Autumn 2005

Close up and cut out

The UK’s red-top sports pages shout out a riotous assembly of colour, words and close-ups

Here is a simple game to play when you next get a chance to scan the back pages of the British tabloids. Look at the back pages of the Sun, The Mirror and Star, ignoring the individual banners placed top right and try to spot the difference. The chances are that on any given day those pages will be virtually interchangeable, with an astonishing repetition of sameness running throughout the tabloid back pages. The emphasis will be on headline and arresting image of the chief protagonist in that day’s football ‘news’ story. The odds are that the protagonist’s face will be clearly visible giving a full-on emotive emphasis to the particular story. Pun and / or fan-knowledge will be knowingly deployed to give the headline a twist that is almost unintelligible to the disinterested reader, and the overall effect will be one of visual and textual information slapped together in a seemingly ad hoc fashion.

Yet far from wishing to pour scorn over the contemporary back page for its predictability and crudeness of technique, I would like to celebrate an area of layout / design that is, at its best, a vibrant and riotous assemblage of colour, image and word. The vernacular qualities of the contemporary tabloid back page are a triumph of British fanzine culture: unleashed by punk rock in the late 1970s and adapted during the boom in unofficial football publications during the 1980s, before emerging as a defining aesthetic for this country’s brash tabloid sector. This is graphic communication that works in a quick and efficient manner, a significant indicator of a wider shift from text-based information to an era of image-led narratives.

In newspaper football photography, the ‘money shot’ is the close-up. Isolated and removed from the frenetic action of the match, the players are presented as faces, bodies, celebrity cut-outs. Advances in photographic, design and print technologies have resulted in a back page environment whereby the reader can be brought close to the action. One might assume that these factors would result in a greater use of definitive shots featuring match-action, yet the opposite appears to be the case. Increasingly we are presented with abstracted views of the body in close-up detail, as if the frenetic cut and dash of the live football experience is far better conveyed through a player’s facial and gestural responses to the game. Television has encouraged a thirst for the idea of proximity among the paying public. Sky Television’s coverage, with its multiple camera angles and 24-hour football news cycle that presents endless clips of goal celebrations and player interviews, has helped foster a taste for ‘intimacy’ between punter and player. The players are also hip to the demands of the new aesthetic. Sports photographers observe that goal celebrations are often performed deliberately in front of the assembled snappers in order to become the cover stars for the following day’s editions. And it works. Seeing a football player close-up gets you there so much more quickly when compared to the effort required to read a more ambiguous and complex image featuring pure match action.

The tabloid back page creates links between football ‘news’ and the reader’s understanding of the psycho-physical traumas undergone by professional footballers as they play the game. Vicarious sensations of ecstasy, pain, pleasure, triumph, fulfilment and despair are hot-wired straight from the page direct to the reader’s imagination, through the simple device of homing in on players’ faces, gestures and postures. Dislocation of the image, whereby abstracted views of the body (principally the face) are presented on the page, are matched by dislocation of time and space. We believe, because we are asked to, that that grimace, that yell, that gesture occurred in relation to the headline event of the story in with which the image is paired. And, as with film and television, these suggestions are made through editing and juxtaposition: image and event may not have occurred in direct relation to each other, but what does it matter? It feels as if it did. The result is an increasing use of images that favour expression and gesture over attempting to describe the specifics of match action.

I once worked for a major UK sports picture agency, where it was my job to scan each day’s editions. The constant exposure to red-top back pages challenged my preconceptions. I had always appreciated the gossipy content of tabloid football coverage, the ‘roastings’, ‘feuds’ and ‘exclusives’, without considering the visual dynamics of the genre, particularly the deft use of word, image and colour. Seeing all of them day after day, laid out on the wire desk awaiting inspection, made me realise how good they looked. Seen en masse, they took on other qualities: the emphasis on ‘personality’ over straight reportage; the similarities of look between different titles; even the balance of info-clusters and small ads for debt management schemes and personal injury claims began to excite.

The suggestion of action, an almost implicit violence (from the predominance of red, white and black within the colour palette), the urgent screaming demands for attention, the skewed language of the headline, the bold burning out of peripheral photographic information, the flash of brand-logo, the eye-wobbling clash of contrasting, brightly coloured strips, the colour saturation itself, the shaping of a text column in order to accommodate the full silhouette of a player’s figure, all began to make the still traditional box and grid approach of the broadsheets appear pedestrian, even obsolete. Equally impressive was the ability to somehow re-configure headline, column and image on a daily basis and still present a narrative / ‘story’ as if it really matters – all those faces, all that finger-pointing, fist-clenching, muted obscenity mouthing, day after day in an unending parade of graphic noise.

So the sensationalised and ersatz drama of football is well served. The ramped-up and celebrity-driven version of professional football that has had such a seductive impact within contemporary British culture demands an equally revved-up newspaper treatment. It is instructive to pull out an old football annual or an archive edition of a newspaper to see how the notion of football ‘action’ was once conveyed. The regimented layouts and images appear distant to the modern eye – all legs, arms and muddy pitches.

By contrast the contemporary red tops are daring and minimalist, framed by a killer headline and text columns that are subservient to the demands of a central image that is so much more ‘there’. In an age when both print and broadcast media are saturated with emotion, is it any wonder that this device has been tailored to the needs of sports reporting?

Will Hoon, writer, lecturer, Matlock Bath

First published in Eye no. 57 vol. 15.


Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.