It’s been almost 3 weeks since my last post, detailing my trip to the Spanish capital for the 1st leg of the UEFA Champions League tie between Real Madrid and Manchester United. Tuesday night this week saw the return fixture being played out in front of almost 80,000 fans inside a packed Old Trafford stadium. There was a lot of anxiety in the air before the match, but also plenty of optimism too…Man Utd had managed to come away from the Bernabeu with a draw, scoring a vital away goal in the process. If they could protect that advantage and go through with the help of a home crowd, they would be strong favourites to win the competition outright.
There was enough riding on the match anyway, in terms of the outcome, but there were plenty of side stories to add in to the mix as well. The return of superstar Cristiano Ronaldo to the club that helped make him the sensation he is today was somewhat more than just a side story. Not only was this his first time back at Old Trafford since his £80m move to Spain in the summer of 2009, but rumours continue to circulate suggesting he’d like to move back to Manchester in the not-too-distant future. Couple this with the tactical and psychological warfare fought out between Man Utd manager Sir Alex Ferguson and the man thought to be one of the leading contenders to replace him in years to come, Jose Mourinho, and the pressure on me as a photographer to provide coverage of events was fairly intense.
When I arrived at the ground at around 4pm, I soon collected my accreditation and made my way pitchside to weigh up my options as to where I’d like to sit, and to then mark out my place. On European nights, the ad boards erected around the perimeter of the pitch are a lot higher than those used for Premier League matches. Despite the club providing higher benches for us to use, even the tallest photographers had no chance of seeing the pitch without some form of extra padding. So I had no chance. Step forward my trusty B&Q kneeling gardening pads – three of them, gaffer-taped together…just the job. The next obstacle to overcome was actually finding a space to sit amongst the hoards of television cameras that were positioned at either end. I’ve never seen so many for a match played at this stage of the competition. I’d decided to sit in front of the East Stand, with the goal to my left, so that I wouldn’t be blocked on any goalmouth action by UEFA’s ridiculous and, frankly, pointless extra official who tends to position himself in the most arkward of positions at the most important moments. Fortunately, there was one bench that had a large generator underneath it, therefore leaving no room for a TV tripod to be placed – there was, however, room for a monopod, so I decided that’s where I’d go. As with most sports, you don’t know beforehand where the incidents or key pieces of action are going to happen, or where the best pictures are likely to be had…you just have to give yourself the best chance you can, and then make the most of what falls in front of you.
The following hours went fairly quickly and nerves were setting in. I gathered together my equipment in the Photographers’ Room and went outside to set up…I decided to go out earlier than I usually would to ensure no one moved my seat. It’s happened before, and had they done it on this occasion, there wouldn’t have been many other spots to choose from!
Before long, the familiar music was booming out over the PA system and the teams were walking out on to the pitch. I photographed them from a low perspective with the stadium behind, and then turned to the team benches behind me, waiting with a wide angle lens, hoping to capture the two manager shaking hands, but this never happened. I turned to photograph the Man Utd team group as they posed for us in traditional European fashion, before heading back to the end of the pitch to take up my spot for the match…
The match took a dramatic turn not long into the 2nd half when Man Utd’s Portuguese star Nani was sent off after being shown a straight red card for a high challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa (ironically, formerly of Man Utd’s most hated rivals, Liverpool). The incident happened on the far side of the pitch from where I was sitting, and consequently I saw nothing of the incident. I was even blocked by a sea of red and green shirts when the referee held the card aloft, but luckily I managed to get something on it along with a reaction before he put the card away.
I’d become slightly unsettled knowing I hadn’t captured the moment of what would inevitably become the night’s first huge talking point. Even though I didn’t see the clash between the two players, the reaction of the crowd to Nani’s dismissal suggested it may have been a controversial decision, so it was obvious it would be important, whatever the result.
Soon after, Madrid equalised through Luka Modric, the former Tottenham player who’d been brought on solely to run at the Man Utd defence. He’s an incredibly talented player, and one that will often draw more than one opponent to him…this was something Mourinho knew would clearly upset the home side’s balance, and possibly lead to gaps opening up at the back.
Then, just minutes later, Madrid were in front – the possibility of extra time and penalties had been extinguished, and who else could have scored, but Cristiano Ronaldo. The ball came to the top of the box and was flicked down towards the far byline for a player to run on to. At this point, I switched from my 400mm lens to my short lens, just before the ball was struck across the face of goal directly towards my corner. Realising it wasn’t going in, I zoomed out to find Ronaldo hurtling in at the near post where he slid in to score…
As the ball travelled over the line and hit the back of the net, I felt I’d got the shot, but honestly couldn’t be sure. I switched back to my long lens as he ran away from me behind the goal, towards the corner where the visiting fans were sitting. He was met by a group of teammates who stopped him in his tracks and piled in for the celebrations. Ronaldo turned to the Man Utd supporters and held his hands up to them, apologising for striking what looked like the killer blow…
When I looked back at the pictures and realised I’d got the goal, I immediately ingested the card into my laptop, captioned the image, then cropped it and resized it in Photoshop before sending it out to clients. Remembering how the goal came about and how it was scored, and that many, if not all the photographers on the other side may well have been blocked by the extra official, I knew I had to get it moving…newspaper deadline were looming so, for them, speed was of the essence. Seeing as it was Ronaldo who scored, it was already clear it would be an important picture in terms of live news, and an historical picture for the archives.
The next day, I was pleased to see the shot crop up in a number of newspapers at home and abroad. There’s always an element of luck involved, such is the nature of this genre of photography, but when you’re able to maximise your chances of luck working in your favour, then you’re off to a good start.