Stephen McCarthy started out taking some amateur snaps at St Marys matches in his native Cahersiveen. Now he is an award winning sports photographer with Sportsfile. He spoke to Paul Brennan
It all pretty much grew out of crossed wires on a phone call.
Either Stephen McCarthy didn't enunciate 'career' clearly enough, or Ray McManus's ear wasn't properly attuned to the Kerry lilt, but either way there was a missunderstanding that brought a Cahersiveen teenager and a Dublin businessman together in the most serendipitous way.
McCarthy - now an established and award winning photographer with McManus's sports photography agency Sportsfile - explains.
"In Sixth Year in Colaiste na Sceilge you had to do this thing where you'd to investigate your (desired) career as part of one of the subjects, and I wanted to investigate sports photography. Whatever got into my head I found Sportsfile, I had been looking at the website every day, and I was fascinated with this thing," the now 31-year old recounts, some 14 years later.
"I rang the office one day, it was about six o'clock in the evening and I was more doing it so I could say in the report that I'd rang Sportsfile and they didn't answer. And next thing this fella with a Dublin accent answers and he's talking away to me for a while and he's quizzing me. I thought I was going to be the one asking the questions but he's asking me more questions and he spent about ten minutes talking. And then he said 'hold on a minute, what are you doing, you're investigating a career? I thought you were a courier.'
"That was his Dublin accent and my Kerry accent and they didn't mix. And it happened to be Ray. Then he said whatever you want from me just let me know, and I said I had to do a week's work experience in April and could I come up. He said no problem, and that was it. I went up for my week and I did the week and I loved it.
"It came to the Friday and I said to him 'I'm on my way back to Kerry now, thanks for everything' and he said Kerry were playing Dublin in the National League in Parnell Park on the Sunday and would I like to go.
"I said I'd love to go and he asked where was I staying? I said I was in a hotel up the road, and he said 'so you put yourself up for the week here?' and I said I did, that I didn't have any family in Dublin and that was my only option. He asked me how much was I paying and I said €50 a night. He said if I went and got the two nights - the Friday and Saturday - for €60 he'd pay for it and I could stay and go to the match on Sunday. There was no hope I was going to get it for €60 but I went back to him and told me I got it for the €60 and he handed over the money. A couple of years later I told him there wasn't a hope I was getting it for €60, that I got it down to €80 but I told him €60 so that I could stay for the weekend.
"On the Sunday, then, the last thing he said to me was that if I wasn't doing anything for the summer to come back up. I finished the Leaving Cert on the Tuesday and on the Wednesday I got on the train and went back for the summer and that was it. And to this day I always say I'm a working spare because he never told me to go home.
"When I went back for that summer I never took a day off, there was no need to. I did everything that needed to be done, sweeping the floor or making the tea or whatever. You'd be in the office a lot from Monday to Friday but then in the evenings I'd be looking at what events where on, and I'd make a diary and go to things like greyhound racing and local games. Sportsfile never really covered greyhound before or since but I just wanted to shot whatever I could."
The pen might be mightier than the sword, but Stephen McCarthy found that the camera was mightier (if heavier) than the pen. Growing up in Cahersiveen it's hard, if not impossible, to escape football. Not that many people in that neck of Kerry want to, and McCarthy was no different. Like almost every kid in town, McCarthy took himself down to Con Keating Park while his age was still in single digits. When your uncle is Tony McCarthy, a former chairman of the St Marys club, it's almost a right of passage to aspire to to wearing the famed white jersey with the blue sash.
"I must have been the longest serving under-12 player with the club," McCarthy suggests. "I went down to training with my cousins when I was about eight and they were under-12 and from then on I kept going because that's what I wanted to do…but let's just say I wasn't very good and I rarely got a game. At around under-14 I packed it in but I couldn't let it go. When that's what the whole town revolved around and all my friends were still playing I needed to stay involved so that's when I went around with Tony a lot more, doing everything I could, even little jobs like lining the field.
"Then I was doing the PRO job and that's when the photography came into it. I used to love doing the notes, and I reckon the Cahersiveen notes used to be the longest in the county. After a while I realised taking a picture or two was a lot easier than writing the notes, that I could go home on a Sunday evening and send off my few pictures, whereas I used to be up half the night writing the notes.
"There was always a camera in the house for as long as I could remember, and I'd say we were one of the first houses in the town to get a digital camera. That's where the photography came in and I started to enjoy that more and more. And I saw the satisfaction people got out of seeing their picture in the paper because the novelty of getting their name in the paper was wearing off."
From getting a few shots of The Marys in the local papers, the teenage McCarthy got his first national exposure.
"My first national picture was from the Ras Mumhan. There was a stage finish in Cahersiveen and I send a couple of shots off to the nationals. I remember one being in the Examiner and thinking this was great. And I look back on the picture now and it was terrible. There was nothing in focus, but at the time I wouldn't have known the difference, but that was before I was with Sportsfile."
Within a year or two McCarthy had swapped South Kerry for the South Circular Road and was learning his trade under the tutelage of McManus and the Sportsfile team.
He's come along way from that first Sunday in Parnell Park. Gone a long way too. All around the world in fact. From Cahersiveen to Christchurch. From the back garden to The Garden. For a few years he was on the rugby beat. PRO14 games, Heineken Cups, Six Nations, Lions Tours.
Now he has the soccer brief. For the most part it will be Stephen McCarthy who will document, through pictures, the transition from his namesake Mick (McCarthy) to his other namesake (Stephen) Kenny and the fortunes of the Republic of Ireland team.
In between and all along the way there has been athletics, basketball, boxing, cycling, golf, horse racing, rowing, swimming, tennis. You name him or her or them and McCarthy has probably shot them.
"I don't remember much about the early days with Sportsfile, except that I loved every minute of it, but I remember my first front page and my first back page, and coincidentally they both happened to be Katie Taylor. The first back page she was playing soccer, she was playing in a testimonial game against Arsenal. The first front page she was posing with Trapattoni at training one day. I've followed her career right through since then, through boxing and her amateur days, to (2012 Olympics) London, even to this day I'd cover most of her fights.
"For years I covered rugby. I was club photographer for Leinster for a long time and I'd great times with them when they were winning Champions Cups, or Heineken Cups as they were at the time, and travelling all over Europe with them.
A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to crossover to soccer. That was a kind of the prestigious one, who was the soccer man, because you'd be the team photographer and all that sort of stuff. I said I fancied it and so in late 2017 I've taken over the soccer and I've absolutely loved that. The results haven't been and there haven't been too many great nights since I got that gig but it's sent me to Dalymount Park and to Tallaght and Ballybofey and I love it. I remember doing a soccer match in the Brandywell in Derry a couple years ago and that sticks out so much because of the atmosphere that night.
When the soccer opening came up McCarthy was in New Zealand covering the 2017 Lions Tour there and even though he was about to abandon the oval ball for a round one, that trip would hand him his biggest moment professionally so far. Away from the Test matches, McCarthy pitched up in Rotorua for a warm-up match between the Lions and the Maori All Blacks on a black night in June. He's not sure now if he even saw the shot then before he pinged it back to Dublin but whether or which 'Steaming Scrum' would land him second place at the World Press Photo Foundation awards, a huge achievement and recognition for any photojournalist.
"The Lions Tour in New Zealand in 2017, I suppose, is the big one. Winning the award from that Tour has probably made me appreciate that trip a whole lot more because no matter what I do for the next few years that's the picture that will keep coming up," he says. "That picture will be stored for historical purposes as a snapshot of sports photography of that year, so in one hundred or two hundred years time people will go back to the World Press Photo exhibition and catalogues of that year and say that's what sports photography was like in 2017, and my name will always be beside that picture."
Like in sport itself, in sports photography timing is everything. So is positioning and experience and cuteness and even the bit of luck.
"Knowledge is a big thing over the last few years in our game," McCarthy says. "I remember hearing a story of a photographer who went to a GAA match one day and he was quite new to it. It was one of the first games that ended in (a free-taking competition to decide the winner) and he had gone home because he thought it had simply ended in a draw. He thought it was a draw, he packed up, couldn't wait to go home, whereas our photographer who was there knew exactly that this was the first game that could be decided on free kicks."
Needless to say the last couple of months has been a strange time for McCarthy and his Sportsfile colleagues. No sport, no sports photography, right? Not exactly. At the start there were stock shots of the lockdown - closed stadia, chained gates, empty pitches - to be taken, and there has been enough to fill the weeks since. Stephen Kenny's formal appointment as Mick McCarthy's successor for one thing; a bit of archiving and office work for another. Last weekend the team captured GAA venues that should have been hosting Championship matches; this week they're snapping furiously as certain sports start to pop their heads above ground again.
"We work for such a great agency that they give you the time, they give you the resources to do all these events and you do them properly. If you take an All-Ireland Final you might think the game's at 3.30 in the afternoon so we might go in for the minor game beforehand. We start our preparation weeks, months, in advance for an All-Ireland final. We'll go in on the Friday, install loads of cameras, leave them sit there, and on Saturday you go back in and install cables everywhere. And then on Sunday we're actually in there before the gates even open. We need to be in Croke Park before eight o'clock in the morning, and by the time the game comes around you're almost knackered.
"You're living in the moment, then, at a live event and you've a split second so you're usually thinking 'oh, that was probably nice, I must look at that again' but often you just press your couple of buttons on the camera and off the photos go back to our office and someone there does all the work on it. I mightn't even see the shot that's published the next day in the papers.
"I'd say close to fifty per cent of our work is sent back directly from the camera. Sports photography has changed so much, even in the twelve or thirteen years since I started. Then you came back with five or six pictures from a match you were happy, you were covered. Now you have to have twenty pictures in before you start. Now you can't afford to miss anything, any incident or goal or whatever, so you can't really afford to have your head stuck in a laptop. It's all about speed now, but it also gives you the freedom to keep your eyes open and watch everything around you.
"You're always looking for something different but quite often that won't happen. You have that freedom before a game to wander around outside the game, or perhaps after a match, but during the game you're probably in the same position as so many other photographers, and as soon as you hear a click you're wondering what are they shooting and you're looking around to see it.
"If the question is, what makes a top sports photographer rather than a top photographer, the answer is knowledge. Knowledge of the game and your sport, and being able to anticipate it and knowing what the unbelievable outcome of something could be.
"Quite often you can pick up a newspaper now and it might not be the best picture in there but it might be the most topical or it could be a manager from a different team or sport watching it (in the stand).
"Often you go to a training session and you spend more time looking at who's sitting on the bench and not training than you would on the players who are training, because that's more topical. You're asking why, and thinking this is the bigger story here.
"Often you could be creating a story. We might put a picture out there and let people draw their own conclusions from it or it prompts the journalists to investigate it more because we're not going to be the ones asking the question why."
At 31 years of age McCarthy has been there, done that and shot it all. Well, almost.
"I'd love to photograph an Irish (soccer) team in a World Cup," he says when asked what's the big ticket job he has yet to do.
"I remember the one in 2002 a little bit but not enough, but I would love to follow an Irish team to a World Cup. The country would just go mad and the Irish fans are just different. Without comparing things too much but I've been covering rugby for years with Six Nations and that stuff, it was good but a soccer team travelling and their fans, it's a different level."
In the end, though, you can take the man out of Kerry but you can't take Kerry out of the man. His favourite sport to shoot?
"You'd always have to say the GAA because of where I grew up. When it gets to the business end of the GAA season that's when you love to be there. No matter where you are in the world if you miss the (All-Ireland) semi-finals it hurts, but September, you want to be there for the finals in Croke Park. That's special."
And the sporting event he'd most like to go to without the camera, just as a fan?
"That's a very hard thing to do because whenever you go to something you're always watching, but I'd love to go to a Kerry Dublin game. That might seem a strange thing to say but you're always working at those games. I'd love to go and experience that just as a fan. It's a long time since I've been at a match that I haven't been working at.
"Even on All-Ireland Final day you'd have friends saying 'come on we'll meet up for a drink after the game' but I say by the time I get out of the ground, get home, shower and change and get back in ye will be well on it.
"I remember making the mistake one year of going out to meet then and sure everyone was an expert by the time I got out to meet them."
The bar-room experts might have had all the answers that night on whatever game that was, but McCarthy had all the action captured and stored and filed into Sportsfile. Nowadays there's no need for a courrier to get the prints back to base, but he will never forget the 'courrier' that helped deliver the dream job and career he loves and does so well.