Olympic games this summer so I have to find things to photograph. Must get started on that soon. Any ideas or help greatly appreciated. Only 100 people in the country have been chosen. My website is at this link.
Interview: Colin Randall