British football’s greatest grounds | Mike Bayly

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Bayly’s British Football’s Greatest Grounds offers a bucket list of places to watch football in England, Wales and Scotland as chosen by fans across the world. 

With beautiful colour images of each ground, it is part guide, part love letter to the history, people and places, showcasing the very best of football’s unique landscape.

Richmond Town - Ben Webster
The Ears Orchard ground, Richmond Town FC. © Ben Webster

“I was more attracted to non-League football. There was something more exciting, relatable, and accessible about watching a game with a few hundred fans at, say, Halesowen Town than 40,000 at Old Trafford or Anfield.

Mike Bayly

The idea first came to Bayly in 2013 when he set out to compile a shortlist of the country’s must see venues.

“I’ve always enjoyed visiting new grounds,” he said, “but, as is the case with a lot of people, social and work commitments restrict opportunities to do so. 

“There were numerous ground guides available in print and on the internet, but, to the best of my knowledge, nothing that provided a shortlist.”

It quickly developed into a labour of love.

Football ground: Northend Thistle - Mike Bayly
Ewe Camp, Northend Thistle FC. © Mike Bayly

“I thought it would be a fun and rewarding project to carry out,” he said, “which it certainly was.”

There were plenty of obstacles to overcome, most notably the logistics of getting to some of Britain’s more remote clubs.

Bayly does not drive and some trips developed into a combination of train, bus, taxi and lengthy walks, with Fraserburgh a particular challenge, being almost 40 miles from the nearest railway station.

Football ground: Fraserburgh - Mike Bayly
Bellslea Park, Fraserburgh FC. © Mike Bayly

Originally from Hertfordshire, Bayly has lived in Sheffield for 30 years. He is an IT project manager by profession, but began taking a serious interest in photography over six years ago. Once he had joined a Facebook group dedicated to football ground photography in 2014/15, his project really came together.

“The idea was to capture football in its environment, rather than focus on action shots,” he said.

“Some of the group contributions were outstanding and it inspired me to buy a camera and try taking my own shots.”

His first camera was a second hand Fuji XE1 with 18-55mm kit lens. 

Football ground: The City Ground, Nottingham Forest - Paul Paxford
The City Ground, Nottingham Forest FC. © Paul Paxford

“It took a while to fully understand the exposure triangle and basic composition techniques,” he said, “but once I’d mastered the rudiments my photography progressed fairly quickly. 

“Photography is a constant learning curve though. Six years on I am still learning new skills, be it attending workshops, watching professional photographers on YouTube, or speaking to fellow photography enthusiasts on camera forums. 

“There is always room for improvement, and still consider myself an amateur with lots to learn.”

His equipment has expanded considerably. He predominantly used a Fuji XT3 with a 50-140mm, and 16-55mm lens, but has since purchased a full frame Canon R5 and RF70-200mm lens. 

Football ground: Milhead - Mike Bayly
Iodine Park, Millhead FC. © Mike Bayly
Football ground: Milhead - Mike Bayly
Iodine Park, Millhead FC. © Mike Bayly

“I don’t think there’s any other facet of life that attracts such a diverse group of people with the same collective interest.”

Mike Bayly
Football ground: Milhead - Mike Bayly
Iodine Park, Millhead FC. © Mike Bayly

He describes himself as a fan of football, rather than a football fan.

He lived for a spell in Shropshire and grew up supporting Kidderminster Harriers. His move to Sheffield in 1994 prompted regular visits to Hillsborough. He describes Sheffield Wednesday as his “big club”, being a member of their Trust, but he also watches non league Hallam FC and Stocksbridge Park Steels, but spends most Saturdays travelling around Britain in search of new additions for his catalogue of scenic or unusual grounds.

Football ground: Marsden - Mike Bayly
Fall Lane, Marsden FC. © Mike Bayly
Football ground: Garw - David Bauckham
Blandy Park, Garw S.B.G.C. FC. © David Bauckham

Chris Waddle was a footballing idol in Bayly’s younger days when, as a winger himself, he tried to emulate his hero’s skills. Kidderminster Harriers’ midfielder Paul Webb was another favourite.

“When my mum met him at work and said what a nice friendly bloke he was, his idol status was secured,” said Bayly.

A 4-0 Division Four win for Hereford United against Hartlepool United in 1987 provides an early memory, of a sort.

Says Bayly: “My abiding memory is missing the first goal because I went to the toilet. I revisited Edgar Street earlier this year. It’s a wonderful old-fashioned ground, barely changed from when I first visited.

“I was more attracted to non-League football. There was something more exciting, relatable, and accessible about watching a game with a few hundred fans at, say, Halesowen Town than 40,000 at Old Trafford or Anfield.

“I also loved the exotica of semi-professional names: Pelsall Villa in the Banks Brewery League easily trumped Aston Villa in Division One.”

His influences in photography include David Bauckham, whose work features in his grounds book.

“David has been documenting non-league football for years and won the FSF Amateur Photographer of the Year in 2011. He has a gift for capturing the essence of football through his photo essays. 

Football ground: Hastings United - Stuart Tree
The Pilot Field, Hastings United FC. © Stuart Tree
Football ground: Fort William 2 v Wick 2 Claggan Park SHFL 13/04/2018 Condemned stand at Claggan Park
Claggan Park, Fort William FC. © Melanie Roger

“Football has been described as “the only global idiom apart from science”, played in every corner of the globe by thousands of teams on an almost daily basis. One might expect games to become formulaic and predictable. Yet, from a photography perspective at least, it continues to throw up unexpected delights.”

Mike Bayly
Football ground: Matlock Town - Mike Bayly
The Proctor Cars Stadium, Matlock Town FC. © Mike Bayly

“I like photos that tell a story. Don McCullin’s images of urban deprivation and war are a good example of this. When I visit a ground, I like to try and capture football in its social and geographical context, rather than just match action. 

“As renowned football photographer Colin McPherson says, “it’s about the people that go to football and the architecture around them… I’m looking for a manifestation of life and the human condition” and I’ve increasingly tried to incorporate this philosophy into my work. 

“When I first started out, I often focused too much on capturing the perfect landscape image and ignored everything else happening around me. This led to some rather repetitive albums. Part of the learning curve is ensuring a diversity of images from the afternoon that really tell the story of the day. I’ve improved in this respect but a part of me will always prioritize a great backdrop with gorgeous light!

“Football has been described as “the only global idiom apart from science”, played in every corner of the globe by thousands of teams on an almost daily basis. 

“One might expect games to become formulaic and predictable. Yet, from a photography perspective at least, it continues to throw up unexpected delights.”

Football Ground. Cambridge United - Paul Paxford
Abbey Stadium, Cambridge United FC. © Paul Paxford
Football ground: Blaenrhondda - Paul Paxford
Blaenrhondda Park, Blaenrhondda AFC. © Paul Paxford

For Bayly there’s always the “tantalising prospect of something new and unusual to capture”, encapsulated last season when he chanced upon a controlled demolition taking place during a Sunday League game.”

Bayly is fascinated by the diverse make up of football clubs’ and their fans.

“If you studied the individual composition of a club’s football fans from a social, political, religious, and economic perspective, they probably constitute a disparate group with little commonality outside of a match day,” he analysed.

“But for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon or midweek evening, those differences are immaterial and give way to a largely homogenous spectator entity. 

“I don’t think there’s any other facet of life that attracts such a diverse group of people with the same collective interest.”

Football ground: Brechin City - Ben Webster
Glebe Park, Brechin City FC. © Ben Webster

Bayly has formulated his own preferences for what works best as he takes his pictures.

“The best advice I received was on perspective,” he said. “I like to be low down for action shots and use a wide-angle lens alongside my telephoto to produce a more dramatic look. 

Football ground: Cadbury Athletic - Andy Nunn
Cadbury Recreation Ground, Cadbury Athletic FC. © Andy Nunn
Football ground: Football ground: Arbroath - Ian Parker
Gayfield Park, Arbroath FC. © Ian Parker
Football ground: Belper Town - Stuart Tree
Christchurch Meadow, Belper Town FC. © Stuart Tree

“Some of my favourite action images have been taken at ground level near the penalty area. It creates a sense of the play being on top of you. You can also mix the set up by getting a few interesting crowd shots or watching subs as they walk off. 

“For example, I took one recently of a player carrying his boots off the pitch then shaking hands with a fan. Playing with silhouettes at sunset can also be fun if you want to try something artistic. It’s these kinds of images that can bring a set to life. 

Football ground: Greenock Morton - Andy Nunn
Cappielow Park, Greenock Morton FC. © Andy Nunn

“If you are simply looking to visit grounds as a neutral, try and tell a story of the afternoon. After all, a day at the football isn’t solely about 90 minutes on the pitch. It could be someone selling raffle tickets, or a lone fan sat in the stand hours before kick-off. 

“I’d really recommend starting out at an amateur or lower-level non-League clubs. Not only will access be far greater, but often they will genuinely appreciate you turning up. “Amateur football in particular can be a goldmine for photographers. Little details like a box of beers on the side-lines convey what football culture is about for the vast majority of people who play the game in this country.”

If you enjoyed that, you may also like Scottish Football Grounds, which follows photographer Keith Smith as he attempts picture all Scotland’s 42 league grounds.

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