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The secrets and stories behind the sports photographs of the year

They are moments frozen in time, images which sum up a sporting year like no other. But how do you get the perfect picture? The country’s best photographers reveal the secrets of their trade.

That's one small step for man.
That's one small step for man.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IT HAS BEEN a year when a virus shaped the way we looked at life. And as we all waited on a vaccine, sport provided its own medicine.

The Cavan and Tipperary footballers made history; Katie Taylor continued to capture the hearts of a nation and on the final weekend before Christmas, an empty Croke Park watched the male and female footballers from Dublin march step by step towards greatness. And through it all, another world-class team, the nation’s leading photographers captured images which will last a lifetime.

One small poc for man: The hurler on the moon

On the night of 6 April, James Crombie was scheming. He had 24 hours to execute a plan that had been 10 years in the making. A super moon, due to rise above Ireland the following evening, meant little or nothing to most people.

Crombie was aware of the possibilities, though. Croghan Hill, located eight miles from his Co. Offaly home, was the kind of landmark he needed to capture an image that he sensed would make worldwide news. So off he went, the photographer and his camera, on a fact-finding mission. The moon was too bright, he noted.

The following evening promised to be more favourable especially when his friend, Colin Hogg, a geophysicist, worked out the calculations, telling Crombie precisely at what time and in which spot the moon would rise over Croghan Hill.

All Crombie needed at this stage was a hurler – and a slice of luck. He got both. “When the moon appeared over the hill,” Crombie said, “the guy was about four feet away from the perfect spot. But because Colin had his calculations done up, because we had things planned, I was able to chat through my headphones (to the hurler on the hill) and tell him to move a few feet to his left.” 

Crombie knew his window of opportunity was tiny, just 45 seconds to capture the moon appearing over the horizon. Everything therefore needed to go to plan. And it did. The supermoon night was perfect, the sky clear. His friend had his measurements spot on, the hurler was sourced and given a set of instructions as well as a sliotar. “You have to plan these things because you are never going to come across a fella hurling on top of a hill as night approaches.”

A football travelled up with the person, too – a nod to the English market. Alas, it slipped from his hands as he neared the peak, sliding back down the hill. Only one sport was going to be played on the moon that night.

“I wanted to get the Irishness of the situation,” Crombie says. “Hurling represents that; it’s our sport, we can get 80’000 people inside a stadium to see it, very few other sports in the world can get that kind of audience. It’s unique to us.

“We needed to see the moon on the hill to allow us see the contrast – because once it goes over (the hill), it becomes too dark and you cannot actually see a person there. It was a very, very quick timeframe to get the job done.” 

There was a very, very big reaction. The Guardian used it on their front page; RTÉ news did a story on it; Henry Shefflin tweeted it; the image became the most popular print sale of the year. But who was the hurler? “My twin brother, David.” A Westmeath man, who didn’t make it to Croke Park in 2020. Hurling on the moon proved to be a decent substitute.

The Limerick leader: Gearoid Hegarty

As soon as Gearoid Hegarty scurried across the field to seek possession, instinct kicked in. James Crombie adjusted his seating plan, inching forward, closer not to history but to Hegarty. While the Limerick player may have been unaware of Crombie’s presence, the photographer was becoming increasingly conscious of what he was looking at, knowing that if pressed his shutter at the right moment, then the evidence of a team’s physical dominance would be captured in a single still. He got there.

sean-loftus-and-gearoid-hegarty Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I don’t think I have ever seen a hurling team as big or as fit, Gearoid Hegarty, Kyle Hayes, they are all massive men; all lean, fit, tall,” says Crombie. “This picture summed up their dominance of the 2020 championship. 

“What I like about this photo is that it highlights the marriage of skill with physicality. Study Hegarty’s face. His eyes are focused on the ball, one hand outstretched to catch it, the other arm used to hold off the Galway player (Sean Loftus). 

“Most years you look to get a picture which encapsulates everything, the action, the crowd in the background. But in 2020, it was all about getting pictures that are really tight. The backdrop isn’t as important; because the stands and terraces are empty.” 

Fans, flares, hope

This was how it started, crowds packed into arenas, hope in the air. Then it all went up in smoke. They closed the doors in March and when they re-opened in July, no one was allowed in.

st-pats-fans-set-off-flares Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

You’d nearly forget what it was like, people travelling to games together; singing, shouting, cursing, believing they were all part of a community. That’s why this picture of the St Pat’s fans by Ryan Byrne on the opening night of the season is so special – because this isn’t just what it used to be like, this is what we hope to return to. “The lighting isn’t always great in League of Ireland stadiums; but here the red (from the flares) illuminates the picture; it sets it apart,” says Byrne.

It certainly does. A month later, however, the fire was put out. We’re still waiting for it to come back.

Nowhere to Hyde: The graveyard shift

The Roscommon county semi-final. It is a game the nationals ordinarily would not cover but when sport resumed behind closed doors, every photographer in the country wanted to get the image that summed up Ireland’s new reality.

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a-fan-watches-the-game-from-outside-the-ground Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Here was one. The back wall at Hyde Park is not quite Everest in its dimensions but still, it takes a brave man to try and scale it. “We have all been looking for the diehard fan who has never missed a game and who wanted to be there,” says Crombie. “So, I took a stroll, went outside the ground, persuaded the stewards to let me out the gate; saw this guy up a massive ladder, had a cushion with him and everything, watching the football.

Hyde Park backs onto a graveyard where the spectator had found his vantage point. “When I approached him, he repeatedly said, ‘don’t take my face, don’t take my face’; look he was probably outside the five kilometre radius and shouldn’t have been there.”

A minute later, when the fan’s team scored – his arms came off the ladder, outstretched in celebration. “How apt that in this of all years, the most striking image I had of a fan was in a graveyard.”

Stephen Kenny: the lonely life of a manager

If everything had have gone to plan in 2020, there would have been full houses, raucous cheering, backslappers and goals. Instead there were goalless draws, covid cases, injuries, balls hitting uprights and a penalty shoot-out where the Irish trigger pullers fired blanks.

stephen-kenny Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Amid it all a new man at the helm learned something pretty quickly, that even though you have backroom staff and PR handlers, medics and kitmen, ultimately a football manager is left alone with nothing bar his thoughts for company. And this picture sums that up. “I was trying to get that loneliness aspect,” said Crombie. “As photographers, you are trying to get that image of a guy being left on his own. Earlier that night, after a draw with Bulgaria, I’d spotted Stephen walking down the stairs against the backdrop of empty seats. But his handler was always in the way, giving him his debrief. 

“So the effectiveness of the picture was ruined.”

This time – as Kenny walked down the tunnel, it wasn’t. His PR advisor remained on the pitch, so what we get here isn’t just a picture of someone walking; it’s an image of someone alone. That’s modern-day management; it’s also 2020 in a nutshell. 

Superman

Laszlo Geczo’s formative years were in Transylvania, later Hungary. Neither place, to borrow Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s observation, is considered a hurling stronghold. Somehow the sport has become a passion; a 2014 move to Ireland for work purposes introducing him to the game. 

stephen-okeeffe-during-the-game Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“First time I saw a hurling game, I thought, ‘right, this could be hard for me, given my background’. Still, you’ve got to give it a go,” Gezco said. “I find it photogenic; the hurls bashing off helmets. You always, always get good action. Look, it’s difficult to shoot – the speed of the game; but when a picture comes off, it can be rewarding.”

In November he struck gold. Stephen O’Keeffe, the Waterford keeper, won possession from a Cork free which landed short. And then, in an attempt to clear the ball, he found a little space but in his haste, he lost his balance, and with that, the ball. Look closely at the picture, you can see the panic on O’Keeffe’s face.

He’s desperately trying to figure out where the ball is. Gezco, shooting from behind the goal, has spotted it, getting it into the bottom of the frame. “I love how clean the picture is, there is not a lot of branding. Stephen’s flight; he’s almost horizantal, that was spectacular. But just as importantly for me was having the ball in the picture. I’d have been annoyed with myself if I hadn’t got that.”

The perfect picture then? “No,” he says, “I’m very picky.”

Joy …..

It is like the poster image from Platoon, Oliver Stone’s Academy Award winning film about Vietnam. In this frame, there is one central difference between what’s going on in Colin O’Riordan’s head and actor Willem Dafoe’s; the most obvious of which is O’Riordan is throwing his arms into the air in relief and joy: Dafoe’s character, Sergeant Elias arms are held aloft as he accepts defeat and death. 

colin-oriordan-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“So much is about luck,” says Geczo. “My positioning for the post-match reaction scene was based on getting the best light possible. You don’t know how someone is going to react.” Either did O’Riordan. After an 85-year wait, he was kind of out of practice.

……. And dejection 

david-clifford-dejected-after-the-game Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I really loved his expression. The purity of his emotions are there for everyone to see. It made for a black-and-white picture because you don’t want the viewer to be distracted by anything, the yellow and gold colours of the shirt. You just want them staring at the player’s face. Emotiunal pictures, I feel, work better in black and white. We see how much he’s hurting. We see how much sport means.” Laszlo Geczo

The champion

katie-taylor-with-miriam-gutierrez-after-the-bout Katie Taylor with Miriam Gutierrez after another victory. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Unbeaten in the pro ranks since her conversion from the amateur game in 2016, Katie Taylor has rebuilt her career following the loss of her Olympic crown in Rio. Infinitely more important than that, she has become a global figure, an inspiration to aspiring sportswomen, who identify not just with her girl-next-door persona but her glorious obsession to stay at the pinnacle of her sport. It’s unlikely if there is any female boxer out there who will beat her in 2021 but in boxing there is also one opponent a fighter never beats: time. And at 34, Taylor is entering the final rounds. She’s earned the right to leave the sport on her terms.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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