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Sheffield 160: Ben Webster

2:08 PMGoalChatter

by Aleks V |

2017 marks the 160th anniversary of the world's first football club, Sheffield FC. Founded on October 24, 1857, the club went on to become a part of many other firsts. The founders, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest, wrote the first official rules of the game. Sheffield FC's rivalry with Hallam FC became the world's first derby. They were pioneers of heading the ball. In more recent history, Sheffield FC were awarded the FIFA Order of Merit, an honor given to only one other football club, Real Madrid. Although the club currently competes in the 8th tier of English football, their popularity knows no geographic bounds.

Sheffield 160 is a bi-weekly series that goes behind the scenes of the historic club through interviews with players and staff.

In this installment, Aleks V chats with club photographer Ben Webster on his vision, his greatest challenge, and the best thing about working at Sheffield FC.

All photos courtesy of Ben Webster

This is sort of an over-asked question, but how did you first get into photography? Any particular influences? 
I've always carried a camera in some form or other from being very young - my parents would display infinite patience on days out, holidays, etc. waiting around for me to get a shot that I was happy with. Of course this was in the days before everyone had the convenience of digital. Nowadays, besides the obligatory action shots, I sometimes focus on the incidental stuff going on around the game - spectators, structural oddities, the landscape surrounding the ground. With a sense of humour added wherever possible. Good pointers for this kind of style would be David Bauckham's football photo journals and Martin Parr's studies of English seaside resorts.

Do you have a favorite piece of equipment?
Anything that won't quit on me at the wrong moment! Seriously though, having carried a point-and-shoot around with me as a fan for several years, followed for just as long by an entry-level Canon SLR with kit lens, you learn how to grow with your equipment whatever its limitations. I shoot pro these days - a Canon 5D and 70-200/16-35mm lenses - and it's great, but I only made the upgrade when it felt like a natural progression from the last camera.

What is your vision as a sports photographer?
To promote the strange world of Sheffield FC, where a seemingly unremarkable non-league football club commands an international audience like no other club its size. And everywhere else, to document football as it is played by thousands of people every week, less for the financial reward it brings than for the pleasure of playing, and the thousands of volunteers helping them do it.

Have you photographed anything outside of sports?
Not so much outside of football just yet - my phone usually suffices for that. But I do like to travel around watching football in other parts of the UK and Europe, and keep a gallery for such things [here]. 

How has photographing games at Sheffield influenced your approach/style?
I'm a supporter first and foremost so in some ways photography mirrors my many moods as a fan. When we've got a winning side I expect at least some goalmouth action at the end we're shooting towards, so position myself accordingly. Recent seasons have brought leaner times, with less able teams, so I've found myself gravitating more towards the halfway line. Although currently we're on our best unbeaten run for years so perhaps a rethink is required! We also have a very successful women's team who play just below the top tier of the game in this country, who can always be relied upon to provide celebratory shots. 

What drew you to Sheffield? Why do you think the club is so appealing to fans all over the world, even though it's not a Premier League club?
Actually it was more a case of the club coming to me - I live just a short distance from the ground they moved to 15 years ago. I'd heard a little about the club, knew they were the world's oldest, but otherwise had next to no knowledge about non-league football and the hundreds of clubs plying their trade beneath the radar of most Premier League fans. I went down for a match one day with my dad and that was that really - the standard of football was a pleasant surprise, you could stand wherever you wanted and could even nip to the pub next door for a pint at half time. I think many of our well-wishers from overseas see the romance in that sort of thing; that a club so pivotal to the history of football has somehow kept going at a level far removed from the trappings of the modern game. This has been a recurring theme in the club's social media campaigns for years now and it seems to have resonated. The phenomenon is nothing new however - I've seen letters from the 1940s addressed to the club from Germany and the former Yugoslavia!

Any must-see sights in the city you'd suggest to traveling fans?
Besides having the oldest club, Sheffield is also home to the oldest football ground in the world at Hallam FC, and its famously sloping pitch. Any visit to Sheffield FC should really go hand-in-hand with a visit there. The city is famous for its steel production in the past, so there is a lot of industrial heritage here, but we are also right on the edge of the Peak District national park which provides a very appealing contrast. Also in my (completely unbiased) opinion, it is the best place to go for a drink in the UK, with a never-ending supply of good quality, historic pubs. Including the one at our ground!

What's a typical day like at Sheffield FC?
As far as photography goes, very relaxed compared to many of the other staff. By the time I arrive at the ground the match secretary will be already be going over team details with the first team manager, a welcoming committee will be entertaining the away team officials in the boardroom, and the catering staff will have finished preparing the matchday food and started serving a few early arrivers. The manager may have signed new players that week so we arrange to have their profile pictures taken before the warm-up. Similarly, a presentation with the chairman or another club official may be made out on the pitch before kick off. I go and sit pitchside during the match itself - you sometimes hear players mutter things under their breath that weren't intended to be heard by others, and I've often ended up in conversation with one or two of them during breaks in play! We usually announce a man of the match over the tannoy before the final whistle and, if we have any overseas visitors on the day (this is common), they will often be asked by the chairman to present the award as the players are coming off the pitch. Afterwards I may hang around with the media guy to share some photos for the website and matchday programmes, but the real reason will be so we can both slip off for a pint together at the pub next door. That's where many of the supporters, officials and players, home and away, will also end up - it gives everyone the chance to unwind, discuss the match and chat to some of the opposition fans. 

What's been the best thing about working at Sheffield?
The friendships I've formed and the interest the club generates. The fact that I'm fielding questions from a New York-based blog shows the kind of parallel universe we live in.

Is there anything people would be surprised to know about the World's Oldest Football Club? Any stadium secrets or legends?
A familiar question I hear with regard to being the oldest club is who did Sheffield play when they were first formed, if there were no other clubs? They got around this not insignificant obstacle by staging matches between members - married men versus unmarried men, names in the first half of the alphabet versus second half, etc. After all, the original purpose of the club was not to pioneer a new sport but to keep members of the local cricket club fit in the winter, when the cricket season had finished. And in the early days there was no such thing as a playing kit - a team's player was identified by the colour of a cloth cap he wore on his head.

Tell me about your favorite photograph that you've taken. 
I think my photos have generally improved over time, but I still like this black and white one of the Sheffield ground from my earlier days snapping at the club. 

What's the greatest challenge you've faced as a photographer, and how did you overcome it?
Nothing technical so much as psychological, really. I'm quite a shy person so sometimes find it hard not to be self-conscious when looking for more candid shots or assuming unusual angles and positions to get the composition right. That's particularly the case when I'm shooting away from Sheffield, around people I may not have met before. What keeps me going is knowing that deliberately searching for spontaneity has resulted in many of the best shots. Like this one at fellow league club Gresley FC...

...and this one of a ladies' team player and her dad having won promotion last year:

Is there anything you haven't done yet as a photographer? Any person or event you'd like to photograph in the future?
England is full of weird and wonderful folk games that have been played for centuries before more organised sports like football came along. A lot of pageantry is usually involved and I'd love to photograph this. Some events, like the annual cheese-rolling race in Gloucestershire are well known, but there are others local to me with brilliant names like Haxey Hood and the Upperthong Welly-Wanging championships, and the famous Shrovetide football match at Ashbourne which attracts hundreds of participants and lasts for two days. 

You're part of the Sheffield FC Veterans SC, correct? What's that like? 
That was the original name for a supporters' team that was formed partly as a response to the many requests Sheffield received for matches from amateur clubs in Europe. It once resulted in a group of fans playing a team from Milan on an open day at the San Siro, and a day later at a neoclassical arena built during the rule of Napoleon. I played about 10 minutes on the San Siro pitch, was more than happy with that, then got back to snapping the others! Other trips have taken veteran's teams to Rome, Hamburg, and a triangular tournament with fans of the two oldest football clubs in Holland and Belgium, Haarlem and Royal Antwerp.

Will you be involved in any events for the club's 160th? Will there be any special games for the club's anniversary?
I've heard the names of one or two clubs doing the rounds but nothing concrete yet. If there's one thing Sheffield FC is good at though it's pulling a rabbit out of the hat when it comes to friendly fixtures, so watch this space. And of course I'll be there on the sidelines snapping away!

Ben Webster is a photographer at Sheffield FC. His work can be seen here

Read more on Sheffield 160 here.
Join the conversation on Twitter using hashtag #Sheffield160.

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