Photographer captured key moments in club history
In our final match day programme of the season we interviewed Paul Willatts about his long stint as Wimbledon club photographer and his decision to finally retire from the role.
This feature is reproduced below for those supporters who may have missed it and the picture gallery shows a selection of Paul’s best photographs from down the years.
Paul Willatts said it had been a privilege to capture some of the key moments in Wimbledon’s history after he decided to call time on his colourful stint as club photographer.
It would need quite a few match day programmes to do justice to Paul’s collection of Wimbledon images that go back decades to the days of Allen Batsford’s managerial reign in the 1970s when the club’s rise to the Football League began.
However, mention Burnley, Leeds, Staines Town and Manchester as glory venues to Wimbledon fans throughout the years and Paul can produce a bulging portfolio of pictures from those occasions. Magical moments for Paul and the club adorn the walls of the President’s Lounge at the Cherry Red Records Stadium.
Shortly after starting as club photographer, Paul’s photographs even helped Wimbledon earn election to the Football League in 1977! Then owner Ron Noades used his collection of pictures of the old Plough Lane to win votes from other clubs to get Wimbledon into the league.
The scene of Wimbledon claiming back their rightful place in the Football League, now called the Etihad Stadium – was one of 183 grounds Paul has visited as part of his long-serving tenure.
However, Turf Moor was the venue for one of Paul’s favourite pictures as then Southern League Wimbledon caused a famous FA Cup upset against a Burnley side in the top-flight. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that was certainly the case for Paul when he captured triumphant trio Dickie Guy, Mick Mahon and Ian Cooke after victory at Burnley.
“Overall, it was a marvellous experience, but I remember that the Burnley stewards were sourpusses! They would not allow me to photograph the team celebrating in the dressing room. The only celebration image I managed to get showed Dickie, Mick and Ian toasting success in the press room. A reporter from the Guardian saw what was going on and mentioned in his report that Burnley had been ungracious in defeat.
“I came back with the team that day because I had missed my train due to all the hassle. I was allowed to get on the team coach to Manchester, before we got the train back to Euston from there. It was great to join in the party and there was a great atmosphere. I think there were a few drinks consumed on the way back. We almost lost Roger Connell and Keiron Somers at Crewe as they nipped off to get some Whisky!
“You had to be prepared for a dry cleaning bill if you photographed post-match celebrations! It felt like I was walking on water for weeks after the Burnley game. I was in a stunned state of joy, especially as we got Leeds in the next round too. Dickie Guy’s saves were top class against Burnley. I felt that the Burnley game was the lynchpin for Wimbledon’s rise and it was great to be a part of it.”
Having first attended a match at Plough Lane in the mid-1960s and visited Plough Lane in a working capacity for the Wimbledon News, Paul felt it was a great opportunity when he was offered the job by the club. And Paul had already become trusted by key figures at the club to capture the right images to promote Wimbledon.
“I had a chance meeting at Waterloo station with Erik Wilcox, who was responsible for the programme and he asked me if I would be interested in working at the club because we were about to be in the Fourth Division,” Paul recalled. The first season in the Football League for Wimbledon was my first campaign. “I already knew Eric because I had been working at the Wimbledon News and one of my first photographic jobs at Plough Lane was when Allen Batsford was appointed as manager.
“When Ron Noades owned the club he needed photographs of Plough Lane to show other clubs that we were worthy of being voted into the Football League, ahead of the AGM at Café Royal. I turned up at Hammersmith Bridge in my Mini, but Ron was in his Rolls Royce. I handed him a box of photographs and hopefully they showed the club in a good light!”
Paul had a long break from photographing Wimbledon games between 1982 and 1991 due to family reasons with children Ben and Naomi taking priority. Both Ben and Naomi were mascots at home games and his eldest daughter Martha also became a Wimbledon supporter.
Brought up close to Plough Lane, Wimbledon has always been close to Paul’s heart. He says that the rebirth of the club and its subsequent rise brought great opportunities to take quality photographs, but his emotions almost got the better of him on that magical day at Manchester in 2011.
“They were exciting times when the club started again and from a photographic point of view there was a lot of freedom to get the pictures you wanted, without being told where you could go by stewards. I remember covering the game at Sandhurst and getting a good picture of the celebrations after Keith Ward scored. It was great to be a part of it all as you felt that the club would rise up with its fan base and people working hard behind the scenes such as Ivor Heller and Kris Stewart.
“I felt a part of that process with a responsibility to try and take photographs that would get good publicity for the club. One of my best matches photographically was against St Albans. I got a nice picture of all the players running towards what was then the Tempest End in celebration after winning the Conference South title.
“I did a good job at Staines too and I felt pleased with a picture I got of Mark De Bolla scoring the winning goal from a free-kick. He celebrated like he was bursting every blood vessel. Taking a picture of Marcus Gayle being carried off the pitch by supporters was also a good one.
“As a photographer you get that instinct that something is going to happen and you have to be ready or you will miss key moments. I was feeling very tense for the play-off final at Manchester. I was very emotional about that and I wondered whether I was going to do a good job or not. I felt that I did adequately in the end from a photographic perspective. I always preferred the lower key games when you could just concentrate on photography.”
Judging by some of the great images around the club – one in particular of Seb Brown making one of his vital penalty saves stands out – Paul is certainly his own worst critic.
That partly explains why he believes now is the right time to step back from photographic duties at AFC Wimbledon. Paul, who has also been a freelance photographer for many years, which included taking promotional images for the Post Office, British Gas and the National Lottery, will still continue his art as a hobby. It’s unlikely therefore that we have seen the last of him!
“I feel pleased and honoured to have contributed. I want my photographs to be enjoyed and to reflect great times at Wimbledon. I could see Plough Lane from my house when I was younger and it is my local club. My friends were all Chelsea and Fulham fans and we were regarded as a small, almost non-existent, club when I was growing up. It was great to be a part of Wimbledon’s rise and to have been there at poignant moments in the club’s history.”
“I take the job seriously and when I say I am going to do a season then I want to go through with it. I still believe in that commitment. Sitting pitch side on a box low down in all weathers becomes less appealing the older that you get! I would rather go out when I am still taking occasionally what I regard as good photographs. I feel that this season I have still managed to take good photographs. I got a picture of two players taking each other out trying to stop Bayo Akinfenwa in the Wycombe game. If I am still taking those photographs then I feel I am still doing a good job.”
Flicking through an archive of Wimbledon pictures at his home in Southfields, one can only conclude that Paul has certainly done a good job throughout the years and he will be a hard act to follow.