From the terraces of Roker Park to modelling Bob Stokoe’s F.A. Cup winning tracksuit, photographer Ian Wright takes Matthew Thomas on his journey with our football club.
Ian swings his trench coat over the chair, squeezes my extended right hand with vigour and sits down with wide eyes and a big grin.
A notepad emerges from his bag and a page full of scribbles, bullet points and cues lands face-up on the desk.
Almost instantaneously, Ian prewarns me that he likes to talk and apologises, which is funny. I could have spent two days listening to Ian, never mind our two-hour chat during a humid April morning at the National Glass Centre.
Ian Wright, the son of a working-class family from Pallion, is an infectious character. An individual with a magnetic force field of positivity who personifies Sunderland’s characteristics; proud, hopeful, wary and ballsy.
He photographed our football club during its divine time at Roker Park, he was at the epicentre of Sunderland’s 2018 World Cup host city bid and the Bob Stokoe statue outside the Stadium of Light was based on Ian’s physical similarities with Bob.
Yet his journey with SAFC began thanks to a hand-drawn Bruce Lee portrait and his father’s unwavering pride.
“It’s funny how I got into photography and publishing.
“I was told during a meeting with a college career advisor that I needed to focus on finding ‘a real job’, such was the attitude towards arts during the 70s. My inherent passion is drawing and Bruce Lee was my idol growing up.
“I sketched a portrait of Bruce from Enter the Dragon, showed my dad and he decided to keep it in his corner shop store in Pallion.
“Any and all customers would be given a glimpse of my drawing and by happenstance, a staff member from Inkerman Printers was in the shop and mentioned to my dad that there were a few vacancies and that I should write in.
“It all spiralled from there really. I got the job that summer and began working on matchday programmes and various projects for SAFC. You could say Bruce Lee landed me a job working for SAFC.”
So, off Ian went. 16 year old, beaming with pride, heading to the football club every other day and turning up to 3:00pm kick offs with a home shirt peeking out his shirt collar. The life that any football fanatic dreams of.
SAFC is a social institution, never mind a professional football club. It’s a melting pot of personalities, opinions and backgrounds. A hub that allows a working-class community to breathe as one. Something Ian was well aware of when documenting the club, its players, fans and staff.
“My friends would all be in the Fulwell End watching the match and I’m sitting on my stool, snapping and clicking away. It was difficult to switch off from ‘fan-mode’ and it caught me out on a few occasions.
“My hero was Gary Rowell and he scored against QPR. My boss asked me if I captured the moment he scored, of which I assured him I did until he shouted at me saying: “I know you didn’t get the goal because I saw you on Shoot! and you were too bloody busy jumping about celebrating!”.
Guilty and caught on camera as Ian likes to put it. Wide-eyed and grinning from ear to ear myself, I ask if Ian had any other memorable ‘run-ins’ during his early years at Roker Park.
Sunderland Vibe is an award-winning publication that celebrates the very best of Sunderland and its communities.
Check out our recent video where we showcase our magazine, visit Wearside’s most loved businesses and celebrate the local people behind them. Created by Allies Group.
SAFC and Me
“I’ll never ever forget my first match,” he tells me.
“At half-time, I walked down the tunnel and was looking to escape into the Roker End with my mates to chat about the match. George Baker worked as one of the security there and I asked him for directions to get into the stand.
Obviously, I’m still in shock that this is my job now and the adrenaline is high with me being a huge fan. He gave me a bunch of directions that rapidly went in one ear and out the other.
“Anyhow, I began walking down the corridor he pointed towards and I burst through a door hoping it was right. Instead, I’ve walked in on Terry Venables’ half-time team talk and he’s giving his Crystal Palace side a right dressing down.
There’s tape all over the floor, Jeff Bourne has his head in his hands and the tension is rife. I nearly got George the sack for that!”
One of Ian’s more breathtaking images, and let’s be clear, he has a full room of special photos yet unseen by the world, is undoubtedly his aerial shot of Roker Park from a pylon in the Fulwell End.
“Basically, I had the idea of getting a photograph atop the ground from the floodlight pylons. I used to turn up early on a matchday to take sponsors’ photos, so thought I could squeeze this in before my actual duties began.
“I asked Cathy Kerr if I could climb up one of the pylons in the Fulwell End to get the shot I wanted. There was one condition: ‘As long as you’re back down before the fans start coming in.’
“This was long before the days of health and safety ever became ‘a thing’. So, off I set climbing the Fulwell End wall. My camera case is strapped around my body as I clutch onto the first rusty rung of the ladder and the adrenaline carried me 150ft to the very top.
“It’s only here that I realised how perilous this is – it was blowing a reet’ gale, the tiny platform creaked and swayed and the stench of the pigeon mess was spectacularly awful. A terrifying experience, but absolutely worth it to get this unique shot.
Recalling the story behind this particular image guides Ian to detailing another aerial escapade.
The club were on the lookout for an aerial shot of Roker Park for a new range of calendars, postcards and posters. It doesn’t take an intellectual to work out that during Ian’s era, drone technology was, probably nothing more than a CAD drawing.
Being the spontaneous ‘yes’ man he is, Ian instantly agreed to source the shot without giving it much thought.
His solution in the end? A great deal of bravery, three mates, £250 and a small flying school in Teesside.
“I hired a small plane from a flying school in Middlesbrough. It was a small, four-seater propeller-powered thing and I was in the passenger seat, with a couple of guys from the studio in the back.
“We flew up the coast and when we arrived at Sunderland, the pilot said ‘right, open the window and get cracking!’.
“So, there I was kneeling on the passenger seat, leaning out of the window with one hand focussing my lens, the other clicking the winding back and forth. The two lads in the back were holding me by my jacket as the pilot banked the plane and flew around Roker Park three times.”
For the remainder of our time, the world is put to rights, discussion filters between SAFC’s chances of promotion into the Championship and the spectacular renovation of a Grade II listed pumphouse in Seaham that Ian and his wife are currently undertaking.
What do you think of Ian’s story? Get in touch online. Twitter: @SunderlandVibe, Instagram: @SunderlandVibe, Facebook: @SunderlandVibe.