The Making of Goodbye Gay Meadow

Goodbye Gay Meadow author Matthew Ashton talks to ESPN in 2017 during the CONCACAF Gold Cup about the book

So were you always a fan of Shrewsbury Town? How did all this start?
That is a long story -since I was about five I always went to Gay Meadow to watch Shrewsbury Town.

When I was eight I started to go to away games too. Shrewsbury Town played Ipswich Town, the UEFA Cup champions, in the FA Cup in the early 1980s and the television cameras came to Gay Meadow. In those days only three games every Saturday were recorded for television. The only live game was the FA Cup Final. To have TV cables running around the pitch, a giant crane in the car park with a TV camera on top, scaffolding over the fans on the Riverside with TV cameras on certainly caught my attention.  From that moment on, all I wanted to be was a TV cameraman!

So I went to Art School with the sole intention of doing art and some other classes, one being photography. My aim and thinking is that I would end up at BBC film school or something. During my time at college, I loved processing film and printing pictures.

Back then most people sent off their holiday films in the post and they arrived back in an envelope two or three weeks later. I could take pictures of the Goth girls in the college canteen and produce a 16 x 12 black and white in about 10 minutes. It was like doing a party trick. 

I didn’t care for photographing my colleague colleagues or landscapes or when we did work in the studio. For me, taking pictures was boring, the thrill was processing the films. Then one day I shot Oldham Athletic v Shrewsbury Town. Suddenly I had a subject that I was interested in.

So you made your interest in the football club into a career then?
Most definitely!

I ignored my A levels and spent all the time I could learning to manually focus a 300mm and 600mm lens lent to me by the local newspaper. That was an apprenticeship in itself. I went to many training sessions and of course every match and gradually improved. I went from being a paperboy to having my pictures published on the back page in three years.

I attended a NCTJ Course in Photojournalism and ended up working for my local regional newspaper.

So you went from being a fan, to getting paid to cover games?
I guess so.  I don’t watch or can not enjoy the game like a fan as I am I’m there to work. Most people do not understand but I am used to it now! Although I did news and lots of features, met some amazing people – my favourite day of the week was when I covered football. I still did it on days off and during my holidays. 

And then Shrewsbury Town moved to a new stadium?
Well I left the newspaper after five years and went to work for one of the world’s leading football picture agencies at the time called EMPICS. Suddenly I was flying all around the world going to South America, Japan, covering the African Nations Cup but on many occasion I would be at a Real Madrid game and then fly home to do Shrewsbury Town. I then left the agency as it got taken over and this coincided with Shrewsbury Town building a new stadium.

So what made you do the book?
I figured that no one else would do something to celebrate or document it and importantly remember it to be quite honest. I put the pressure on myself and dedicated a whole year doing game after game, but this time instead of recording goals or whatever I was documenting the ground. I had photographed Espanyol’s old stadium being demolished and I was very aware that one day soon the Gay Meadow would be no more.

Gay Meadow was unique in that spectators had an utterly different view depending on what side of the ground they watched the game from. From the Station End they would be covered with a rood and looked on to a school. On the opposite side they looked at the Shrewsbury Castle but would be in the wide open subjecting themselves to the elements. From the famous Riverside where people stood they faced the stands, and the people in the stands not only looked down on to the fans standing up but a line of trees lining the River behind.

So it was important to document everyone’s view point. Then there was the matter of photographing it’s surroundings by the river, the quirky signs, seats, terracing, floodlights and many other things.

Did anyone approach you to do the pictures, a publisher or the newspaper?
No! I spent lots of time researching self publishing and the book market as a whole.I ended up choosing a company in Singapore who at the time were one of the leading book printing companies in the world.

In the UK it was about 7 times the price to print books!

I learnt how to design pages from a colleague called Jim who had worked at the Mail On Sunday and when we went into book stores, it seemed like he had designed and created half of the books on sale. 

With his help, after months of designing the pages, getting paper samples, printing samples, samples of the cover jacked, I eventually sent a big PDF document to Singapore together with heaps of money that would have paid for a nice sports car.

Six weeks later this huge lorry delivered boxes and boxes of books!

Was that not risky?
I guess so, but I calculated that a certain number of people would buy the book.

I used my media contacts and got it featured on the BBC, in many UK national newspapers, some very high end German football magazines.

When I had reached a certain sales figure and the bank loan had been paid I could breathe a sign of relief. Also I got my house back as having 7,000 books stored in it does not give you much room!

And what is there now?
Well the ground got demolished. Shrewsbury Town now play in a nice out of town stadium. In my old house I could just see one of the floodlights out of my bedroom window.One Sunday I looked and something was wrong. There was no floodlight!

I was supposed to go to Anfield to cover Liverpool playing that afternoon. I never went. Instead I got access to inside the stadium and saw three of the floodlights fall to the ground.

I later returned to continue documenting the demolition however I don’t think anyone would buy the book on that!
In the book there are so many amazing tales and passages written by fans… Shrewsbury Town is a unique club. It had a very famous amber and blue striped kit that was used in the Spinal Tap movie.

Being by the River, it flooded at least once a year. We used to have a guy go and collect the ball when it was kicked over the roof of the Riverside.And many people said that Gay Meadow was the most beautiful stadium that they had ever been to.It looked amazing in the summer being surrounded by green trees, Autumn was so colourful and even in winter it was still nice!

I wanted the book to show what a football club is all about. Community, friendships, a gathering of people. I know so many people from all walks of life that I would never have known if they were not fellow supporters.

Myself and a guy called Stuart Dunn used to collect autographs when famous players visited – now he has also forged a career in football as he is now a football radio commentator.

The words that the fans wrote are incredible. Very emotive, stories of boys going to games with their father and grandad and then one day the grandad not being there. Stories of going to school over looking the football ground. Stories of how awful the toilets were!

Well another journalist told me about your book and we thank you for showing it to us. I can see why it was so acclaimed and won awards…
Thanks, but I am very critical of my work. I am never happy. The hardest thing was to document somewhere that I had been going to every week since I was like 6 years old. Going to a stadium in a far away place is much easier as everything is new and fresh.

Most of the images were shot on film or very poor digital cameras. But that gives a feel of oldness and nostalgia! But when I look at the book now, it is the powerful words from the fans that intrigue me. Many people who don’t even like football can’t put the book down as they love reading the fans stories and memories.

And what now for photographing Shrewsbury Town?
Perhaps someone else will do a book when Shrewsbury Town move stadium again one day – and publish my pictures of it’s construction and early years at the new home, I’ll probably be dead by then and books could be hard wired into people’s brains.. who knows what the future brings!

But regardless of where I am working – In Europe, Asia, covering MLS in the USA or doing a FIFA World Cup, when I come home, I always try and cover Shrewsbury Town games when I can and continue to document my club’s history.

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